If no one feels compelled to organize in opposition to your goals, you can’t be accomplishing anything meaningful as a political activist ! Had feminists been content to strive for mere symbolism, instead of full equality, no anti-feminist movement would exist, because we’d be no real threat to male privilege or power.
If women’s rights groups were just scattered bands of radicals, whose core philosophy was so far out of the mainstream that few women or men would ever take it seriously, opposition groups would be equally small. But the existence of a powerful backlash to the feminist movement actually provides vivid and daily proof of our power, influence and acceptance, and is an inevitable by-product of spectacular success.
As maddening as the barrage of anti-feminist rhetoric spewing forth on talk radio shows may be, it’s infinitely preferable to the silence of being ignored (as we were for many decades) or the second stage that every meaningful movement must pass through : condescending ridicule.
Slowly, but surely, as we scored one small victory after another, feminists began to gain too much influence to be ignored or considered a joke. The gloves began to come off, and the patriarchal establishment paid us the supreme compliment of making this an all-out brawl with what they obviously consider a serious opponent.
So, how’s the match going ? Well, assorted radio hosts, cable TV pundits and televangelists are still whining and attacking, but it’s been a long time since there was any doubt about whether we have made a major impact on society, and brought it significantly closer to its potential for total equality. Just a few examples to show who’s winning :
Imagine going back in time to visit a class of high school seniors in the late 50s or early 60s and asking the students to write down on a piece of paper what they plan on doing after graduation. A scenario which mentions anything other than “homemaker,” “teacher,” “nurse,” “secretary” or “librarian” would have been virtually certain to have been written by a male. Do the same experiment today, and no one would wager a dime on guessing the gender of the student who writes “go to the Naval Academy, then serve on a ship at sea,” or “teach physics at M.I.T.,” “run for Congress – then President,” “become a police officer,” “go to law school,” “become a cardiac surgeon,” or “drive an 18-wheeler.” The once radical idea that jobs should go to qualified people regardless of their gender long ago made the transition from a “feminist” value to an “American” value.
“Equal pay for equal work” has undergone a similar transition. Though the battle for complete pay equity continues, the “pay gap” has closed significantly, and not even the most chauvinistic politician would ever suggest or support dual pay scales for the same job, then justify it by saying that a man has a family to support, while the woman works only for personal satisfaction or “pin money.”
Even the old argument about whether a woman can successfully handle a challenging career while raising small children – an alleged “dilemma” that’s never been imposed on men – met its long-overdue demise when conservatives enthusiastically supported Sarah Palin for Vice President, and apparently agreed that parenting, like breadwinning, is a role that can be equally shared.
Admittedly, objectionable images abound in the media, especially in regard to certain types of music videos, but they’re anomalies. No child or teen today could
watch an evening of network television without seeing women doing a full spectrum of jobs, living a wide range of lifestyles, and getting the respect of male peers at the same time.
The days when the only female faces seen on news broadcasts were sexy “weathergirls” or the token female reporter who did fluffy, inconsequential stories are long gone. The male and female anchor team is universal in local news, women regularly host the national networks’ evening newscasts, report on the most important stories of the day, and even have their own shows on the most-watched cable channels. As much as our opponents would like to see a return to the TV of the 1950s, where the nightly message was that “a woman’s place is in the home,” it isn’t going to happen.
The attack on reproductive rights – first launched in the 19th Century - continue to be vicious, unrelenting and powerful, and form the core of the “War on Women.” But it’s only because feminists have won such a broad spectrum of these rights that there is such a massive front to defend.
It’s natural to worry about the seeming complacency of those too young to have any memory of illegal abortion mills, or desperate attempts at self-abortions. But half a century ago feminists who had grown up in a time when there were no legal options for terminating a pregnancy still succeeded in bringing about major changes in abortion laws in many states even before the Supreme Court ruled abortion a Constitutional right in 1973. Considering the energy and dedication shown by those pioneer feminists to establish a right they had never known, imagine the vehemence of the backlash if abortion prohibitionists were to actually succeed in getting around “Roe” and depriving substantial numbers of women of access to a right they’d taken for granted through all of their reproductive years.
Next time you hear a particularly vicious attack on a feminist or feminist group, recognize what they’re really saying : “I’m angry that you’ve done more in one generation to destroy the blessings of universal conformity to divinely mandated sex roles than all previous generations combined. I’m terrified that the concept of ‘equality’ is so inherently appealing and logical that the only way I can stop it is by distorting what it means and slandering those who strive for it, so the focus will be on the debaters, not the question being debated. And because if I say exactly what I mean, or reveal what kind of societal rules I would like to impose, I’d be relegated to the fringe of society, I’ll stick to pretending that I want to make only modest changes, or that my concern is for women, rather than preserving patriarchal, theocratic values.”
Never worry about how many people use the term “feminist” to describe themselves. People tend to define themselves by the way a label is presented in the media. Had the media spent several decades trashing the image of airline pilots instead of feminists, some people would say : “Yes, I like to fly airplanes, but I’m certainly not one of those ‘pilots.’ “ A feminist is – and always has been – anyone who favors legal, social, and political equality for men and women. Once that definition is presented to them, overwhelming majorities enthusiastically agree that it describes their views.
Equal opportunity is now such a basic part of American values that the term “feminist” may be well on the way to becoming as obsolete as “abolitionist” or “integrationist” due to there no longer being any real dispute over whether women are entitled to equal rights, it’s only how that’s defined, and the best means of achieving it that’s still a hot topic.
Though there are still many battles left to fight – some of them for a second time during the “backlash” phase of this long, slow, “two steps forward and one step back” dance toward equality – remember how many battles NEVER have to be re-fought.
Gender kept women out of law schools for generations, but now it’s no more relevant than eye color even when it comes to confirming Supreme Court Justices.
Women in the legislative branch of State and Federal Government may still be a minority, but they’ve achieved sufficient numbers to no longer be “outsiders” and enough seniority to have real influence. The trend is toward equal numbers, not back to the days when the few women in politics had little power, and could only get elected by being the widow of a popular incumbent.
Girls’ and women’s sports have been “mainstream” for decades, and when Title IX, which provides equal opportunity for male and female students, was attacked a number of years ago, attempts to dismantle it were smashed by a coalition of parents from across the political spectrum who saw the benefits athletics brought to their daughters. The confidence that accrues to girls and women who participate in sports will also increase the already existing “critical mass” of women in other traditionally “male only” activities and occupations, thus providing another generation of role models for girls in any field they may wish to pursue as adults.
Attitudes and laws regarding domestic violence and rape have undergone nothing less than a revolution, though there is still much work to be done, and vigilance is needed to be sure that the reforms already won are strictly adhered to. But there will be no retreat back to the days when spousal abuse was a “private matter” and a rape survivor faced a second assault in court.
Of course, despite all the victories and progress toward gender equality, its very symbol – the Equal Rights Amendment - remains unratified. But support for the E.R.A. was high even in the 1970s, when it not only had the approval of most men and women, but came so close to winning the 38 state ratifications needed that if just seven State Senators (3 in Nevada in 1975, 2 in North Carolina in 1977 and 2 in Florida in 1979) had switched their votes, it would have become part of the Constitution on May 24, 1979.
But the battle for the E.R.A. is far from over. Though Congress originally set a deadline of March 22, 1979 for ratification (later extended to June 30, 1982) there is no time limit on seeking equality. Bills to recognize the 35 ratifications achieved between 1972 and 1977, and to do away with the time limits Congress set, have been introduced, as have bills to start the process over again with a new amendment. America in 2013 is a much different place from what it was when the E.R.A. was first introduced to Congress 90 years ago, and passed by Congress 41 years ago, so if we could come within seven votes of ratification in the 1970s, we can surely put it over the top now.
If any doubt should remain about the power of those who believe in equality to overcome those who celebrate bigotry, a look at the stunningly rapid decline of homophobia in the U.S. should be sufficient to inspire confidence. Well within a single lifetime, entrenched prejudices and stereotyped attitudes that date back millennia have been pushed out of the mainstream and into the fringe of American society. In just a few decades the battle went from repealing laws that criminalized homosexual activity to legalizing same-sex marriage and the right to openly serve in the military.
Just how much America had changed wasn’t really known until 2012. In that landmark year, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed, and voters in three states passed referenda establishing same-sex marriage, while those in a fourth state rejected a referendum that would have defined marriage as solely between a man and a woman. Though by no means is homophobia a thing of the past, its rapid collapse – after a massive campaign to defend it – should reassure anyone fighting against any other form of unjustified discrimination that it will one day implode as well.
Of course, the opposition can never be accused of a lack of dedication. As “True Believers” in the most literal sense, they will always be with us. But when it comes to dedication and persistence, we set the standard long ago, and as the ideological heirs of those early suffragists, we will always continue to do so.
Long ago, in Seneca Falls, New York, a small group of feminists with a big idea gathered to plan a strategy for achieving equality. One of their first resolutions was to try to secure the ballot for women. That one step took so long that of all those who attended that first meeting on July 19th & 20th, 1848, only Charlotte Woodward Pierce was still living when the Susan B. Anthony (nationwide woman suffrage) Amendment was certified as part of the Constitution on August 26, 1920.
From the beginning to the end of that struggle, the very same tactics so familiar to us today were being used by the ideological ancestors of today’s radical rightists. But even without equal access to education, basic legal rights, or the power of the ballot they sought, suffragists still achieved their worthy goal.
Today, with total equality rapidly approaching, the opposition fights more furiously than ever, with desperation surounding them, as they realize that many of the “traditional values” of a previous generation are seen by the newest one as simply outmoded prejudices. Their last chance to stop a train that’s been picking up momentum for 165 years is quickly slipping away.
Like the anti-suffragists who preceded them, today’s anti-feminists have no intention of slipping gently or quietly into obscurity and irrelevance, though they will. So when they win a temporary or partial victory, it should merely remind us that we have to keep fighting as hard as we can until OUR final victory. But the nature of inequality assumes that we will do exactly that.
We know that the human instinct to be free and equal is always more powerful in the long run than the desire of some to oppress and control. So even though we are an unimaginably long way from those pioneer feminists of 1848 who were denied even the most basic of rights, the sting of inequality in ANY form and in ANY degree is still such a daily insult and constant indignity to some that until the last vestige of it is removed we still feel impelled to fight against it with the same fury as those who began the battle at Seneca Falls. So unless human nature changes, the outcome of the battle for total equality is inevitable – presuming we still have the same day-by-day and for as long as it takes commitment as Charlotte Woodward Pierce !