Feminism Has Come a Long Way—or Has It?
A Half-Century to Go
If the women’s movement often surprised and sometimes blindsided men, it also radically expanded America’s democratic promise of equality. Women are now everywhere. No one is shocked in 2013 when a woman enters an operating room or a lecture hall. More than half the undergraduates at most universities are women.
Now, if your boss drives you crazy with sexual advances, you can report him for sexual harassment and sue him in court. If your husband beats you, he can be charged with a felony and, in most urban areas, you can escape to a battered women’s shelter. Women like Marissa Mayer, the CEO of Yahoo!, and Ruchi Sanghvi, head of operations at Dropbox, are some of the most powerful players in the new technology universe. Two women have served as secretary of state and one as national security adviser. Three women sit on the Supreme Court. Hillary Clinton almost became the first woman president and may still achieve that goal. Major magazines and newspapers have women executive editors and managing editors—even The New York Times, which waited until 1986 before reluctantly putting “Ms” in front of women’s names on its pages. Hurricanes now bear male and female names. Women in the US military fight alongside men. They work as firefighters and police detectives, and when a female plumber shows up to fix an overflowing toilet, most people don’t panic.
Because so much has changed, many people, including young women, believe that the longest revolution is over, that we should stop complaining, be proud of our successes, and go home. Consider for a moment, though, the three demands made in 1970, and the fourth one that couldn’t even be articulated.
As anyone who’s been awake for the last decade knows, despite Roe v. Wade, women can’t access abortion providers in many parts of the country. States have passed laws requiring pregnant women to watch ultrasound “pictures” of their “babies,” and forced them to endure twenty-four- or forty-eight-hour waiting periods so that they can “rethink” their abortion decisions. In May 2012, Utah established the longest waiting period in the nation: seventy-two hours. In that year, in fact, anti-abortion legislatures managed to pass forty-three new laws that, in one way or another, restricted abortion.
In big cities, finding an abortion provider is often not difficult—unless, of course, you are poor (because the government won’t pay for abortions). Women in rural areas have, however, been hit particularly hard. They have to travel long distances, pay to stay in hotels while they “rethink,” and then, and only then, can they make the choice that was promised in 1973. So yes, women still have the right to legal abortion, but less and less access to abortion providers.
And what about childcare? In 1971, Congress passed the Comprehensive Childcare Act (CCA), providing national daycare to women who needed it. (Such a law wouldn’t have a chance today.) President Richard Nixon vetoed it that December. Using Cold War rhetoric, he argued that the legislation would harm the family and turn American women into their Soviet counterparts—that is, working drudges. His veto was also payback to his religious supporters in the South who opposed women working outside the home, and so using childcare. It set childcare legislation back until, well, this very moment.
Ask any young working mother about the nightmare of finding daycare for her infant or a space in a preschool for her child. Childcare, as feminists recognized, was a major precondition for women’s entering the labor force on an equal footing with men. Instead of comprehensive childcare, however, this country chose the more acceptable American way of dealing with problems, namely, that everyone find an individual solution. If you’re wealthy, you pay for a live-in nanny. If you’re middle class, you hire someone to arrive every day, ready to take care of your young children. Or you luck out and find a place in a good preschool—or a not-so-good one.
If you’re poor, you rely on a series of exhausted and generous grandparents, unemployed husbands, over-worked sisters and goodhearted neighbors. Unlike every nation in Europe, we have no guaranteed preschool or after-school childcare, despite our endless political platitudes about how much we cherish our children. And sadly, childcare has remained off the national political agenda since 1971. It was never even mentioned during the 2012 presidential debates.
And let’s not forget women’s wages. In 1970, women earned, on average, 59 percent of men’s wages. More than four decades later, the figure is 77 percent. When a university recently invited me to give a keynote address at a conference, they asked what fee I expected. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond. The best advice I got—from my husband—was: “Just tell them to give you 77 percent of whatever they’re paying the male keynote speaker.” That response resulted in a generous honorarium.
But what about all the women—widowed, divorced or single—who can’t draw on a second income from a man? How can we claim we’ve reached the 1970 equal-pay demand when 70 percent of the nation’s poor are women and children? This isn’t about glass ceilings. What concerns me are all the women glued to the sticky floor of dead-end jobs that provide no benefits and no health insurance, women who, at the end of each month, have to decide whether to pay the electricity bill or feed their children.
As an activist and historian, I’m still shocked that women activists (myself included) didn’t add violence against women to those three demands back in 1970. Fear of male violence was such a normal part of our lives that it didn’t occur to us to highlight it—not until feminists began, during the 1970s, to publicize the wife-beating that took place behind closed doors and to reveal how many women were raped by strangers, the men they dated or even their husbands.
Nor did we see how any laws could end it. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in a powerful essay recently, one in five women will be raped during her lifetime, and gang rape is pandemic around the world. There are now laws against rape and violence toward women. There is even a UN international resolution on the subject. In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna declared that violence against girls and women violated their human rights. After much debate, member nations ratified the resolution and dared to begin calling supposedly time-honored “customs”—wife beating, honor killings, dowry deaths, genital mutilation—what they really are: brutal and gruesome crimes. Now the nations of the world had a new moral compass for judging one another’s cultures. In this instance, the demands made by global feminists trumped cultural relativism, at least when it involved violence against women.
Still, little enough has changed. Such violence continues to keep women from walking in public spaces. Rape, as feminists have always argued, is a form of social control, meant to make women invisible and shut them in their homes, out of public sight. That’s why activists created “take back the night” protests in the late 1970s. They sought to reclaim the right to public space without fear of rape.
The daytime brutal rape and killing of a 23-year-old in India last December prompted the first international protest around violence against women. Maybe that will raise the consciousness of some men. But it’s hard to feel optimistic when you realize how many rapes are still regularly being committed globally.
So, yes, we’ve come a long way, but without achieving full access to legal abortion, comprehensive childcare or equal pay—those three demands from so many decades ago. Nor have we won the right to enjoy public space without fearing violence, rape or worse.
I always knew this was the longest revolution, one that would take a century or more to unfold. It’s upended most of our lives, and significantly improved so many of them. Nothing will ever be the same. Yet there’s still such a long way to go. I doubt I’ll see full gender equality in my lifetime.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece referred to the rape and killing of a 23-year-old Indian woman in January. In fact, the incidents happened in December.