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Feminism Has Come a Long Way—or Has It? | The Nation

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Feminism Has Come a Long Way—or Has It?

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Reproductive justice activists mobilize in Atlanta, March 12, 2012. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

In 1968, the Phillip Morris Company launched a memorable campaign to sell Virginia Slims, a new brand of cigarettes targeting women, itself a new phenomenon. It had a brand-new slogan: “You’ve come a long way, baby.” The company plastered it on billboards nationwide and put it in TV ads that featured women of the early twentieth century being punished for smoking. In all their advertising, smoking was equated with a set of traits meant to capture the essence of women in a new era of equality—independence, slimness, glamour and liberation.

As it happened, the only equality this campaign ended up supporting involved lung cancer. Today, women and men die at similar rates from that disease.

About the Author

Ruth Rosen
Ruth Rosen, a historian, journalist and senior fellow at the Longview Institute, teaches history and public policy at...

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Still, women have come a long way since the mid-twentieth century, and it’s worth considering just how far—and just how far we have to go.

Once Upon a Time

These days it may be hard for some to believe, but before the women’s movement burst on the scene in the late 1960s, newspapers published ads for jobs on different pages, segregated by gender. Employers legally paid women less than men for the same work. Some bars refused to serve women and all banks denied married women credit or loans, a practice which didn’t change until 1974. Some states even excluded women from jury duty.

Radio producers considered women’s voices too abrasive to be on the air and television executives believed that women didn’t have sufficient credibility to anchor the news. Few women ran big corporations or universities, or worked as firefighters and police officers. None sat on the Supreme Court, installed electrical equipment, climbed telephone poles or owned construction companies. All hurricanes had female names, due to the widely held view that women brought chaos and destruction to society.

As late as 1970, Dr. Edgar Berman, a consultant to presidents and to Medicare, proclaimed on television that women were too tortured by hormonal disturbances to assume the presidency. Few people ran into women professors, doctors or lawyers. Everyone addressed a woman as either Miss or Mrs., depending on her marital status, and if a woman needed an abortion, legal nowhere in America, she risked her life searching among quacks in back alleys for a competent and compassionate doctor.

The public generally believed that rape victims had probably “asked for it,” most women felt too ashamed to report rape and no language existed to make sense of what we now call domestic violence, sexual harassment, marital rape or date rape. One simple phrase seemed to sum up the hidden injuries women suffered in silence: “That’s life.”

On August 27, 1970, in response to such injustice, 50,000 women marched down New York’s Fifth Avenue, announcing the birth of a new movement. They demanded three rights: legal abortion, universal childcare and equal pay. These were preconditions for women’s equality with men at home and in the workplace. Astonishingly, they didn’t include the ending of violence against women among their demands—though the experience and fear of male violence was widespread—because women still suffered these crimes in silence.

Those three demands, and the fourth one that couldn’t yet be articulated, have yet to be met.

The Hidden Injuries of Sex

As the women’s movement grew, women activists did, however, begin to “name” their grievances. Once named, they could be identified, debated, and—with a growing feminist political voice—turned into policy or used to change the law.  

It turned out that there were plenty of hidden injuries, which women activists discovered and publicized through consciousness-raising groups, pamphlets and books. Rape, once a subject of great shame, became redefined as a physical assault that had little to do with lust. Date rape, for which there was plenty of experience but no name, opened up a national conversation about what constituted consensual sex. Few people had ever heard the words “marital rape.” (“If you can’t rape your wife,” California Senator Bob Wilson allegedly said, “then who can you rape?”) In this way, a new conversation began about the right of wives to have consensual sex and the nature of power relations within marriage.

From the very beginning, the mainstream media and the public labeled women activists as “lesbians.” Why else would they complain about male behavior? Provoked by constant efforts to “tarnish” all feminists as lesbians, activists chose to embrace the label, rather than exclude lesbians from the movement. In the process, they also began to write about and then discuss compulsory heterosexuality. Together with a burgeoning men’s gay movement, feminist lesbians and gay men formed the Gay Liberation Front in the 1969. Soon, lesbian feminists created an all-women’s group called the Lavender Menace.

The birth control pill and the sexual liberation movement of the mid-1960s gave women new freedoms. Grasping the limitations of such changes without abortion being legalized, feminists soon joined the medical abortion rights campaign of that era. Determined to repeal laws against abortion, in New York they testified before the state legislature and passed out copies of a “model abortion bill”: a blank piece of paper. Through “public speak-outs,” they openly discussed their own illegal abortions and explained why they had made such choices. In Chicago and San Francisco, activists created clandestine organizations to help women seek qualified doctors. Some feminists even learned how to perform abortions for those who could not find a competent doctor.

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Then, in 1973, the Supreme Court handed down its famous Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion and ignited the abortion wars that still rage today. You could even say that this is where the culture wars of the coming decades really began, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

What had feminists started? In essence, they had begun to redefine one “custom” after another as crimes. For instance, one of the greatest hidden injuries suffered by women in those years was the predatory sexually behavior of male bosses. In 1975, a group of women at Cornell University coined the term sexual harassment. Previously, some women had called it “sexual blackmail,” but when legal scholar Catherine Mackinnon used the new phrase in the title of her 1979 book, Sexual Harassment of Working Women, both feminists and judges began using it in litigation against predatory bosses. After Anita Hill’s accusations against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas in 1991, the phrase became a household term. In that same year, Congress added amendments to Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, accepting the feminist argument that sexual harassment violated a woman’s right to earn a living and work in a non-hostile atmosphere.

If the naming of sexual harassment changed the workplace, the reframing of wife-beating as domestic violence turned a custom into a felonious crime. At the same time, feminists spread a network of battered women’s shelters across the nation, offering havens from marital violence and possible death.

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