The history of women’s rights and feminism is often told as though it were a person who should already have gotten to the last milestone or has failed to make enough progress toward it. Around the millennium lots of people seemed to be saying that feminism had failed or was over. On the other hand, there was a wonderful feminist exhibition in the 1970s entitled “Your 5,000 Years Are Up.” It was a parody of all those radical cries to dictators and abusive regimes that your [fill in the blank] years are up. It was also making an important point.
Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions and most households on Earth—and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has 999 miles to go and will never get anywhere.
It takes time. There are milestones, but so many people are traveling along that road at their own pace, and some come along later, and others are trying to stop everyone who’s moving forward, and a few are marching backward or are confused about what direction they should go in. Even in our own lives we regress, fail, continue, try again, get lost and sometimes make a great leap, find what we didn’t know we were looking for, and yet continue to contain contradictions for generations.
The road is a neat image, easy to picture, but it misleads when it tells us that the history of change and transformation is a linear path, as though you could describe South Africa and Sweden and Pakistan and Brazil all marching along together in unison. There is another metaphor I like that expresses not progress but irrevocable change: it’s Pandora’s box, or, if you like, the genies (or djinnis) in bottles in the Arabian Nights. In the myth of Pandora, the usual emphasis is on the dangerous curiosity of the woman who opened the jar—it was really a jar, not a box the gods gave her—and thereby let all the ills out into the world.
Sometimes the emphasis is on what stayed in the jar: hope. But what’s interesting to me right now is that, like the genies, or powerful spirits, in the Arabian stories, the forces Pandora lets out don’t go back into the bottle. Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge and they are never ignorant again. (Some ancient cultures thanked Eve for making us fully human and conscious.) There’s no going back. You can abolish the reproductive rights women gained in 1973, with Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion—or rather ruled that women had a right to privacy over their own bodies that precluded the banning of abortion. But you can’t so easily abolish the idea that women have certain inalienable rights.