Three Ways Not to Celebrate Women’s Equality Day – August 26, 2011

by Gloria Feldt on August 25th, 2011
in Activism, Feminism, Gender, Leadership, No Excuses, Politics, Power, Women & Politics, Women & Work, Women's History, Women's Rights and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Congresswoman (D-NY) Bella AbzugAs second wave feminism gathered peak velocity forty years ago, the late bombastic and behatted Congresswoman (D-NY) Bella Abzug persuaded Congress to designate August 26th as Women’s Equality Day. It recognized the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that in 1920 gave all U.S. women the right to vote.

There are many reasons to celebrate the 91st anniversary of women winning the ballot, which some suffragist leaders mistakenly believed culminated the struggle for women’s rights. But it turns out the solution to a problem changes the problem–creating uncomfortable new questions about the value of equality and what to do once we get there.

We’ve come a long way, maybe.

Yes, women now hold the majority of college degrees, but better education hasn’t brought equal pay. Nor has the fact that women are now starting 38% of entrepreneurial businesses moved the percentage of venture capital they garner above the 5% mark.

Yes, more women hold seats in Congress, but “more” equals only 17 percent. Despite hard lobbying by women’s groups, Senator Patty Murray is the sole female among 12 supercommittee members appointed to solve America’s budget impasse, showing how hard it is to crack the real power barriers.

And when we do crack those barriers, what happens?

Rebekah BrooksThanks to the 18 million cracks Hillary Clinton put in the glass ceiling, women are taken seriously as presidential candidates. But it’s feminist heartburn that progressive women like Clinton opened the doors for today’s reactionary female candidates like Michelle Bachmann, who would take away women’s rights, not add to them.

Then, just a women reached numbers parity in the workplace, Rebekah Brooks, deposed Chief Executive of Rupert Murdock’s News International, emulated her boss/mentor’s red-in- tooth-and-claw philosophy. Is this what happens when women reach the C-suite? Ouch!

On Women’s Equality Day 2011, we must ask: how do we make the transformation to gender equality truly transformational? Avoid becoming the men whose injustices we challenged? Embrace powerful leadership roles in work, politics, and personal life without adopting the same hierarchical, power-over model used to hold us back?

Here are three ways not to celebrate Women’s Equality Day if we’re committed to achieving its promise.

1. Think it’s all in the numbers. As the lesson of winning suffrage showed, we could get to 50/50 genderwise and not change anything. What good would that do?

It’s wicked hard to change a culture while you’re living in it. You get blamed for creating chaos, causing pimples, and bringing about the end of the world. It’s tempting to get co-opted. Since the 1970’s when ambitious women entering the business world were told to mimic men’s severe navy suits, learn to play golf, and talk tough to make their gender invisible, however, it’s become eminently clear that acting like the guys doesn’t serve women well.

Both genders have been captive to dysfunctional stereotypes that no longer serve us. Let’s own that we are changing the world, for the better for men as well as women–then go make the next set of breakthroughs.

2. Believe historical trends will necessarily continue. Wrong. Without a constant flow of deliberate actions, progress becomes regression in a nanosecond. And no one individual can make systemic change—it takes a movement.

The Senate Democratic women in 1993. L-R: Murray, Moseley Braun, Mikulski, Feinstein, Boxer.The suffrage movement dissipated once women got the vote. They stopped pressing for progressive reforms they’d supported at the turn of the 20th century—including still-unresolved issues like child care, maternal health, and sick leave. As they retreated into voter education and charitable works, they squandered their political power at its apex, a moment much like the 1992 “Year of the Woman” when legislators cowered in fear a permanent powerful women’s bloc would emerge in American politics. I wish!

A forward-backward dance has been the pattern in the U.S. women’s movement. Rosie the Riveter went home after World War II. Betty Friedan had us throw away our girdles in the 1960’s; now women wear Spanx ™. We’ve won the right to birth control and abortion but are within an inch of losing it again. It’s folly to believe that progress will continue–unless women and like-minded men mobilize together to make it so.

As Equal Rights Amendment author Alice Paul —one of the few suffragists who argued for continuing to press forward with a policy agenda — said, “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”

3. Believe that equality is enough. Agnostic equality as a goal unto itself is naïve. It’s just a baseline necessity for human development, like air and water. What we do with it is what matters.

And what opportunity exists today! The world is looking at women and saying, “This is your moment. We need what you have to offer.” Management experts say companies with more women in top leadership make more money for investors. The World Bank reviewed parliaments globally and found those with higher percentages of women exhibit better decision processes.

These breakthroughs mean it’s is a moment when we can dare to change dysfunctional paradigms, redefining power so all can have a saner way of work, politics and personal relationships.

Abzug famously said, “We want it all but we’ll take half.” But she would have been the first to recognize that the real value of celebrating women’s growing equality in 2011 is to show there’s no such zero sum choice, but rather infinite possibilities—if women engage and use the power in their hands.


Gloria Feldt is the author of No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Buy the book here. Engage Gloria for a Speech or Workshop. Tweet @GloriaFeldt and connect on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google+ Gloria is the co-founder (with Amy Litzenberger) of Take the Lead, a new initiative to prepare and propel women to leadership parity by 2025. Find them @takeleadwomen and on Facebook.

11 Responses to Three Ways Not to Celebrate Women’s Equality Day – August 26, 2011

  1. Brava, Gloria! GREAT post…having been around since Women’s Equality Day was first celebrated, I feel dismay at where women are today, versus where I thought we’d be.

    Progress? Yes. BUT not in proportion to the years. And the backsliding in today’s political environment is disheartening.

  2. Beautiful as always, Gloria! I will be reposting this far and wide!

  3. Gloria Feldt says:

    Thanks Shannon and Susan. Really appreciate the reposting. I’m interested in exploring further what changes for women as we gain equality in positions of power. Thoughts?

  4. Debjani says:

    Powerful writing as always, Gloria. I especially like the sense of tooth and nail optimism your second way conveys. While skepticism is necessary, sometimes comforting even, I am seeing a sense of pervasive, and sometimes ignorant skepticism eroding social movements, weakening democracies and adulterating political ideologies. So much remains to be done and the last thing we must do is give up, citing historical failures. I am going to share your blog with my class today.

  5. We can begin by stopping the intra-gender wars that keep us squabbling among ourselves about our proper roles, as if our gender still controlled our destiny (it does not). Then we can stop punishing one another, as we do, when one of us speaks out, steps up, claims the prize and asserts her entitlement to it. After we stop punishing one another for being “too aggressive,” we can sponsor one another – those at the top can encourage those in the middle take that seat on the Board of Directors and demand equity partnership. Those in the middle can tell the youngsters that they could be bitter but choose not to and believe that anything is possible. And the youngsters can encourage their sisters in college and graduate and professional schools. We can stop pretending there are no barriers to advancement. Instead, we can call our sisters and brothers together and say “hey! look at that boulder in the road; could you just give me a hand to push it out of the way.” We can give a damn about the unemployed, the single mother, the drop-out and the abused or neglected child. While helping individuals we can also work for systemic change that won’t recreate the same problems in the 21st century as we had in the 20th or the 19th or the 18th for that matter. We can be kinder to ourselves and less envious of others. We can stop pandering and trading our power for sympathy. We can contribute money and time and imagination to women’s issues and if we don’t like the way the country is going, we can campaign for those who we believe will move it in the right direction. We can do all or some or any of these things. What we can’t do is nothing.

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  8. Sammie Moshenberg How nice to see Bella’s smile (under her hat) on this page!

    Sandy Owen Ditto

    Renée Guillory Love your caution esp. about assuming progress is inevitable. Thank you for reminding us about the importance of the movement. *That’s* how we celebrate Women’s Equality Day!

    Barbra Peterson It’s a great read, thanks much Gloria.

    Amber Versola
    ‎Gloria Feldt via Barbra Peterson . . . this is a feminist chain I don’t want to risk breaking. ;) Take a second and read this fabulous piecel. Ladies (and men) – let’s keep pressing forward!

  9. MadamaAmbi says:

    Great post, Gloria! You are getting feistier (says I), which you know I want more women to be. I also feel very much in sync with what Vickie has to say. I expressed my vision for a different value system (along with Feminists for Obama), in a Feminist Platform–A Powered Woman, which you can find on my podcast. My podcast, Interview4Obama, is intelligent, interesting, thought-provoking and utterly unique, as am I, a longtime feminist with training in voice, theater, feminist psychology, women’s studies and education. Tune in and let me know what you think. Gloria, on no other blog would I be so strutting, so thanks for the inspiration!

    There’s one thing you haven’t mentioned, and that’s using leverage. Women need to come together, determine where they have leverage, and organize ways in which to use this power. This will have to be a longterm strategy, but let me remind my sisters that the Republican party has been effective in rolling back the rights of women as well as the rights of individuals and unions, because they are working from a playbook they devised decades ago, if not longer. These guys have psyched out the populace, have mined judicial decisions for every possible loophole (Roe has huge, gaping ones, btw), figured out how to make the rich richer and the poor poorer…and I could go on and on. Democrats, liberals, progressives and feminists have been playing from a “let’s all get along and be reasonable” playbook. We should be studying labor movement and union tactics for inspiration, as well as the film Pray the Devil Back to Hell.

    Am I saying I think an adversarial world is good? Absolutely not and, in fact, the research I’m involved in now (which will probably take me years to develop into coherent theory with applications), is to reveal how our neuropsychology perpetuates patriarchy. Our brains have been shaped by patriarchy and I’m not using metaphor. I hope to point to ways we can actually change our brains and export our Wrevolutionary ideas and technologies.

    Even assuming I’m successful in turning my analysis into something communicable to a wide audience, and assuming it resonates, women will still need leverage to make it happen. If you think I’m wrong about this, I invite you to discuss with me on my podcast. I interview by telephone. All thinkers, activists, womanists and feminists welcome. Email me: madama ambi at g mail dot com.

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