Today’s Women’s History Month post was written for the NOW New York newsletter. It was a tossup whether to place it in my Heartfeldt Politics blog or if I should put it into Courageous Leadership or Powered Women. While it could have fit in any of these, I chose Heartfeldt because the movement history strikes me as being exactly where the political meets the personal. See if you agree.
“If women want any rights more than they got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.” –-Sojourner Truth, 1797-1883, former slave, abolitionist, Sojourner Truth – click for more infowomen’s rights activist, traveling preacher
During the last 50 years, thanks to feminism and other civil rights movements, reliable birth control, and an economy that requires more brain than brawn, women have broken many barriers that historically prevented us from partaking as equals at life’s table. I feel privileged to be part of this amazing trajectory, and I thank NOW for what it has done for all women, and for me specifically.
I was a desperate housewife in Odessa, Texas, when I discovered NOW a few years after its 1966 founding, and joined as an at-large member. Soon, I’d find the half-dozen other at-large members in West Texas’ expanse. It was a heady time of firsts for women; still, few of us could have predicted either the stunning advances or the discouraging setbacks ahead.
Fast forward to Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking presidential campaign. Today even right-wing Republicans realize putting a woman on the ticket symbolizes electrifying change. Women outnumber men in universities, reproductive technologies have changed the power balance in personal relationships and we’re closer to parity in earnings than any time in history.
To be sure, women still don’t have full equality in any sphere of political or economic endeavor. Even after the 2008 election outcomes were in large part determined by women voters, women hold just 17% of seats in Congress (up from 16%–whoopee!) and 25% of state legislative offices; 3% of clout positions in mainstream media corporations and 15% of corporate board positions. I don’t need to tell you the toll the war on choice has taken on women’s human rights to family planning and abortion services. And despite gender equity laws, women earn 3/4ths of what men do while shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility for childrearing.
Still, the most confounding problem facing women today isn’t that doors aren’t open, but that women aren’t walking through the doors in numbers and with intention sufficient to transform society’s major institutions once and for all. Probing history, there seems to be a recurrent approach-avoidance pattern.
Abigail Adams asked her husband John to “remember the ladies” when the founding fathers were writing the Constitution. They didn’t, and the protest ended. The 1848 Seneca Falls meeting put women’s equality front and center. A decade later, women voluntarily took a back seat to abolitionism within the social justice panoply. When the women’s suffrage movement resurged in the late 19th century, they refused to take on other social justice issues. But in arguing that it didn’t matter how women voted–they simply wanted women to have the right to vote–the movement lost steam. After the 19th amendment granting women’s suffrage was ratified in 1920, instead of consolidating around an agenda such as peace, child care, workplace safety, birth control, or public health, the movement morphed into neutral voter education. The 1940’s saw Rosie the Riveter doing previously all-male work, only to trundle back to the kitchen when the men returned from war. And so the cycle has gone.
Recently, I wrote an article for Elle on why women do or don’t run for office, I was shocked to find that it’s no longer so much external structural barriers, real though they are, but internal ones that make the difference in whether women seek and win public office. From the boardroom to the bedroom, from public office to personal relationships, nobody is keeping women from parity today—but we have to “just take it”.
My intent is not to blame, but to inspire women to take the leap at this historic Moment. We can’t overlook at the barriers that make sexism the most intractable injustice in American society today. Still, I contend that the doors to power in all arenas, if not wide open, are at least sufficiently ajar that unlimited possibilities beckon. It’s in our hands now. We have the responsibility to ourselves and other women to use the power we have gained through struggle.
Will we choose to make it happen this time? Moments like this don’t last forever. This is the right time for women to take an unprecedented leap—to equalize gender power in politics, work, and relationships once and for all. The unfinished business of feminism is for women to walk through the passageways boldly, with intention, and not “be talking about it.”