Know Your History–Create the Future of Your Choice

“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

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. All of my Women’s History Month posts come from a place of profound appreciation for the shoulders I stand on. Women like Sojourner Truth who had so much courage, clarity of vision, and leadership savvy.

I found feminism when I was a desperate housewife in Odessa, Texas in the 1960’s. After volunteering for civil rights organizations, I had the epiphany that women should have civil rights too. I “discovered” the new Ms Magazine. Then, I joined the National Organization for Women a few years after its 1966 founding, 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 that didn’t take women into the presidency, but came close enough that no one will ever again ask whether women are smart enough or tough enough to do the job. Today even right-wing Republicans realize putting a woman on the ticket symbolizes electrifying change. Women earn 60% of college degrees, reproductive technologies have changed the power balance in personal relationships and we’re closer to parity in earnings than any time in history.

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To be sure, women still don’t have full equality in any sphere of political or economic endeavor. Women hold just 17% of seats in Congress–the 2010 elections resulted in the first decline in over a decade–and under 25% of state legislative offices; 3% of top clout positions in mainstream media corporations and 15% of corporate board positions. We’re still waging a battle for reproductive rights, both at the state and federal levels. And despite gender equity laws, women earn 3/4ths of what men do while shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility for child rearing.

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 programs.

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. Second wave feminism opened so many doors and enabled women to have so many firsts that it is easy to think that all the problems have been solved. But now many well-educated, professional women step back from careers in the belief that having so many choices available means they have no responsibility to continue pushing forward.

When I was researching my book No Excuses, 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. You can’t win if you don’t run. 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.

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–and that will be good for everyone: men, women, children, society. But moments like this don’t last forever.

The unfinished business of this moment is for women to walk through those passageways boldly, with intention, and not “be talking about it.”

What history will we make this time?

No Comments

  1. Serena Freewomyn on March 2, 2011 at 10:37 am

    Your description of your experience with NOW is a lot like my experience with my first Women’s Studies class. My best friend and I had already started calling ourselves feminists in high school, but it wasn’t until we took a Women’s Studies class together that is all really started to click. It was awesome to be in a room with so many other feminists, and to learn about women’s history. Very life changing.

    • Gloria Feldt on March 2, 2011 at 10:47 am

      Yes, exactly!! Have you read the anthology “Click”? If we’re lucky, we all have a click moment somewhere along the way.

  2. Aletha on March 3, 2011 at 2:36 am

    “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.”

    I am curious how you came to that conclusion. That does not jibe with how I understand the history of that time. Some women may have done that, and more put their feminist activism on hold while the Civil War was raging, but most feminist leaders were completely infuriated when Republicans sold women out after the war ended. Most at the Seneca Falls meeting were active in the abolitionist movement. In those days, there was not much difference between the legal status of white married women and slaves, since women were legally property of their husbands. Abolitionism had a few factions. Many of the radical abolitionist men supported the feminists, but the moderates carried the day, and most of them were not interested in women’s rights. Henry Stanton, husband of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, was one particularly ironic example. He tolerated her feminist activism, but did not support it.

    • Serena on March 3, 2011 at 1:09 pm

      Aletha, that’s an understatement. Henry Stanton was absent, at best, for the vast majority of ECS’s life. When he died, she finally got to go on the road and have her own life. Unfortunately, she was older and very overweight at this point, so she had a difficult time traveling. But she loved it.

  3. Gloria Feldt on March 3, 2011 at 7:39 am

    I was not aware of Stanton’s husband’s role, but not surprised. I see many such relationships today within the prochoice movement. Women are the activists, husbands tolerate. Husbands still control much of the family wealth and are more willing to play hardball in politics and business, so there you go. That is changing as we have a generation of women who have been self-supporting. But still…it compromises effectiveness.

    I stated clearly that from the beginning, women’s rights activists supported abolition, and many believed (rightly) that the two movements would be stronger together. Later, there were rifts between those women who wanted to hold out to make abolitionists support women’s rights as a condition of their working for abolition, but they did not win the day. They blinked, and kept on working for abolition while putting women’s rights on the back burner.

    After the Civil War, to get Southern women onboard, some suffragist leaders put racial civil rights on the back burner. This is a complex and frequently changing coalition story, so you an probably find an example to support virtually every theory, but overall, much potential power went unused because the two causes did not always hang together and mass their strength.

  4. Aletha on March 5, 2011 at 4:38 am

    I agree with your larger point, Gloria. Time and again the women’s movement has allowed itself to be defused. The abolitionist movement occurred during one of the rare periods of history when the movements for the rights of women and blacks did hang together, but that cooperation was limited and did not last long. The powers that be have been rather skillful in defusing revolutionary movements of all kinds. Once the abolitionist movement gathered some steam, it was also defused, its edge lost within a much larger movement against slavery, not necessarily to abolish it, but to limit its spread. The male abolitionists who supported the feminists were always in the minority, and the larger antislavery movement was rather hostile to feminism. It could be said that feminists did blink, continuing to work within a movement that, with a few exceptions, did not support feminism, hoping to be rewarded for their loyalty to the cause. This was naive at best, and I think many current feminist leaders never learned the lesson of that mistake. I objected to your statement because it was my impression that most feminist leaders worked within the radical wing of abolitionism, which did support feminism, but it is true that as the antislavery movement became more popular, the radical wing became less and less influential, and feminists had to choose whether to continue to support a movement that was not supporting feminism. Feminists have faced similar dilemmas all along, and now have to choose whether to continue to support the Democratic Party, which is highly ambivalent about feminism, because as a matter of practical politics, the only apparent alternative is so much worse.

    I suppose my understanding of history is somewhat colored by identifying with the more radical feminists, who were never a majority among women who opposed slavery, let alone women in general. As a matter of practical politics, women’s rights were never on the Republican agenda, and feminists should have expected the betrayal. Lincoln himself was not an abolitionist, and had to be pressured to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which he did more as a matter of strategy than principle. He and most Republicans were more focused on preserving the Union and winning the war. And yes, my characterization of Henry Stanton was an understatement; perhaps I should have said he emphatically did not support his wife. I got the impression he was embarrassed by her activism.

    • Gloria Feldt on March 5, 2011 at 1:56 pm

      Aletha,I have often observed (as someone who has led a social movement), the old adage about how you should never watch laws or sausages being made should be applied as well to social movements. There is always a basketful of egos, agendas, and self-interests to be dealt with, as well as plain old inertia. It’s a rare leader who can keep her eye on the mission and not be swayed by those elements–and if she isn’t swayed she is often destroyed by her colleagues. Movements are messy and complex. So it is infinitely interesting to me to learn more of the tidbits you have supplied, as well as to have the benefit of history’s lens with which to see what the movement did or did not accomplish in the end.

      • Aletha on March 8, 2011 at 2:20 am

        You can say that again, movements are messy and complex! It might seem that a movement could stand strong around its primary principles and goals, but the devil is in the details. Infighting has always plagued feminism, no less so nowadays.

        The issues around alliances are also very messy and complex. I have been asked why not just work for the Green Party, since on the surface the Free Soil and Green parties seem similar. I had to point out that while Greens call feminism a “key value,” it has not been a high priority for them. The California Green Party Statement of Purpose in the ballot pamphlet for the 2008 primary elections did not bother to mention women’s rights at all. In August 2009 one prominent female Green activist, Maryrose Asher, took the support of the Feminist Majority for the war on Afghanistan as a reason to argue,

        I strongly support “Gender Equity” as a Key Value. “Feminism” is outdated, simply wrong, and should be removed.

        I have come to expect such betrayals from the left, but was still disappointed to see my fears realized. This is not an organization I can support. Instead I blogged about these betrayals of feminism. I have my own issues with FMF, its support for the war among them, but is this a reason for such an allegedly progressive party to distance itself from feminism? I think not, but that distancing is a good reason for me to refuse to support the Green Party, notwithstanding its nomination of Cynthia McKinney for President in 2008.

        I have been extremely wary about seeking alliances, because for me it is not enough that an organization does good work on its particular issue. I can support such work, but in my eyes usually the risks of seeking an alliance outweigh the benefits, especially if the organization is dominated by men. I have high expectations of an ally. The abolitionist movement might have seemed a natural ally for feminism, but it did not work out that way. I got the impression that after the Civil War, most of the staunchest male allies of feminism abandoned the cause, not wishing to buck the Republican agenda that this was the black man’s hour. Similarly it may seem the Democratic Party is a natural ally for feminism, but is it really? What has been gained through that alliance, and what has been lost? Can women realistically expect to create the future of our choice through working with that party?

  5. Aletha on March 9, 2011 at 1:12 am

    I think Akismet grabbed my comment from last night. It disappeared, but when I tried to post it again, WordPress informed me I had already said that!

    • Gloria Feldt on March 9, 2011 at 3:35 pm

      Thanks for the heads up, Aletha. You always leave such thoughtful comments. The spam filter usually works without a hitch – but sometimes it has a little hiccup when a comment has a link or two in it. Regardless . . . your comment got pulled out of the spam net. 🙂

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