Recently I was part of a panel discussion with other elders about the last 50 years of feminism, the current state of the movement, our current situation, and what we might tell younger women about our successes and failures. Since then, I’ve done some more thinking and a bit of research, which I’d like to share.
We’ve won some major victories with respect to employment opportunities. When I entered the labor market, the want ads were sex-segregated. Help wanted female meant clerical, nurse, or teacher. Today women hold jobs I could only fantasize about as a girl-child in the 1950s: astronaut, engineer, Supreme Court justice, even Vice President. (Okay, I never wanted any of the last three. But I did dream of going to Mars.)
In some areas we’ve made partial progress. In 1963, women earned 59% of the wages men earned; in 2018 we earned 79%. The percentages are worse for Black and Hispanic women—in 2018, they were 63% for Black women and 55% for Hispanic women. Asian women did better, at 87%. Yet what the patriarchy gives, the patriarchy can take away. An ordinary (white) working man in the ‘50s could support a wife and two or three kids. Nowadays, what with stagnant wages and rising costs, both parents have to hold at least one job to pay the bills. And the pandemic is liable to further reverse progress, as women have lost employment at a much higher rate than men.
In 1973 we made progress in reproductive rights with Roe v. Wade—possibly the last liberal decision by the Supreme Court—and since then we have seen years of setbacks. In state after state, our opponents have slashed away at women’s right to control our own bodies. Their coalition of evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, and neo-fascist Republicans is financed by billionaires like the Koch brothers. Thanks to the Citizens United decision (2010), the billionaires can buy elections and make sure the legislatures enact laws to their liking. They put Trump in office and, as a result, they have a solid lock on the Supreme Court as well as controlling over 230 federal courts. Nonetheless, if we look beyond our own backward country, over the past decade nearly 50 nations that used to prohibit abortion entirely now permit it.
With a Democratic president and a narrow, possibly temporary margin in Congress, younger feminists have an opportunity to make some changes. However, given the current state of the courts and the omnipresent right-wing propaganda machine headed by Fox News, it’s going to be tough sledding. Even before Fox we had to contend with a media that distorted our work. One example: the first demonstration against the Miss America contest was depicted as bra-burning fest. (No bras were burned; nobody even lit a match.) The few positive articles held up white women like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug as the faces of our movement but gave scant recognition—or none at all—to the rest of us, and especially women of color. I recently spoke with a biracial friend 20 years my junior, who said that when she entered Bryn Mawr she’d heard of Steinem and Abzug—but never a word about Audre Lorde, Florynce Kennedy, Margaret Sloan-Hunter, or any other Black feminist. In line with this, the press sought to divide us by consistently representing feminism as only about middle-class white women’s aspirations.
To me the most important, and most intractable, issue is that of men treating women as their property, to be confined, raped, beaten, or killed. Male violence has been pandemic for millennia. One of the earliest parts of the Bible talks about male soldiers after a victory, “finding and dividing the spoils: a woman or two for each man…” (Judges 5:30) The Assyrians punished abortion by impaling the woman and anyone who assisted her—because she had destroyed her husband’s property. And there are plenty of people in this and other countries who would be happy to reinstate that ancient Assyrian law.
On the positive side, women all over the world have been organizing to demand action. In the last few years demonstrations have taken place in many nations, including Mexico, Italy, Turkey, Sudan, England, France, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Argentina, Panama, and Chile. Will they have any effect? I’m hopeful, but I don’t expect a solution in my lifetime. The first Take Back the Night protest was in England—in 1877. Similar marches took place in the U.S. but not until 1978. We’ve taken some steps forward in naming the problem, in passing a few laws, and in establishing battered women’s shelters here and there. But domestic partner abuse and femicide skyrocketed during the last year, as more people were confined by COVID-19.
We feminists, young and old, have a lot on our plate. At the same time we also have to deal with other life-and-death issues, such as climate change, income inequality, and America’s unending wars. Still, giving up is not an option. To paraphrase an old rabbinical text: We are not obliged to finish the work, but neither are we free to abandon it.