It is the early ’80s. I am debating with my entire high school English class about the merits of passing the Equal Right Amendment, a very simple amendment to the constitution that stated, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” The boys in my class ask me if I want co-ed bathrooms—as if equality would wipe out differences between the sexes. I say, I don’t care—bring on co-ed bathrooms! But I also point out equal right being equated to co-ed bathrooms is silly propaganda. So is the notion that feminists hate men or sex. In my teenage brain it is a crystal-clear issue: How could anyone be against equality of the sexes? Simply stated, I am equal to the boy I am sitting next to—and should be treated as such.
But the ERA was flailing, proposed to congress way back in 1923 by the women’s party. Congress finally passed the ERA on March 22, 1972, but the next step was ratification by at least 38 out of 50 states. Sadly, on June 30, 1982, only three states short of passing into law, the window of opportunity closed, at least for that century. It was a heart-breaking moment for those of us fighting for equality.
Feminism has always been both a beacon and a compass for me. It helped me defy my violently abusive stepfather, and it helped me create an identity as an Amazon and not only a survivor of misogyny and adversity but a powerful woman with agency. As a teenager, I was mystified and disappointed that the ERA failed to pass into a law. To this day, I continue to be saddened that a civil rights movement could go “out of vogue”—with influential, highly visible women now declaring they aren’t feminists–because they like men or sex, or porn.
The boys in my class asked me if I wanted “co-ed bathrooms?” As if equality would wipe out differences between the sexes. I said I didn’t care– bring on co-ed bathrooms! But I also pointed out equal right being equated to co-ed bathrooms was silly propaganda. So is the notion that feminists hate men or sex. In her book Bad Feminist, Roxanne Gay examines why the idea of being a feminist has become an unsavory label. Gay points out that the term “sex-positive feminist” is a misnomer—because it assumes that feminists who like sex are exceptional. I heartedly agree—this and other propaganda continue to obfuscate what feminism is truly about: equality under the law, as well as empowerment and personal agency for women and girls. How did we get so turned around when most of us could agree that equality of the sexes is a good precedent? Why aren’t the majority of us today declaring ourselves feminists?
A short history of feminism holds some of our answers.
The first wave of feminism happened in the mid-1800s. In 1848 the first organized feminist conference was held in Seneca Falls. This first movement was focused on basic legal rights such as the right to vote. Feminism evolved out of social reform groups such as the Abolition of Slavery and Temperance movements. In this wave of feminism the Equal Rights Amendment was first written.
Second-wave feminism began in the early 1960s and addressed sexual harassment, domestic violence, legal inequalities, equal pay for equal work, reproductive rights, and marital rape. The second wave started in the United States then expanded worldwide.
Third-wave feminism began in the early 1990s arising as a response to perceived failures of the second wave, and it addressed the backlash against initiatives for reproductive rights, sexual harassment, equal pay, and domestic violence prevention.
In the 2010s we are still in the third wave of feminism. The issue of intersectionality is being examined as a necessary part of feminism to succeed as a movement. In short, intersectionality involves examining other ways women are oppressed, such as by class, race, physical capabilities, and sexual orientation. Intersectionality asks that we as feminists be a more inclusive political movement that recognizes the challenges of all women. Perhaps the greatest gain of the second wave is that people don’t want to be perceived as sexist. But sexism prevails in many industries. Perhaps the most prominent business in the US today, the high-tech industry, is rife with stories of sexual harassment and lack of equal opportunities in terms of career advancement for women.
The defeat of the ERA holds one of the keys to what is currently derailing more unity and force of power in the feminist movement. Phyllis Schlafly, a republican constitutional lawyer, made a career of campaigning against the ERA and was largely responsible for its defeat. Schlafly was a wealthy white woman proclaiming that women should stay at home and focus on family—while she made a career doing exactly the opposite. Schlafly enjoyed many of the principles of feminisms: she had a career, made her own money, enjoyed her own political power and agency—yet at the same time worked against other women getting the same.
Fifty-two percent of white women voted for Donald Trump, a president who brags about sexual harassment. What were they thinking? Internalized sexism and identifying with the oppressor are rampant problems in the current political climate. With a backlash as potent as we are experiencing, feminism can’t afford to be relegated to some stylish fad now out of vogue. It is a necessary ongoing battle for equality that has worldwide implications.
Token female CEOs who declare that they are “not feminists” are turning a blind eye to the oppression of women in their communities but also to the orders of magnitude of suffering for women worldwide. The United States must uphold its leadership in fighting for equality of the sexes. There are women in other countries who are dealing with honor killings, domestic violence condoned by law, forced marriage, child brides, marital rape, and clitorectomies—just some of the injustices suffered by women internationally. How can we turn away from that?
How is feminism important to marriage?
The personal is political: issues of housework, money, domestic violence, and sexual satisfaction are perhaps even more challenging to confront in the private realm. Now that we have same-sex marriage, hopefully some archaic patterns of marriage with rigid sex roles will fade away. But, if our marriages (comprised of a man and a woman) still do not reflect our beliefs around equality, we are crippled at the roots. Being empowered comes in many forms. Looking at marriage from the framework of equality can still be a radical endeavor. We can and should notice the politics of pleasure and demand that “good sex” not mimic porn mainly focused on male pleasure. Advocating for your needs in the bedroom is a conversation that is perhaps the most vulnerable of equal rights discussions. Insisting on emotional support to expand as a person and have work that is meaningful is yet another personal issue in marriage that hold significant political weight.
How is feminism important to parenting?
This current practice of girls and women not identifying as feminists is disturbing to me—especially as a mother. I’m alarmed by the trend of women adopting a “male gaze” around sexuality and aspects of what it means to “make it” in today’s workforce. Many teens are getting their sex education from commercial pornography geared to a male audience. We need to be coaching our children on what it means to have equality in relation to their bodies, sexuality, and emotions. While the backlash is taking a particularly ugly turn for teenage girls, the patriarchy doesn’t work for boys either. Raising boys who are empathetic, sensitive, and able to express their feelings means we are raising boys who will be repulsed by rape culture. But the fact that fraternity hazing—with its beatings, forced binge drinking, and hierarchical power structure—is still an acceptable, widespread, coming-of-age ritual is alarming in its implications. We are instead raising boys who are being indoctrinated into a concept of maleness that encourages them to become dehumanized and brutish. Feminism is about saving our boys too.
Many feminist theorists acknowledge that the patriarchy is not working for men either. It calls for feminist households that allow for boys and girls to discover their true authentic selves, and thrive without having to dominate, malign or subjugate the feminine. The full actualization of both sexes is a feminist agenda that must be in the forefront for every parent.
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