Feminism’s Unfinished Business (Editorial: 3/98)

Twenty years ago, I was coming of age as “second-wave feminism” was hitting its stride. A national Equal Rights Amendment seemed like a do-able accomplishment and helped galvanize activists. The UN had recently declared International Women’s Year, and women were empowered by participating in a movement whose numbers seemed to swell every year.

Feminism was revived. The “first-wave” feminists had achieved passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, granting women the right to vote. But the voting public was still largely middle- and upper-class, and didn’t produce the revolutionary change that socialist suffragists had sought. And since so much effort had been focused on suffrage, once it was obtained, activism dwindled until it was all but non-existent.

In the 1960s, Women’s Liberation burst onto the scene. Women broke codes of silence, talked among themselves, and protested their continued second-class citizen status. A decade later, the movement was in full bloom. In March 1978, Ms. magazine reported on the National Women’s Conference (NWC) held the previous year, announcing that “feminists are everywhere … we are a populist, majority movement.” Not so in the 90s when people describe themselves. “Feminist? No, I’m not one of those,” most say.It’s possible that the label itself was a misnomer, which led the public and the movement itself astray. Although “egalitarian” doesn’t roll as trippingly off the tongue as “feminist,” it’s really more to the point. While feminism promotes equal rights between men and women, egalitarianism seeks equal rights for all.

As the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women declared from Beijing: women’s rights are human rights. While bringing women’s rights into special focus, the NWC platform adopted in 1977 contained broad-ranging demands for human rights and better living conditions for all. These included comprehensive programs for the disabled, improved child abuse prevention and intervention, a national health security program, guarantees of indigenous Americans’ tribal rights, culturally sensitive education, innovative elder housing, an end to discrimination based on sexual preference, and increased funding for Social Security, welfare, and other “income-transfer” programs.

Whatever you call the political ideology of this platform – egalitarian or feminist – its goals have by no means been fulfilled. An entire generation of people has been born and grown up, including my own daughters, but women still aren’t really equal to men, classism and racism persist, and the US government often acts like a mad scientist conducting draconian experiments in social Darwinism.

More women work outside the home than ever before in our society, yet work done in the home – that backbone of living itself called childrearing and homemaking – is still not economically valued. Unless you pay someone else to do it for you. The NWC called for “covering homemakers in their own right under Social Security.”

Neither has violence in the home been eliminated. Men far outnumber women on state boards and commissions, and in corporate offices and the federal government. “Traditional” women’s jobs still pay less than “men’s” jobs, and federal law doesn’t mandate equal pay for work of equal value. “Workfare” – which the NWC denounced as “work without wage, without fringe benefits or bargaining rights, and without dignity” – is now a reality.

And, while we have a patchwork of laws aimed at ending gender discrimination, hopes for a federal ERA died on the vine long ago.

Second-wave feminism went the way of the first wave. Despite protestations to the contrary, powerful feminist organizations such as NOW remained largely an interest of the usually White middle-class. Volunteer work didn’t grant you membership: your annual dues did. In Vermont, the state ERA committee preferred pricey dinners to potlucks for fundraisers. It threw gay rights overboard in an effort to pretend that the amendment wouldn’t grant homosexuals the legal protections of marriage. This sop to the right-wing backlash got us nowhere. The movement splintered and foundered.

Clearly, there is still a great deal for activists to do. The problems haven’t gone away and the groundswell can build again. It may appear that we’ve lost the interest particularly of the younger generation. But times and consciousnesses do change with the right inspiration. To paraphrase something an older woman once told me in the mid-1980s: What we need to do for non-feminists is screw in the lightbulb of feminism, so that later they can turn the light on.