Women's History Month # 11: A Brief and Checkered History of Women's Path to Parity, Our Power Leap Moment, and the Road Ahead
Each day during March, Women's History Month, I am posting an article on my website, www.GloriaFeldt.com. I originally wrote today's Women's History Month post 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. And please feel free to repost in full or part, or to link to any of my WHM articles so that we can spread the word about women's accomplishments throughout history.
“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, women’s rights activist, traveling preacher (click photo for more info on Sojourner Truth)
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
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.
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
Gloria Feldt, www.GloriaFeldt.com, is a
leading activist, co-author with Kathleen Turner of the best-selling
Send Yourself Roses, and former president of Planned Parenthood
Federation of America. She invites you to visit her blogs on GloriaFeldt.com