I remember them clearly. There were these books in my elementary school classroom about the earliest feminists: the ones who fought for the right to vote, or flew a plane, or pursued undercover reporting, or freed slaves through an underground railroad. These books were, in retrospect, highly inspirational to me; they sent the message that, even as an 11 or 12-year-old girl living in the U.S. in the late 1970s, I really could grow up to do anything I wanted. They also taught me that women had struggled with the pervasive sexism that had been deeply entrenched in our society from the earliest days, and that these things didn’t happen easily. So, these early feminists were also heroes to me. Besides reading, I also watched my fair share of TV, and loved programs like That Girl, and Mary Tyler Moore, and Maude. These shows made me see how a woman could be smart, strong, and feminine, all at the same time.
Then there was the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which provided, “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” (If it were written anew today, I suspect that the word “sex” would be changed to “gender.”) To me, the ERA made perfect sense because I learned at my Quaker school that, as a matter of morality, everyone is equal. I understood that the ERA was an important addition to our Constitution and that a certain number of states needed to ratify it for it to become law. Congress had already approved it and only 38 of the states needed to ratify for it to become the law of the land. I also remembered how disappointed I was when I learned that there were not enough states and it looked like there might never be enough states. I’ve since learned that the ERA would have passed—we only needed 3 more states—but for the counter-movement of Phyllis Schlafly, an antifeminist political activist who basically told married women/housewives across America (and at the time about 65% of American women did get married) that they had it cushy already, but the ERA would send us off to war and have other negative effects. Phyllis Schlafly’s movement killed the ERA. We lost our chance, and it was because of a woman. If I had realized this at the time, I am certain I would have seen this as the worst betrayal.
Even younger, when I was in kindergarten, I remember going into school and proudly telling the teacher that my mom voted for McGovern while my dad voted for Nixon. This taught me that not only would I eventually have the right to vote, but just as importantly, that I didn’t have to exercise it the same way my husband did—that my right to vote was valuable and real and belonged to me.
My aunts were self-professed feminists—ahead of their time—and some of my earliest memories are of family gatherings where they would debate politics (often but not always involving women’s issues) with my father and uncles. I thought that was normal family gathering conversation, and that women should discuss and debate these things with men. I discussed U.S. history with my dad all the time at the dinner table. He had views about girls that were pretty much par for the course in that era: girls are good at English; boys are good at math and science. I certainly fit that mold, though I will never know if my father’s views encouraged me to think that I did, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the other hand, my dad did introduce me to one of the earliest PC’s, made in the late 70s by Radio Shack, which he bought for his law practice—sparking an interest in computers, somewhat unusual in girls and women, that exists to this day—and had me doing data entry for him at the age of 10 or 11. Either way, my father never questioned that I was going to college and when I graduated cum laude from an Ivy League school he couldn’t have been prouder that I was going on to pursue the same career he did, as an attorney, with one of the largest law firms in the country.
After the fantasy world that was college in the 1980s, I carried my feminist sensibilities with me to law school, and beyond. I took for granted, with a vague awareness of Roe v. Wade, that I could control whether or not I became pregnant through readily available contraception and could even have a safe abortion if I ever needed or wanted one. In the 1990’s, it was more common to be a professional woman (thanks to the trailblazers before us) and sexual harassment lawsuits could now be pursued in court due to the Civil Rights Act of 1991, resulting in more professional and civilized environments where men and women worked together. I didn’t feel at all out of place at my law school where the male to female ratio was about 1:1, and I made the prestigious law review along with a lot of other women.
Then I graduated, and was suddenly thrust into the real world. In the early 90’s, the biggest issue facing us women (and a double-edged sword) was how to “have it all.” Our parents raised us to be confident and think maybe we really could be “superwomen.” (Another sign of feminism: Many of the younger women in my firm, though married, had decided to keep their “maiden name” or at least used their maiden name as a middle name.) I saw though the lifestyle of the female attorneys at my firm, even those who had somehow negotiated part-time status, and that almost all of the lawyers who became moms left over time. They had burnt out—we women lawyers worked as hard as the men—and they not only were working, but also taking care of a baby and running a household.
Moreover, I saw situations where part-time female attorneys ended up working for longer hours than they had negotiated—for the same salary they negotiated—so essentially they were underpaid. Also, the firm did not provide on-site day care, which made things even more difficult for these women who had to rush home to nannies or au pairs, or to a day care center. Fortunately, we big firm lawyers made enough money (alone or with one’s spouse) to cover the cost of the child care and still earn a living, but it quickly became apparent to me that in essence the cost of childcare ate up a sizeable portion of one’s income as a female lawyer and could be a barrier to resuming work for many women generally.
As a child, I didn’t even know if I wanted to be a mother some day, and gave it little thought, until I hit my mid-20s when my biological clock and maternal urges kicked into gear. The days of most of our parents—getting married young and having babies—were over. How could I possibly manage a career as a litigator at a large firm and a family? It didn’t help that I had a chronic illness—Crohn’s disease—that flared off and on, and even on my best days I never felt like I had the energy of the so-called “superwomen” I saw all around me. When I did get married—several months before I turned 30—I started noticing articles and hearing buzz about another phenomenon: By delaying having babies into their 30s or even early 40s, professional women like me who put career first risked infertility. Sure enough, when the time came to try, I couldn’t get pregnant. I waited until my mid-30s and that was too long. Eventually, I did become pregnant and gave birth—twice—but at the time two years seemed like an eternity and I wondered if I would ever be a mother.
It was when I was very, very pregnant with my second child that I sat at a table with law school friends and realized what a deep chasm that had formed between us. We were all smart women, who practiced law in our chosen specialties. One woman had decided that she was going to have a child, but only one. The other woman was divorced after a short, disastrous marriage, and had no children. The two mothers (me being one of them) at the table exchanged some ugly words that ended the friendship. I had decided to stay home with my two children. (To be completely honest, I’ll never know if I would have made that decision if I did not also have a serious chronic illness, but it was my decision and I owned it wholeheartedly.) The other mom went right back to work after a maternity leave from her job as a lobbyist, which had always been the plan. I believe she still works at the same job 14 years later. That night, though, it was all about the judging, which was couched in angry words and harsh tones. Who made the right decision? What was the more feminist choice?
With all these years of hindsight I can look back and say—we both did. Feminism is, to me, the ability to choose one’s own path in life, without government interference for sure, but also without judgment from other women, or anybody else. It is, put another way, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rights which, by the way, are only provided in the Declaration of Independence to extend to men. So now I must ask the question: How far have we come, since I went into a kindergarten classroom and proudly announced my mother voted for the other guy, or even since I went to law school? Young women and not surprisingly many men today seem to think we are living in a post-feminist society and perhaps, by dint of views like theirs, we are. But is that a positive or a negative development for women and girls?
Well, we have certainly evolved in our views towards women to some extent. There are currently 3 women on the Supreme Court, more than ever before. There are 20 women out of the total 100 currently in the Senate, and another 84 women out of the total 435 currently in House. There are many women in state legislatures around the country and a handful of governors (currently 6 out of 50). This is a huge improvement over the makeup of our government in the early 90’s. There are also more women working in a wider range of fields than ever before.
Still, we know that women remain a distinct minority in our government, sorely underrepresented in the upper echelons of the business world, in engineering and science fields, and in other careers thought by my father’s generation to be more for men than women. We know that, while there are sexual harassment laws, far too many women endure the sexual abuse and date rape that occurs on college campuses and elsewhere, and the victim shaming or sweeping under the rug that happens if a woman dares to complain about it. We know that there continue to be disparities in salary for the same job (even for Hollywood superstars like Jennifer Lawrence), no federally mandated paid maternity leave, and other obstacles that keep women from being able to work and have a family at the same time, thus making many of us lose traction or even fail in our careers.
We know that there are 15 states that still refuse to ratify the ERA despite it being introduced in various states every year since the 1970s. We know that we are but one Supreme Court justice away from further eroding or even overturning the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. We know that Planned Parenthood is under attack and many conservative men in our government (and even some Republican female lawmakers) seek to defund it. Finally, we stand on the brink of determining if we will elect our first woman President after hundreds of years of men. Despite this woman being eminently qualified for the job, we hear all the time the sexist views that persist when discussing her character traits and demeanor. Misogynistic views towards Hillary Clinton extend to the popularity of highly offensive merchandise sold over the Internet that have Monica Lewinsky’s image with taglines like “I Got the ‘Job’ Done When Hillary Couldn’t” or “clever” retorts like “Hillary will go down faster than Bill’s pants,” and even “Trump that Bitch.” Seriously.
Sexism is the persistent idea that somehow and, in some way, men are superior to women, or that we are objects put on this earth for their pleasure and service, and we should therefore be treated differently as a result. It pervades our popular culture (for a woman, appearance is more important than anything else), our politics (nicknames like “Shrillary”), our business world (in the Fortune 500, there are only 22 companies with female CEOs), and our social interactions with one another. Instead of shows like Mary Tyler Moore or books about strong, positive female role models in the 1970s, we have instead The Real Housewives of Potomac and books and movies like Fifty Shades of Grey. To pretend sexism doesn’t exist and say things like, for example, “Don’t vote for Hillary Clinton just because she’s a woman,” particularly a woman like Clinton, whose goal is to further and even prioritize women’s rights, is to be like Phyllis Schafly, dismissing the ERA as bad for women, all those years ago.
It is so very apparent that while young women and most men believe we are in a post-feminist era, we are not in a post-sexist era any more than we are in a post-racial era. Moreover, if Barack Obama’s historic presidency is any indication, even if Hillary Clinton becomes our first women president, that will not mean the end of sexism in this country, and it surely will rear its ugly head in how others treat her or talk about her. Many conservative white men in particular will be unhappy and frustrated over the loss of their grip on executive power for yet another four years, and talk of “taking back their country” will continue.
Women of every ilk live in our great country: single, married, divorced; employed, unemployed, self-employed; straight and gay; religious and secular. Indeed, women fall into various combinations of these “categories.” It is not anymore the norm that a woman goes from her father’s home to her husband’s and is protected by him until the day she dies. Thus, when we advance the rights of all women, we advance the rights of everyone. As Hillary Clinton put it so eloquently (see below) when she went to Beijing 20 years ago at the Fourth World Conference on Women, “Women’s Rights are Human Rights.”
Girls and young women may not completely understand the history of women’s rights, may take for granted certain advances that required a lot of hard work and dogged determination by relatively few heroic women, and will certainly continue to be pummeled (brainwashed?) by messages born of an inherently sexist and paternalistic society. Nevertheless, I propose we try our best to teach them before they leave home, for college, and certainly for the real world, that women’s rights are their rights, and the prospective rights of their daughters and granddaughters.
With love and kindness,