We’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Women’s History Creates the Future
“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, Methodist minister
Truth’s admonition seems archaic now. Why are we still “talking about it?” Is women’s history of struggle for equal rights relevant in a world where women have outpaced men in earning college degrees, equaled their numbers in the workplace, and snatched the family purse to make 85% of consumer purchases?
Since “The End of Men” has been declared and women dubbed “Mistresses of the Universe” shouldn’t young women today, at least those in the industrialized world, feel powerful enough to be and do anything they want?
And shouldn’t more sympathy go to men these days, as the current efforts to gain acceptance for a men’s rights movement have suggested?
To be sure, during the last 50 years, thanks to feminism and other civil rights movements, reliable birth control, and an economy that now requires more brain than brawn, women have broken almost every barrier that historically prevented them from partaking as equals at life’s table.
We’ve seen a woman first almost everything, every door has been opened at least once. So it’s easy to think there are no further impediments to women entering the workplace, politics, or even in personal relationships, where reproductive technologies have changed the gender power balance – or so we thought.
Why We Still Talk About It
We still talk about it because we see again retrogressive beliefs like those of Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum. He says birth control causes people to have sex outside of marriage (what does he think women are, idiots?), rape victims should bear their rapists’ children, and “radical feminists” have the temerity to believe that “justice demands that men and women be given an equal opportunity to make it to the top in the workplace.” In Virginia, legislators backed off the so-called “State Rape” bill forcing doctors to shove transvaginal ultrasound equipment into a woman against her will only far enough to make the tests optional to forced external procedures.
Almost every day, someone asks me, “How did we get to this point?” I tell them the reason is found in the first of the 9 practical “Power Tools” I share in my book No Excuses, “Know your history and you can create the future of your choice.”
While researching No Excuses, I was shocked to find a recurrent approach-avoidance relationship between women and power. I realized it’s no longer external structural barriers, real though they are, but internal resistance to embracing power that makes the difference in whether women seek public office, get to the executive suite, or feel able to negotiate their personal relationships.
Doors are open, but women aren’t walking through them in numbers and with intention sufficient to transform society’s major institutions once and for all – not for at least 70 years at the current rate, and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg estimated 500 years to reach parity in corporate America.
Here’s The Cliff’s Notes History Lesson
Since Abigail Adams asked her husband John to “remember the ladies when the founding fathers were writing the Constitution in 1787 – and the men didn’t – women have stood back from “fomenting the revolution” Abigail threatened.
The early women’s movement burst forth from the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention in 1848 and rightly joined with the abolitionists. Then they were persuaded that gaining legal equality for women was less important than ending slavery, so they deferred.
When the women’s suffrage movement resurged in the late 19th century, they had learned their lesson to a fault and refused to include any other social justice issue. So the movement dissipated after the 19th amendment granting women’s suffrage was ratified in 1920, instead of consolidating their brief moment of power around a progressive agenda such as peace, childcare, workplace safety, or public health.
Rosie the Riveter went back to the kitchen when Johnny came marching home after World War II. In the 1960′s Betty Friedan liberated us from girdles; today we truss ourselves up in Spanx ™ and obsess about body image because a sexist media narrative tells us to.
Generational Power Paradox
Second wave feminists like me wanted power we didn’t have; today, many women have power but don’t want it.
I’m talking about women who voluntarily leave the workforce instead of banding together to change workplace policies so they can have a family life and earn a living. I mean women’s unwillingness to negotiate aggressively for salary and promotion costs each of us a cool half million dollars on average over our career lifetime.
From the boardroom to the bedroom, from public office to personal relationships, nobody is keeping women from parity any more – except ourselves.
My intent is not to blame, but to inspire women to embrace this historic moment when the doors to power, if not wide open, are at least sufficiently ajar that unlimited possibilities beckon to walk through these passageways boldly and with intention.
Today, I see young women rising up out of their SlutWalks and coming down from their 7-inch heels to march against newly hatched social injustices many had thought as old-fashioned as Sojourner Truth’s advice.
Only time will answer the question: Will they embrace their power, know their history, and create the future of their choice?
This post is part of the International Women's Day blog carnival in partnership with Ms. Foundation for Women.