“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
During 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. All of my Women’s History Month posts come from a place of profound appreciation for the shoulders I stand on. Women like Sojourner Truth who had so much courage, clarity of vision, and leadership savvy.
I found feminism when I was a desperate housewife in Odessa, Texas in the 1960’s. After volunteering for civil rights organizations, I had the epiphany that women should have civil rights too. I “discovered” the new Ms Magazine. Then, I joined the National Organization for Women a few years after its 1966 founding, 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 setbacks ahead.
Fast forward to Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking presidential campaign that didn’t take women into the presidency, but came close enough that no one will ever again ask whether women are smart enough or tough enough to do the job. Today even right-wing Republicans realize putting a woman on the ticket symbolizes electrifying change. Women earn 60% of college degrees, 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. Women hold just 17% of seats in Congress–the 2010 elections resulted in the first decline in over a decade–and under 25% of state legislative offices; 3% of top clout positions in mainstream media corporations and 15% of corporate board positions. We’re still waging a battle for reproductive rights, both at the state and federal levels. And despite gender equity laws, women earn 3/4ths of what men do while shouldering the lion’s share of responsibility for child rearing.
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 programs.
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. Second wave feminism opened so many doors and enabled women to have so many firsts that it is easy to think that all the problems have been solved. But now many well-educated, professional women step back from careers in the belief that having so many choices available means they have no responsibility to continue pushing forward.
When I was researching my book No Excuses, 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. You can’t win if you don’t run. 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.
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–and that will be good for everyone: men, women, children, society. But moments like this don’t last forever.
The unfinished business of this moment is for women to walk through those passageways boldly, with intention, and not “be talking about it.”
What history will we make this time?