The women’s rights movement–like other civil rights movements–continued beyond the 1960s. In this 1970 piece from the Washington Post, activist Gloria Steinem argues for the continuation of the fight for women’s liberation.
THIS IS THE YEAR of Women’s Liberation. Or at least, it’s the year the press has discovered a movement that has been strong for several years now, and reported it as a small, privileged, rather lunatic event instead of the major revolution in consciousness–in everyone’s consciousness, male or female–that I believe it truly is.
It is a movement that some call “feminist” but should more accurately be called humanist; a movement that is an integral part of rescuing this country from its old, expensive patterns of elitism, racism and violence.
The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn. We are filled with the popular wisdom of several centuries just past, and we are terrified to give it up. Patriotism means obedience, age means wisdom, woman means submission, black means inferior: these are preconceptions imbedded so deeply in our thinking that we honestly may not know that they are there.
Unfortunately, authorities who write textbooks are sometimes subject to the same popular wisdom as the rest of us. They gather their proof around it, and end by becoming the theoreticians of the status quo. Using the most respectable of scholarly methods, for instance, English scientists proved definitively that the English were descended from the angels while the Irish were descended from the apes.
It was beautifully done, complete with comparative skull measurements, and it was a rationale for the English domination of the Irish for more than 100 years. I try to remember that when I’m reading Arthur Jensen’s current and very impressive work on the limitations of black intelligence, or when I’m reading Lionel Tiger on the inability of women to act in groups.
It wasn’t easy for the English to give up their mythic superiority. Indeed, there are quite a few Irish who doubt that they have done it yet. Clearing our minds and government policies of outdated myths is proving to be at least as difficult, but it is also inevitable. Whether It’s woman’s secondary role in society or the paternalistic role of the United States in the world, the old assumptions just don’t work any more.
Part of living this revolution is having the scales fall from our eyes. Every day we see small obvious truths that we had missed before. Our histories, for instance have generally been written for and about white men. Inhabited countries were “discovered” when the first white male set foot there, and most of us learned more about any one European country than we did about Africa and Asia combined.
I confess that, before some consciousness-changing of my own, I would have thought that the women’s history courses springing up around the country belonged in the same cultural ghetto as home economics. The truth is that we need Women’s studies almost as much as we need Black Studies, and for exactly the same reason: too many of us have completed a “good” education believing that everything from political power to scientific discovery was the province of white males.
We believed. for instance, that the vote had been “given” to women in some whimsical, benevolent fashion. We never learned about the long desperation of the women’s struggle, or about the strength and wisdom of the women who led it. We knew a great deal more about the outdated, male supremacist theories of Sigmund Freud than we did about societies where women had equal responsibility, or even ruled.
“Anonymous,” Virginia Woolf once said sadly, “was a woman.”
A Black Parallel
I DON’T MEAN to equate our problems of identity with those that flowed from slavery. But, as Gunnar Myrdal pointed out in his classic study “An American Dilemma,” “In drawing a parallel between the position of, and feeling toward, women and Negroes, we are uncovering a fundamental basis of our culture.”
Blacks and women suffer from the same myths of childlike natures; smaller brains; inability to govern themselves, much less white men; limited job skills; identity as sex objects,and so on. Ever since slaves arrived on these shores and were given the legal status of wives — that is, chattel– our legal reforms have followed on each other’s heels –with women, I might add, still lagging considerably behind.
President Nixon’s Commission on women concluded that the Supreme Court sanctions discrimination against women — discrimination that it long ago ruled unconstitutional in the case of blacks–but the commission report mains mysteriously unreleased by the White House. An equal rights amendment now up again before the Senate has been delayed by a male-chauvinist Congress for 47 years. Neither blacks nor women have role-models In history: models of individuals who have been honored in authority outside the home.
As Margaret Mead has noted, the only women allowed to be dominant and respectable at the same time are widows. You have to do what society wants you to do, have a husband who dies, and then have power thrust upon you through no fault of your own. The whole thing seems very hard on the men.
Before we go on to other reasons why Women’s Liberation Is Men’s Liberation, too –and why this incarnation of the women’s movement is inseparable from the larger revolution — perhaps we should clear the air of afew more myths — the myth that women are biologically inferior, for instance. In fact, an equally good case could be made for the reverse.
Women live longer then men. That’s when the groups being studied are always being cited as proof that we work them to death, but the truth is that women live longer than men even when the groups being studied are monks and nuns. We survived Nazi concentration camps better, are protected against heart attacks by our female hormones, are less subject to many diseases, withstand surgery better and are so much more durable at every stage of life that nature conceives 20 to 50 per cent more males just to keep the balance going.
The Auto Safety Committee of the American Medical Association has come to the conclusion that women are better drivers because they’re less emotional than men. I never thought I would hear myself quoting the AMA, but that one was too good to resist.
I don’t want to prove the superiority of one sex to another: that would only be repeating a male mistake. The truth is that we’re just not sure how many of our differences are biological and how many are societal. What we do know is that the differences between the two sexes, like the differences between races, are much less great than the differences to be found within each group.
Chains of Mink
A SECOND MYTH is that women are already being treated equally in this society. We ourselves have been guilty of perpetuating this myth, especially at upper economic levels where women have grown fond of being lavishly maintained as ornaments and children. The chains may be made of mink and wall-to-wall carpeting, but they are still chains.
The truth is that a woman with a college degree working full time makes less than a black man with a high school degree working full time. And black women make least of all. In many parts of the country — New York City, for instance–a woman has no legally guaranteed right to rent an apartment, buy a house, get accommodations in a hotel or be served in a public restaurant. She can be refused simply because of her sex.
In some states, women get longer Jail sentences for the same crime. Women on welfare must routinely answer humiliating personal questions; male welfare recipients do not. A woman is the last to be hired, the first to be fired. Equal pay for equal work is the exception. Equal chance for advancement, especially at upper levels or at any level with authority over men, is rare enough to be displayed in a museum.
As for our much-touted economic power, we make up only 5 per cent of the Americans receiving $10,000 a year or more, and that includes all the famous rich widows. We are 51 per cent of all stockholders, a dubious honor these days, but we hold only 18 per cent of the stock–and that is generally controlled by men.
In fact, the myth of economic matriarchy in this country is less testimony to our power than to resentment of the little power we do have.
You may wonder why we have submitted to such humiliations all these years; why, indeed, women will sometimes deny that they are second-class citizens at all. The answer lies in the psychology of second-classness. Like all such groups, we come to accept what society says about us. We believe that we can make it in the world only by “Uncle Tom-ing,” by a real or pretended subservience to white males.
Even when we come to understand that we, as individuals, are not second class, we still accept society’s assessment of our group — a phenomenon psychologists refer to as internalized aggression. From this stems the desire to be the only woman in an office, an academic department or any other part of the man’s world. From this also stems women who put down their sisters–and my own profession of journalism has some of them.
Inhumanity to Man
I DON’T WANT to give the impression, though, that we want to join society exactly as it is. I don’t think most women want to pick up briefcases and march off to meaningless, depersonalized jobs. Nor do we want to be drafted–and women certainly should be drafted; even the readers of Seventeen magazine were recently polled as being overwhelmingly in favor of women in national service– to serve in a war like the one in Indochina.
We want to liberate men from those inhuman roles as well. We want to share the work and responsibility, and to have men share equal responsibility for the children. Probably the ultimate myth is that children must have fulltime mothers, and that liberated women make bad ones. The truth is that most American children seem to be suffering from too much mother and too little father.
Women now spend more time with their homes and families than in any other past or present society we know about. To get beck to the sanity of the agrarian or joint family system, we need free universal day care. With that aid, as in Scandinavian countries, and with laws that permit women equal work and equal pay, man will be relieved of his role as sole breadwinner and stranger to his own children.
No more alimony. Fewer boring wives. Fewer childlike wives. No more so-called “Jewish mothers,” who are simply normally ambitious human beings with all their ambitiousness confined to the house. No more wives who fall apart with the first wrinkle because they’ve been taught that their total identity depends on their outsides No more responsibility for another adult human being who has never been told she is responsible for her own life, and who sooner or later says some version of, “If I hadn’t married you, I could have been a star.” Women’s Liberation really is Men’s Liberation, too.
The family system that will emerge is a great subject of anxiety. Probably there will be a variety of choices. Colleague marriages, such as young people have now, with both partners going to law-school or the Peace Corps together, is one alternative. At least they share more than the kitchen and the bedroom. Communes; marriages that are valid for the child-rearing years only–there are many possibilities.
The point is that Women’s Liberation is not destroying the American family. It is trying to build a human compassionate alternative out of its ruins.
ONE FINAL myth that women are more moral than men. We are not more moral; we are only uncorrupted by power. But until the old generation of male chauvinists is out of office women in positions of power can increase our chances of peace a great deal.
I personally would rather have had Margaret Mead as President during the past six years of Vietnam than either Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. At least she wouldn’t have had her masculinity to prove. Much of the trouble this country is in has to do with the masculine mystique: The idea that manhood somehow depends on the subjugation of other people. It’s a bipartisan problem.
The challenge to all of us is to live a revolution, not to die for one. There has been too much killing, and the weapons are now far too terrible. This revolution has to change consciousness, to upset the injustice of our current hierarchy by refusing to honor it. And it must be a life that enforces a new social justice.
Because the truth is that none of us can be liberated if other groups are not. Women’s Liberation is a bridge between black and white women, but also between the construction workers and the suburbanites, between Mr. Nixon’s Silent Majority and the young people it fears. Indeed, there’s much more injustice and rage among working-class women than among the much publicized white radicals.
Women are sisters; they have many of the same problems, and they can communicate with each other. “You only get radicalized,” as black activists always told us, “on your own thing.” Then we make the connection to other injustices in society. The women’s movement is an important revolutionary bridge, and we are building it.
Questions for consideration:
- How does Steinem compare the issue of women’s rights with that of racial equality? What evidence does she use to support her claims?
- What are the “chains of mink” she describes?
- How, according to Steinem, will women’s liberation “build a human compassionate alternative” to the American family?