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Feminism Has Just Started And It’s Not Stopping Now

No matter how hard the Right may try.

| Tue May 20, 2014 3:50 PM EDT
Women's suffragists parade down Fifth Avenue, New York, 1917.

[This essay is from Rebecca Solnit's new book, Men Explain Things to Me, and appears at TomDispatch.com with the permission of Haymarket Books and Dispatch Books. It was first published online on the TomDispatch website.]

The history of women's rights and feminism is often told as though it were a person who should already have gotten to the last milestone or has failed to make enough progress toward it. Around the millennium lots of people seemed to be saying that feminism had failed or was over. On the other hand, there was a wonderful feminist exhibition in the 1970s entitled "Your 5,000 Years Are Up." It was a parody of all those radical cries to dictators and abusive regimes that your [fill in the blank] years are up. It was also making an important point.

Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth—and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has 999 miles to go and will never get anywhere.

It takes time. There are milestones, but so many people are traveling along that road at their own pace, and some come along later, and others are trying to stop everyone who's moving forward, and a few are marching backward or are confused about what direction they should go in. Even in our own lives we regress, fail, continue, try again, get lost, and sometimes make a great leap, find what we didn't know we were looking for, and yet continue to contain contradictions for generations.

The road is a neat image, easy to picture, but it misleads when it tells us that the history of change and transformation is a linear path, as though you could describe South Africa and Sweden and Pakistan and Brazil all marching along together in unison. There is another metaphor I like that expresses not progress but irrevocable change: it's Pandora's box, or, if you like, the genies (or djinnis) in bottles in the Arabian Nights. In the myth of Pandora, the usual emphasis is on the dangerous curiosity of the woman who opened the jar—it was really a jar, not a box the gods gave her—and thereby let all the ills out into the world.

Sometimes the emphasis is on what stayed in the jar: hope. But what's interesting to me right now is that, like the genies, or powerful spirits, in the Arabian stories, the forces Pandora lets out don't go back into the bottle. Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge and they are never ignorant again. (Some ancient cultures thanked Eve for making us fully human and conscious.) There's no going back. You can abolish the reproductive rights women gained in 1973, with Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion—or rather ruled that women had a right to privacy over their own bodies that precluded the banning of abortion. But you can't so easily abolish the idea that women have certain inalienable rights.

Interestingly, to justify that right, the judges cited the Fourteenth Amendment, the constitutional amendment adopted in 1868, as part of the post-Civil War establishment of rights and freedoms for the formerly enslaved. So you can look at the antislavery movement—with powerful female participation and feminist repercussions—that eventually led to that Fourteenth Amendment, and see, more than a century later, how that amendment comes to serve women specifically. "The chickens come home to roost" is supposed to be a curse you bring on yourself, but sometimes the birds that return are gifts.

Thinking Out of the Box

What doesn't go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can't convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind. Sometimes legal, political, economic, environmental changes follow upon those changes, though not always, for where power rests matters. Thus, for example, most Americans polled would like to see economic arrangements very different from those we have, and most are more willing to see radical change to address climate change than the corporations that control those decisions and the people who make them.

But in social realms, imagination wields great power. The most dramatic arena in which this has taken place is rights for gays, lesbians, and transgender people. Less than half a century ago, to be anything but rigorously heterosexual was to be treated as either criminal or mentally ill or both, and punished severely. Not only were there no protections against such treatment, there were laws mandating persecution and exclusion.

These remarkable transformations are often told as stories of legislative policy and specific campaigns to change laws. But behind those lies the transformation of imagination that led to a decline in the ignorance, fear, and hatred called homophobia. American homophobia seems to be in just such a steady decline, more a characteristic of the old than the young. That decline was catalyzed by culture and promulgated by countless queer people who came out of the box called the closet to be themselves in public. As I write this, a young lesbian couple has just been elected as joint homecoming queens at a high school in Southern California and two gay boys were voted cutest couple in their New York high school. This may be trivial high school popularity stuff, but it would have been stunningly impossible not long ago.

It's important to note that the very idea that marriage could extend to two people of the same gender may only be possible because feminists broke out marriage from the hierarchical system it had been in and reinvented it as a relationship between equals. Those who are threatened by marriage equality are, many things suggest, as threatened by the idea of equality between heterosexual couples as same-sex couples. Liberation is a contagious project, speaking of birds coming home to roost.

Homophobia, like misogyny, is still terrible, just not as terrible as it was in, say, 1970. Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. It involves being hopeful and motivated and keeping eyes on the prize ahead. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don't need to or can't go down it. You can. We have.

We have so much further to go, but looking back at how far we've come can be encouraging. Domestic violence was mostly invisible and unpunished until a heroic effort by feminists to out it and crack down on it a few decades ago. Though it now generates a significant percentage of the calls to police, enforcement has been crummy in most places—but the ideas that a husband has the right to beat his wife and that it's a private matter are not returning anytime soon. The genies are not going back into their bottles. And this is, really, how revolution works. Revolutions are first of all of ideas.

A Full-Fledged War Over Gender Roles

The great anarchist thinker David Graeber recently wrote,

"What is a revolution? We used to think we knew. Revolutions were seizures of power by popular forces aiming to transform the very nature of the political, social, and economic system in the country in which the revolution took place, usually according to some visionary dream of a just society. Nowadays, we live in an age when, if rebel armies do come sweeping into a city, or mass uprisings overthrow a dictator, it's unlikely to have any such implications; when profound social transformation does occur—as with, say, the rise of feminism—it's likely to take an entirely different form. It's not that revolutionary dreams aren't out there. But contemporary revolutionaries rarely think they can bring them into being by some modern-day equivalent of storming the Bastille. At moments like this, it generally pays to go back to the history one already knows and ask: Were revolutions ever really what we thought them to be?"

Graeber argues that they were not—that they were not primarily seizures of power in a single regime, but ruptures in which new ideas and institutions were born, and the impact spread. As he puts it, "The Russian Revolution of 1917 was a world revolution ultimately responsible for the New Deal and European welfare states as much as for Soviet communism." Which means that the usual assumption that the Russian revolution only led to disaster can be upended. He continues, "The last in the series was the world revolution of 1968—which, much like 1848, broke out almost everywhere, from China to Mexico, seized power nowhere, but nonetheless changed everything. This was a revolution against state bureaucracies, and for the inseparability of personal and political liberation, whose most lasting legacy will likely be the birth of modern feminism."

So the cat is out of the bag, the genies are out of their bottles, Pandora's box is open. There's no going back. Still, there are so many forces trying to push us back or at least stop us. At my glummest, I sometimes think women get to choose—between being punished for being unsubjugated and the continual punishment of subjugation. If ideas don't go back in the box, there's still been a huge effort to put women back in their place. Or the place misogynists think we belong in, a place of silence and powerlessness.

More than 20 years ago, Susan Faludi published a milestone of a book called Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. It described the double bind of women in that moment: they were getting congratulations for being fully liberated and empowered while being punished by a host of articles, reports, and books telling them that, in becoming liberated, they had become miserable; they were incomplete, missing out, losing, lonely, desperate. "This bulletin of despair is posted everywhere—at the newsstand, on the TV set, at the movies, in advertisements and doctors' offices and academic journals," wrote Faludi. "How can American women be in so much trouble at the same time that they are supposed to be so blessed?"

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Faludi's answer was, in part, that, though American women had not succeeded nearly as well as so many imagined in gaining equality, they weren't suffering nearly as much as was being reported either. The articles were backlash, an attempt to push back those who were still moving forward.

Such instructions on how women are miserable and doomed haven't faded away. Here's the magazine n+1 in late 2012 editorializing on a recent spate of backlash articles about women in the Atlantic:

"Listen up ladies, these articles say. We're here to talk to you in a way that's limited and denigrating. Each female author reports on a particular dilemma faced by the 'modern woman,' and offers her own life as a case study…The problems these women describe are different, but their outlook is the same: traditional gender relations are by and large bound to endure, and genuinely progressive social change is a lost cause. Gently, like a good friend, the Atlantic tells women they can stop pretending to be feminists now."

A volunteer police force tries to keep women in their place or put them back in it. The online world is full of mostly anonymous rape and death threats for women who stick out—who, for instance, participate in online gaming or speak up on controversial issues, or even for the woman who recently campaigned to put women's images on British banknotes (an unusual case, in that some of those who threatened her were actually tracked down and brought to justice). As the writer Caitlin Moran tweeted: "For those who say, 'why complain—just block?'—on a big troll day, it can be 50 violent/rape messages an hour."

Maybe there is a full-fledged war now, not of the sexes—the division is not that simple, with conservative women and progressive men on different sides—but of gender roles. It's evidence that feminism and women continue achieving advances that threaten and infuriate some people. Those rape and death threats are the blunt response; the decorous version is all those articles Faludi and n+1 cite telling women who we are and what we may aspire to—and what we may not.

And the casual sexism is always there to rein us in, too: a Wall Street Journal editorial blaming fatherless children on mothers throws out the term "female careerism." Salon writer Amanda Marcotte notes, "Incidentally, if you Google 'female careerism,' you get a bunch of links, but if you Google 'male careerism,' Google asks if you really meant 'male careers' or even 'mahle careers.' 'Careerism'—the pathological need to have paid employment—is an affliction that only affects women, apparently."

Then there are all the tabloids patrolling the bodies and private lives of celebrity women and finding constant fault with them for being too fat, too thin, too sexy, not sexy enough, too single, not yet breeding, missing the chance to breed, having bred but failing to nurture adequately—and always assuming that each one's ambition is not to be a great actress or singer or voice for liberty or adventurer but a wife and mother. Get back in the box, famous ladies. (The fashion and women's magazines devote a lot of their space to telling you how to pursue those goals yourself, or how to appreciate your shortcomings in relation to them.)

In her great 1991 book, Faludi concludes, "And yet, for all the forces the blacklash mustered…women never really surrendered." Conservatives are now largely fighting rearguard actions. They are trying to reassemble a world that never really existed quite as they imagine it (and to the extent that it did, it existed at the expense of all the people—the vast majority of us—forced to disappear, into the closet, the kitchen, segregated space, invisibility, and silence).

Thanks to demographics, that conservative push is not going to work, because genies don't go back into bottles and queer people are not going back into the closet and women aren't going to surrender. It's a war, but I don't believe we're losing it, even if we won't win it anytime soon either; rather, some battles are won, some are engaged, and some women are doing really well while others suffer. And things continue to change in interesting and sometimes even auspicious ways.

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