We are in the midst of a cultural awakening about feminism and backlash, about race and sex and God and women and men. Evidence of this awakening abounds—the word feminism arises with increasing regularity, some advertisers are changing their approach in response to women and girls who are protesting their sexism, and the news is full of debates about just exactly what a woman’s role should be and who gets to say so. Our politics are heating up like a house afire because the plans the Religious Right put into place so long ago (described in detail by Susan Faludi in her invaluable book Backlash) are becoming more obvious and transparent. Everywhere you listen, there’s another conversation about sexism or racism or a combination of the two—a conversation about history and women’s rights and men’s power, about whiteness and privilege, about media and sex and violence. This is all good—very good. It means people are waking up to the reality that we have been sold a very pretty lie, and equality isn’t here. Not by a long shot.
But waking up—consciousness-raising—is just the first step. When I ask my students what they think we need to do to address inequality, their answer is that we must be aware of the messages around us. We must think critically about the media, about who is in power and what messages they are sending. This is good—as far as it goes. But that awareness goes by default to the privileged: to those with the time and the money to go to college, and the inclination to take classes and listen to presentations about gender. What about everyone else? What about the women whose lives are deeply affected by a culture that promotes rape in the media, makes it difficult to access reproductive care, and doesn’t provide the support necessary for a mother to work and care for her children? They do not have time to wake up—they are too busy working, too far removed from the privilege required to even realize that waking up could empower them.
What good, in the end, will awareness among the privileged be if it does not also bring action? If we debate endlessly about what defines sexism and whether it matters if women define themselves as feminists, about who opts out and who leans in and whether the Mommy Wars really exist, we shall continue living right where we are. Or worse—while I don’t think we’ll go back to a time when most women don’t work or expect to, we can go forward to a time in which no one living remembers the activism of the 1960s and 70s, and everyone living takes videos and memes promoting rape, sexual harassment, and objectification of women for granted. A time in which sexism and racism are so integrated into our technology and our policies that people don’t bother to question them, much less try to change them. A time when to be a woman means to live with the constant visual and political reminder that your body is for sex, but it doesn’t belong to you, and you have forgotten that you have the power to insist otherwise.
Let us awaken further, so that time never arrives.
Let us refuse to allow the words “free speech” to stop all conversation, and instead begin. Let us begin to educate all those who don’t already know about our history—about how we got here and why. Let us talk about the way Alice Paul was beaten and starved and jailed so that American women can vote. Let us talk about the way Sojourner Truth spoke of the sacredness and power of woman and insisted that she was a human being, with the same rights as any other—man or woman, black or white. Let us remember that Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked what good God’s gifts are to woman, if she is not allowed to use them. Let us praise Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem and Fannie Lou Hamer and Pauli Murray and Martha Griffiths and Ida Wells Barnett and Ella Baker and Lorena Weeks. Let us remember that the personal has always been political, and that laws guaranteeing equality don’t generally stick without a fight.
Let us remember, and then speak about the work left to be done—the unraveling of backlash, the push against rhetoric that would freeze women in our tracks, the definition of the boundaries between free speech and verbal abuse and harassment. Let us awaken and recognize that our media is bullying us and our politicians are limiting us and the spokespeople for the country’s dominant religion are saying our submission, not our empowerment, is God’s will.
Let us speak of another vision of God’s will—one in which all people are valued, and all are sacred. And let us do this with understanding and compassion, for our world has changed so very fast that many people do not understand what it can possibly mean if women and men do not have assigned roles. Let us awaken to fight backlash, but let us awaken also to compassion, to the sacred feminine ability to listen, to include, to understand. To heal and make whole.
Let us awaken, and finish the work that our sisters and brothers started.