The Waves of Progress

womenshistoryPeriodically, we see a woman in the news asking, with incredulity, what year it is.  Do we really, in this year (2012 or 2015 or…), have to be asking this question or fighting this battle?  Wasn’t this resolved long ago?  Haven’t certain rights been won—like the right to vote and the right to sexual autonomy—so that we can use them as bedrock upon which to build a future, secure in our knowledge that equality and America go hand-in-hand?  Well, yes.  And no.  Progress comes in waves, and after each wave there is a counter-wave.  Because progress works this way, we hear and see the same ideas—and fight the same battles—many times in a century.

I am reminded of this fact most clearly when reading the words of women who fought these battles long before I was born.  Like the Resolutions of the women at the 1848 Convention for Women’s Rights in Seneca Falls, NY.  Here’s one we’re still working on:

“Resolved, That woman is man’s equal—was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such.”

Here, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott are getting to the core of the matter, as did Sojourner Truth in her famous speeches.  The sexist treatment of women is often justified with religious language and arguments that assign women to an inferior place within society based on the precept that God considers women inferior.  Or, you know, only suited for one function and not at her own discretion.  It’s been 167 years since Seneca Falls, and the resolution that the Creator intends for women to be the full equal of men in all spheres of life is still hotly contested by those who wish to keep American patriarchy in place.

As forward-thinking as the women at the Seneca Falls convention were in some respects, they were mired in their own biases:  they began their fight for women’s rights as abolitionists, yet they didn’t include any black women in their conference.  And some of the language in the Declaration of Sentiments is dripping with both classism and racism.  When they said “all women and men are created equal,” they were only thinking of some women and some men.

Fast-forward to 1963, and Betty Friedan is speaking about the sexual enjoyment that women in the 1920s reported, according to the famous Kinsey study.  Apparently, women with higher levels of education and self-actualization experienced higher levels of orgasm and happier marriages—the flappers were happy, equal, and free.  Here’s what Friedan had to say about it:

“The coincidental sexual emancipation of American men—the lifting of the veil of contempt and degradation from sexual intercourse—was surely related to the American male’s new regard for the American woman as an equal, a person like himself, and not just a sexual object.”

I could apply these sentences to just about any study of objectification in advertising and porn in our time, and it would sound as though they had been written just for that argument.  It would sound, indeed, as if the argument was urgent, and necessary, and deeply of our time.  Because it is.  And it isn’t.

Friedan, too, was buried in patriarchal thinking and unaware of it.  She questioned Freudian thinking as it applied to heterosexual women, recognizing the sexism built into his theories, but blindly accepted the homophobia built into the same theories.  So, even had we managed to fully dispel the feminine mystique—something we’ve made progress at, surely, but are still struggling with—the work of progress would not be done.

The argument feminists from Stanton to Truth to Friedan and beyond have made—that women and men are happier, that humanity is free and whole and society is served when women can be their full selves and contribute to society, and are seen as equal to men in every way—is about patriarchy.  And we’re going to be making this argument for some years to come.

Feminist work teaches patience, and faith, and hope.  Feminist work teaches love—because ultimately, that is what must underlie every wave of progress.  A love of self and humanity so deep and so wide that it pushes us all forward, gifting us with wholeness.  No matter how long it takes.

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