Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Next Wave: Feminism in the 21st Century, Parts I & II

Part I
Celebrating Women’s History Month: A Historical Overview of the Fight for Equal Rights

In July of 1848, a group of American women and men gathered at Seneca Falls, N.Y., to discuss the legal limitations imposed on American women at the time. They issued a statement known as the Declaration of Sentiments, which, like many other revolutionary documents in American history, draws directly on the Declaration of Independence. Their Declaration begins:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.


Today, the changes they made to the original Declaration of Independence may seem small and insignificant, but at this time in history, women could not vote, could not hold elected office, could not independently own or inherit property if married, had no protection against domestic violence, had no right to demand divorce or retain custody of children after the dissolution of a marriage, had to pay taxes without representation, were barred from attending a college or university, had few opportunities for gainful employment outside of the home, were required to be subordinate in the church as well as in the home and the public sphere, and were generally treated as chattel–no better than animals kept on a farm for breeding purposes.

From this, our society has certainly come far.

In 1920, as a result of decades of hard work by several generations of American women and men, American women finally won the right to take part in our electoral process through the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. One year later, Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (which later evolved into Planned Parenthood, in 1942). At this point in US history, birth control was illegal.

While there is evidence that Sanger herself was sympathetic to some aspects of the extremely popular eugenics movement of the early-to-mid 20th century, it is also important to note that the science of the time was considerably limited when it came to hereditary illnesses and that Sanger was aggressively opposed to eugenics based on racial bias. In a letter to philanthropist Albert Lasker in 1942, Sanger wrote:

I think it is magnificent that we are in on the ground floor, helping Negroes to control their birth rate, to reduce their high infant and maternal death rate, to maintain better standards of health and living for those already born, and to create better opportunities for those who will be born.


Anti-abortion rights activists and commentators frequently point out Sanger’s faults, while patently ignoring her contributions to the feminist movement in the United States. It is worth mentioning that several of Sanger’s positions are considered out of line with Planned Parenthood’s mission. These include incentives for the voluntary hospitalization and/or sterilization of people with untreatable, disabling, hereditary conditions, the adoption and enforcement of stringent regulations to prevent the immigration of the diseased and “feebleminded” into the United States, and the placing of so-called illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, and dope-fiends on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the strengthening of moral conduct (personally, I would argue that the United States penal system has realized this particular goal). PPFA offers the following statement on Sanger, to respond to allegations that its true mission includes some of Sanger’s less savory positions:

Planned Parenthood Federation of America finds these views objectionable and outmoded. Nevertheless, anti-family planning activists continue to attack Sanger, who has been dead for nearly 40 years, because she is an easier target than the unassailable reputation of PPFA and the contemporary family planning movement. However, attempts to discredit the family planning movement because its early 20th-century founder was not a perfect model of early 21st-century values I like disavowing the Declaration of Independence because its author, Thomas Jefferson, bought and sold slaves.


Most of the negative information that has been circulated about Sanger has been debunked, and what remains is a reflection of the common thought-patterns of the age in which she lived. Her contributions to the betterment of American women’s lives, on the other hand, are still very much alive. Thanks to the work of Sanger and her contemporaries, information about birth control became legally available in 1936 and the birth control pill was finally approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960, freeing millions of American women from dangerous numbers of pregnancies and in some cases, pregnancy altogether.

The 1960s and 70s are the era of feminism that most women of my generation are most familiar with. But in reality, most of us are not well-educated about what women were fighting for during this period in our history, aside from the obvious desire to work outside the home and gain some measure of fulfillment in life beyond being a wife and a mother.

In 1961, then President John F. Kennedy established the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. He appointed former first lady Eleanore Roosevelt as chairwoman. The Commission released its report in 1963, calling for improvement of the substantial workplace discrimination against women it had observed, including fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable childcare. To date, these recommendations have not been fully realized.

1963 was also the year Betty Friedan’s revolutionary book The Feminine Mystique hit the shelves. In it, she explored the dissatisfaction of middle-class housewives. Three years later, she helped found the National Organization for Women, which is still the largest and most influential women’s rights groups in the country.

Over the remainder of the 1960s, the fight crawled slowly forward, making dents in gender discrimination in employment, continuing to fight for the right of American women to have legal access to birth control, striking down segregated help wanted ads in newspapers, winning the right to divorce by “mutual consent” in California which spread to every state in the nation by 1985, and getting the states to pass laws regarding the equal division of common property.

Ms. Magazine, an icon of the modern feminist movement, was launched in 1971. It remains a significant outlet of the feminist movement. However, one year later, the movement was dealt a stunning setback–the Equal Rights Amendment (originally drafted in 1923 by Alice Paul), which was finally passed (by a margin of 354-24 in the House and 84-8 in the Senate), after 49 years of consistent defeat in every session of Congress, was sent to the states for ratification. It remained in limbo for ten years, until in 1982 it was officially considered dead, as it had failed to achieve ratification by the minimum of 38 states. It has been reintroduced into every session of Congress since and has remained buried in committee.

The 1970s saw continued success in the fight against workplace discrimination, including discrimination against pregnant women, Congress passed Title IX barring discrimination on the basis of gender in schools, the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade established a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion, and the first marital rape law was enacted in Nebraska in 1976 making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.

The “modern” feminist movement started to decline in the 1980s. The ERA died in the states, and few strides were made by women’s rights advocates. Among those that were successful were the establishment of EMILY’s List, a financial network for pro-choice Democratic women running for national political office, and the Supreme Court decision in the case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson which found that sexual harassment was a form of job discrimination.

The decline continued in the 1990s. A second abortion-related Supreme Court case, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, reaffirmed the court’s decision in Roe v. Wade and overturned Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act of 1989, and The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 strengthened federal penalties on sex offenders, providing funding for services to rape and domestic violence victims, and provided for special training for police officers.

Enter the 21st century. The ERA is still on the table, abortion rights are being chipped away at slowly but surely (and many believe that contraception will be the next step for anti-family planning activists), women still hold only about 15% of all national elected political offices while we make up over 50% of the national population, one in six American women will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape in her lifetime, paid maternity leave is still a rarity, and many American women do not yet have access to affordable quality childcare. Simultaneously, some men are starting to wake up to the fact that they too have been forced into certain roles and stereotypes by our patriarchal culture, and are beginning to fight back.

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Part II
Rape and What We Can Do About It

Due to the egregious abortion ban recently signed into law in South Dakota, which does not allow for legal abortions in cases of rape and incest, discussions of rape and its prevalence in our society, as well as its effects, have increased almost exponentially with each day that passes. (For the record, I agree that this lack of exception is wrong, but also believe that any law restricting a woman’s access to a safe and legal abortion is a violation of existing law and of basic human decency.) Rape is the proverbial “elephant in the room” when it comes to gender relations in the United States–the public doesn’t know how to handle it, and neither do victims.

In order to fully discuss what Women’s History Month is all about, it is necessary, if uncomfortable, to discuss the one crime that has had the most catastrophic effect on women in the United States, and all over the world. Since the beginning of our recorded history, men have used rape and the threat of rape to control and subjugate women.

Historically, rape has been considered, in most cultures, a crime against the victim’s husband or father, rather than against the victim herself. The crime of rape was usually punished with a monetary fine, paid to the male who “owned” the female victim. Another common “punishment” would force the rapist to marry the victim, in order to restore honor to her family. Over time, this has changed in most of the Western world, but the cultural connotations remain in much of the world, including the West.

Rape is generally defined as sexual intercourse with a woman by a man without her consent and chiefly by force or deception. This definition has broadened in recent years to include other instances of sexual assault other than those perpetrated by a man against a woman, but the vast majority of rapes fit the old definition. While both genders are susceptible, 90% of all rape victims in the United States are women. In addition to this, while male victims make up the remaining 10%, the majority of the perpetrators of those rapes are men. Types of rape include stranger rape (when the rapist is unknown to the victim), acquaintance rape (when the rapist is known, but only in passing), date rape (when the rapist is dating the victim or has been on a date with the victim, but is not the serious partner of the victim), multiple rape (when multiple rapists attack one woman, together), and marital rape (when the rapist is the victim’s husband or intimate partner). While the law makes these distinctions, it is important to keep in mind that rape is rape, regardless of how well the victim knows the perpetrator.

It is vital to remember that rape is an act of violence that uses sex as a weapon, not a sex act, and this distinction is central to any serious discussion of the prevalence of rape in our culture. Rape is about control, domination, humiliation, and degradation–not sex. Because control and domination of women by men is integral to any patriarchal system of social order, it stands to reason that men, through their own indoctrination by our patriarchal culture, have been trained to see women as property, or as somehow less than human or less than themselves, and that all men who have been raised this way have the capacity to rape. They have the capacity to commit this crime because they have been taught to view women as subordinate, and rape is a very effective tool for demeaning a woman and destroying her sense of self, effectively shutting down her capacity for self-governance. While it is certainly true that most men do not rape, and that many men oppose patriarchal social structure, it is also true that not enough male Americans have joined feminist activists in working to end rape, once and for all, in this country.

Many men become defensive when confronted with this information. This is understandable, as most men are decent, honorable human beings who have no desire to abuse women or anyone else. However, this defensive behavior is counter-productive to the goal of changing our culture for the better–for women, and for men.

It is time for an honest discussion in this country about the social conditions that allow rape to flourish and how we can change this country so American women do not have to live with constant fear. One in six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape. One American woman is raped every three to eight minutes (this statistic has been computed by RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, using numbers compiled by the US Department of Justice’s National Crime Victimization Survey for 2003-2004). 90% of all rape victims are women. Of these, approximately 40% are under the age of 18, and 80% are under the age of 30. These statistics are based on limited resources, as less than half of all rapes committed in the United States are reported to the authorities.

While you are reading this, a woman is being raped somewhere in the United States.

In 1992, Congress decided what kind of crime constituted a hate crime. They declared a hate crime as a crime in which “the defendant’s conduct was motivated by hatred, bias, or prejudice, based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals” (HR 4797). Disabled persons were added to the list in 1994 by the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.

Putting the pieces together, rape is a crime based on prejudice toward women formed on the basis that the female gender is inferior to the male gender. It is thus primarily perpetrated by males upon women for the purpose of exerting control and domination. By this definition, rape qualifies, without question, as a hate crime according to the United States Congress. Rape perpetrated by men against male victims is often motivated by the same prejudice, even though the victims are male.

However, rape victims are often treated with disturbing callousness by the public and by authorities. In the recent past, many states have enacted laws barring questioning of the victim’s sexual history (unless it is determined that this evidence is absolutely necessary, such as in cases where the victim has had past consensual sexual contact with the accused) as well as court-mandated psychiatric evaluations of victims. When a news story about an alleged rape makes the television news, many of us sit in our living rooms automatically questioning the validity of the accuser’s claim.

In the media, female rape victims are often referred to as “beautiful,” “pretty,” “attractive,” “bright,” “charming,” and “vivacious” (amongst other terms)–all words which boil the essence of who she is down to her looks and “feminine” personality. Male rape victims suffer no such ridiculous characterization. They are referred to as what they are: male rape victims.

This misogynistic use of language makes it clear how our society as a whole views the crime of rape. When a woman’s looks are discussed as a valid part of the crime committed against her, the message is that rape is about sex, and sexual attraction. It is not. Rape is about violence. Male victims are not referred to as “attractive” or “charming.” They are allowed to be seen as victims of a heinous crime, while female victims are not. This is just another example among many of how our patriarchal culture values men over women. Female rape victims are assumed to have been “asking for it” while male victims are human beings who have been brutally abused.

Because the vast majority of rapes committed in the United States are perpetrated by men, it is important to ask why this is the case. What is it about men that makes them use sex as a weapon? What is it about men that makes them abuse women and want to control and dominate them? While we are raised to believe that men are just naturally more aggressive than women, I do not think that this is the case.

I did an experiment today. I took my two-year old daughter to the toy store and took a look around. I found what I expected to find, but it was still disturbing.

The “girl” section of the store had an array of items, including: Barbie dolls, other “baby” dolls (complete with accessories like strollers, bottles, and other real-life baby necessities), dress-up clothes (princess gowns, high heels, “play” make-up), “kitchen” play-sets with stoves and miniature fake food, and my personal favorite, a genuine Mr. Clean “play” mop and accessories. Everything was pink and purple and pretty and delicate and perfectly designed to create the next generation of domesticated females. I decided to walk across the aisle to the “boy” section, and the difference was nothing short of appalling. I scanned down the shelves loaded with Home Depot toy tool sets, trucks and cars and motorcycles, toy guns and swords, action figures, and sporting goods and shook my head in disgust.

One of my good male friends was there with us, and I commented about it to him. He looked at me and said, “Well, girls just like that stuff.”

I asked him, “Why do you think they like it? Do you think they like it because it just comes naturally to them to want to pretend to mop the floor? Or do you think that maybe girls are indoctrinated by society, just like boys, to ‘like’ certain things, so that they will fit properly into the roles that society has created for them?”

He told me he had never thought about it like that.

For my part, I steered my daughter clear of the Mr. Clean mop set and the “Little Mommy” baby doll and toward the soccer balls.

So, my position (which was solidified by this shopping experience) is that we give our little boys guns and knives and tools to play with because that’s what our parents did and what their parents did and we assume it is just the “right” way and will have no long-term effect on them. We give our little girls toys that teach them to be pretty and subservient and tame, and then we are surprised when they are abused by men when they enter the real world. And we wonder why men abuse them, all the while ignoring the fact that we have taught our sons that doing this is okay.

When a boy hits a little girl on the playground, and she comes to tell us, we laugh and tell her it’s okay and it “just means he likes her.” This response trains our daughters to believe that violence from men is fair-play, and that if men are violent with them, it means that they are loved.

By joining together, we can stop this cycle that teaches young boys how to “be men” by being aggressive and violent and through this, we can seriously reduce the incidence of sexual assault in the United States. We can stop teaching our daughters that violence is acceptable and that their interests should revolve around cooking, cleaning, and child rearing.

If we can teach our kids that violence is never acceptable, that men and women (boys and girls) are equals in life, and that archaic gender-roles are limiting and dangerous, we can really find out the limits of their potential. We can let them grow into the people they want to be, instead of the people we want them to be.

(To be continued...)

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