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You've Got a Long Way to Go, Baby!

What the next half century will bring for the women's movement.

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If you’re poor, you rely on a series of exhausted and generous grandparents, unemployed husbands, over-worked sisters, and goodhearted neighbors.  Unlike every nation in Europe, we have no guaranteed preschool or after-school childcare, despite our endless political platitudes about how much we cherish our children. And sadly, childcare has remained off the national political agenda since 1971. It was never even mentioned during the 2012 presidential debates.

And let’s not forget women’s wages. In 1970, women earned, on average,  59% of men’s wages. More than four decades later, the figure is  77%.  When a university recently invited me to give a keynote address at a conference, they asked what fee I expected. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.  The best advice I got -- from my husband -- was: “Just tell them to give you 77% of whatever they’re paying the male keynote speaker.”  That response resulted in a generous honorarium.

But what about all the women -- widowed, divorced, or single -- who can’t draw on a second income from a man?  How can we claim we’ve reached the 1970 equal pay demand when 70% of the  nation’s poor are women and children? This isn’t about glass ceilings. What concerns me are all the women glued to the sticky floor of dead-end jobs that provide no benefits and no health insurance, women who, at the end of each month, have to decide whether to pay the electricity bill or feed their children.

As an activist and historian, I’m still shocked that women activists (myself included) didn’t add violence against women to those three demands back in 1970. Fear of male violence was such a normal part of our lives that it didn’t occur to us to highlight it -- not until feminists began, during the 1970s, to publicize the wife-beating that took place behind closed doors and to reveal how many women were raped by strangers, the men they dated, or even their husbands.   

Nor did we see how any laws could end it.  As Rebecca Solnit  wrote in a powerful essay recently, one in five women will be raped during her lifetime and gang rape is pandemic around the world.  There are now laws against rape and violence toward women. There is even a U.N. international resolution on the subject.  In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna  declared that violence against girls and women violated their human rights.  After much debate, member nations ratified the resolution and dared to begin calling supposedly time-honored “customs” -- wife beating, honor killings, dowry deaths, genital mutilation -- what they really are: brutal and gruesome crimes. Now, the nations of the world had a new moral compass for judging one another’s cultures. In this instance, the demands made by global feminists trumped cultural relativism, at least when it involved violence against women.

Still, little enough has changed.  Such violence continues to keep women from walking in public spaces. Rape, as feminists have always argued, is a form of social control, meant to make women invisible and shut them in their homes, out of public sight.  That’s why activists created “ take back the night” protests in the late 1970s.  They sought to reclaim the right to public space without fear of rape.  

The daytime  brutal rape and killing of a 23-year-old in India last December prompted the  first international protest around violence against women. Maybe that will raise the consciousness of some men. But it’s hard to feel optimistic when you realize how many rapes are still regularly being committed globally.

 
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