10 Defining Feminist Moments of 2009

This year, I’m not keeping score of feminist victories and defeats. That strategy feels artificially black-and-white and imposes a false sense of closure on an ongoing process. Instead, I’m looking back on those times in 2009 when feminism felt strong and when feminists spoke out -- the times when feminists asserted ourselves and our belief in equality, often in the face of powerful opposition, and even when it seemed like no one was listening.

A feminist moment isn’t only when we’re dancing in the streets celebrating a victory, although that certainly counts. We also reaffirm our commitment as feminists when we continue to advocate for equality despite roadblocks, setbacks and challenges. A woman running for president of the United States is a defining feminist moment, and it is also one when she loses. At such turning points, we must reassess the state of our movement and rethink its direction. What follows is a list of some of my defining feminist moments for the year. They’re not all positive -- some, like the health care reform process, were mega-downers -- but they were the moments when I felt the most sisterhood.

1. Barack Obama’s inauguration

No, he is not the first woman president. He’s not even the first feminist president. But Obama’s progressive platform and his positions on the issues that Hillary Clinton and others brought to the campaign trail inspired me, and I celebrated with the rest of the nation when he was sworn in on January 8. This president was elected by women voters (pdf) -- he owes a debt in particular to blacks and Latinas, who turned out for him in record numbers -- and now we must continue to demand that he keep the promises he made before he moved to Washington. You can start by repealing the Hyde Amendment, Mr. President. 

2. Rihanna and Chris Brown

When a feminist issue has a celebrity face, many of us respectfully try to use the incident as a "teachable moment" to start conversations about the struggles of everyday people. So when the news broke about a battering incident involving the singer Rihanna and her then-boyfriend, fellow entertainer Chris Brown on February 8, it was a sad opportunity to have a discussion about domestic abuse and partner violence -- which affects more than 60,000 Americans every day – in the hope that by raising awareness of the problem, others could be helped.

Instead, many feminists found a teachable moment in a Boston Public Health Commission Report survey revealing that 46 percent of the teenage girls questioned felt Rihanna was responsible for what had happened. As a ninth-grader told the New York Times, “She probably made him mad for him to react like that." This response is not new, of course, but it was surprising to see its durability, especially with the widespread distribution of a leaked photograph showing Rihanna’s injuries. When Rihanna briefly reconciled with Brown, it was a stark reminder of how many women return to their batterers and how complex it is to sever even the most dysfunctional ties. In the end Rihanna did end the relationship, telling Dianne Sawyer, “I will say that to any young girl who is going through domestic violence, don't react off of love. Eff love. Come out of the situation and look at it in the third person and for what it really is.”

Despite the extent of Rihanna’s injuries, Brown will serve no time. He was sentenced to a fairly light five years of probation, a year-long domestic violence program, and 180 hours of community work, prompting NOW President Kim Gandy to note that it’s not only teenage girls who might need some enlightenment: “I think the message that ought to be out there is that we need a whole lot more education of judges and that we need to put more money and energy into stopping the cycle of violence."

3. The tragic murder of Dr. George Tiller

On May 31, Scott Roeder, a pro-life activist associated with Operation Rescue, walked into the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas and shot Dr. George Tiller. Tiller had been shot before, and defiantly returned to his clinic the next day in order to continue his work. This time, the killer succeeded in cutting down a feminist hero.

Tiller’s clinic, which had helped thousands of women in need, was one of the few in the country providing late-term abortion services and as a result was under constant threat from abortion opponents. The murder was not only a stark reminder of the violence directed at those who dedicate themselves to providing safe, legal abortions, but also a wake-up call to those who had mistakenly thought the struggle over reproductive rights was over. In the days following Tiller’s death I had many discussions with women, self-identified feminists, who had no idea that medically necessary late-term abortions were so difficult to obtain, and little grasp of the hardships low-income women and teens have in even getting information about their options. The horror over Tiller’s murder opened the eyes of many to just how much Roe v. Wade has been drained of meaning and how close we are to losing rights that were hard-won, and for that I am grateful. At a rally I attended in New York City, feminist leaders spoke of carrying on his legacy and supporting all of those who work for reproductive equality with a passion that gave me renewed faith in our movement. "Trust women" was George Tiller’s motto, and I’m doing just that.  

4. Hillary Clinton: 'My husband is not the secretary of state. I am.'

When Hillary Clinton, taking questions while on a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, reminded a questioner that she, not her ex-husband Bill Clinton, is the Secretary of State of the United States, it was a "You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby" moment that resonated for many women.

And let’s not forget why she was there, on August 9, 2009: to draw attention to women who are victims of rape as a weapon of war. Clinton has been doggedly attentive to this issue, drafting and passing a United Nations Security Council resolution to protect women in conflict situations and allocating $18 million to prevent and respond to gender-based violence in the DRC, while noting that the tactic has also been used in Bosnia, Burma and Sri Lanka. In her remarks to the UN after her trip, explicitly addressed one of the excuses often used for a lack of action against gender violence, saying, “It is time for all of us to assume our responsibility to go beyond condemning this behavior, to taking concrete steps to end it, to make it socially unacceptable, to recognize it is not cultural -- it is criminal."

5. Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation to the Supreme Court of the United States

Despite right-wingers who had issues with Judge Sotomayor’s "wisdom," this Latina with 30 years of experience on the bench was confirmed to the court by a 68-to-31 vote in the Senate on August 6, 2009, and sworn in two days later. Prior to her appointment, Sotomayor was known for being a fearless litigator. She ended the Major League Baseball strike in 1995 by issuing an injunction against the owners and she renewed consideration of asylum claims from Chinese women fleeing forced sterilization and other forms of birth control. She has the potential to be an important ally in her new position. The new court lineup has heard relatively few cases as yet, but there is already reason to feel progress has been made -- after a recent incident in which Sotomayor interrupted Ruth Ginsburg (she quickly apologized), not one news outlet called it a "catfight."

6. Roman Polanksi’s arrest for an outstanding warrant on a sexual assault charge

Convicted felon Roman Polanski, having successfully evaded capture for 31 years by hiding out at parties and on film sets, was taken into custody in Switzerland on September 26, 2009. One would expect the arrest of a man convicted of sexual assault on a minor to be a feminist victory. However, the apologies, excuses and just plain disinformation spread by his defenders was a depressing reminder of the power of celebrity and the casual treatment of acquaintance rape, even if one of the acquaintances is a drugged 13-year-old. Worth noting: Actress and filmmaker Emma Thompson, once educated about the facts of the case, removed her name from a petition demanding Polanski’s release and apologized.  

7. Sarah Palin publishes 'Going Rogue'

Not only is she not going away, Sarah Palin is the most visible example of a troubling new brand of right-wing politics that employs feminist rhetoric in an attempt to distract from anti-woman policies. She’s the perfect spokesperson; in a culture that holds up the sexy mom as an ideal, who better to sell hate?

In her memoir Going Rogue, which hit stores on November 17, Palin cried "sexism" when her grasp of foreign policy was questioned while fervently supporting the discriminatory Republican party platform, sabotaging other women and being shocked that fellow mom Katie Couric would ask such difficult questions. It’s unnerving enough to watch the Pussycat Dolls talk about their empowering life choices, but to see a politician continue to drain feminist language of meaning is particularly alarming and discouraging. We need to rethink our own tools and strategies in order to respond. Maybe Demi Moore wants to run for something. Kidding! 

8. Five women win Nobel prizes

The Nobel Prize awards ceremony, which took place in Stockholm, Sweden on December 10, was considerably more gender-balanced this year, with a record number of women receiving the honor. The winners: Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider, with Jack Szostak, for medicine; Herta Müller for literature; Elinor Ostrom, with Oliver Williamson, for economics; and Ada Yonath, with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan and Thomas Steitz, for chemistry.

While it would have been nice to see some diversity (all five women are white), it was nonetheless an achievement worth celebrating, especially in the midst of a year when women were struggling elsewhere to be heard at all, much less recognized and rewarded. The Nobels still have a long way to go -- of the 785 laureates named since the Prizes were established in 1901, only 40 have been women. Still, this year was an almost 15 percent increase, and at that rate we should see parity around 2030.  

9. Recognition of women in combat roles

As the nature of warfare changes, American servicewomen have pushed the boundaries of their roles, leading raids, manning tank gunners, performing bomb disposal and engaging the enemy despite military policies aimed at keeping them off the battlefield. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with an unconventional enemy and an urban theater of operations, forced many commanding officers to abandon traditional gender restrictions and allow women access to assignments they would previously have been prevented from doing. The practice has been a fairly open secret for some time, but when the New York Times put "G.I. Jane" on the front page on August 15, the important attendant issues of this advancement were also highlighted. As the Times put it, “This quiet change has not come seamlessly -- and it has altered military culture on the battlefield in ways large and small. Women need separate bunks and bathrooms. They face sexual discrimination and rape, and counselors and rape kits are now common in war zones. Commanders also confront a new reality: that soldiers have sex, and some will be evacuated because they are pregnant."

I can’t be happy about war, and I am ambivalent about celebrating the advancement of women in the military. But as long as women choose to serve, I want them to have absolute equality within the armed services, and their needs and rights protected. I would also like the Times to stop describing female military professionals as "G.I. Jane," but I’m a crazy dreamer like that.  

10. Women fighting for healthcare equality in the House and the Senate

When House Speaker Nancy Pelosi allowed the prohibitive Stupak-Pitts amendment to be attached to the House version of the health care reform bill in order to gain the vote of anti-choice Democrat Bart Stupak, feminists responded with disbelief, anger and organizing. On Twitter, on Capitol Hill, on feminist blogs and yes, on the streets, it soon became clear that American women were angry, and tired of having to renegotiate our rights every few years. Women in the Senate stepped up, proposing amendments and changes to the bill and questioning its sexism, while petitions and email campaigns circulated online.

The Women’s Media Center set up a fantastic blog that served as a clearinghouse for information and action; Senator Barbara Mikulski introduced an amendment to guarantee free preventive health care screenings for women; Kristen Gillibrand worked to prevent Stupak-like language from being added to the Senate bill; and Debbie Stabenow explained to a colleague that, while he might not see the need for maternity care, his mother probably had. 

But it wasn’t enough. Like Pelosi, Senate leader Harry Reid made a deal--this time to satisfy anti-choice Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska--that sacrificed reproductive rights to Nelson’s religious beliefs and added Stupak-like language to the Senate bill. We are now left with--and expected to support-- legislation that NOW President Terry O’Neill describes as "A health insurance bill for half the population and a sweeping anti-abortion law for the rest of us." If we didn’t know then, we know now: A Democratic majority is meaningless if it’s not a feminist, pro-choice majority. Why yes, I’ll be giving to Emily’s List this year.  

Other notable moments and developments: the confirmation of Rev. Mary Douglas Glasspool as the bishop of the diocese of Los Angeles; the murder of Neda Agha-Sultan during the Iranian election protests; the return of Lilith Fair; the increasing volume and clarity of transwomen (and transmen) articulating their agenda and issues; the marriage equality debate.  

Many thanks to the women who sent me their ideas and thoughts as I was making this list. I couldn’t include everything but I encourage you to respond in the comments or on your own blog or Web site. What were your defining feminist moments of 2009?

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