We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Men Explain Things to Me
Haymarket Books, $15.95 (cloth)
What Women Want: An Agenda for the Women’s Movement
Deborah L. Rhode
Oxford University Press, $29.95 (cloth)
Feminism Unfinished: A Short, Surprising History of American Women’s Movements
Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry
Liveright, $25.95 (cloth)
I have before me three books, which, taken all together, constitute a report on the current state of the feminist union. One of these books is a recital by a Stanford law professor of the discriminatory practices in the United States—social if not legal—from which women still suffer; the second, a collection of personal essays by a well-known journalist testifying to the quotidian sexism under which women also still labor; the third, a book written by three veteran feminist historians that concentrates heavily on the claim that the women who, between 1930 and 1960, organized for the labor and civil rights movements are the true first feminists of our time. The point of this thesis is to correct for the serious mistake these historians think the Second Wave made in allowing itself to be characterized as an all white, middle-class movement.
For me, a 1970s feminist, these books are a sobering reminder that the only way to keep the faith is to accept history’s need to take the same territory again and again and yet again before the universal fear of change is defeated; and to remember as well that each time around that fear is going to look almost exactly as it did the last time around. In short: it isn’t over till it’s over.
The first trumpet sound of modern feminism came in England in 1796 with the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman; the second, fifty years later in America, with the 1848 Seneca Falls convention for women’s rights organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton; the third, a century after that in France, in 1949, with the publication of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Each of these originating feminists was a visionary thinker with a philosophical cast of mind large enough to grasp with radical speed the immensity that women’s rights addressed. Wollstonecraft urged passionately that women become rational beings; Stanton that every woman exercise governance over her own inviolable self; Beauvoir that women cease to be Other—that is, become the central actors in their own lives.
In America, it was awakening to a sense of the democracy outraged that empowered the feminists of Stanton’s generation, made them the extraordinary activists they became, and went far to explain why feminism as a liberationist movement flourished in this country as nowhere else in the Western world. European feminists might have burned over their second-class status, but it was impossible for them—from Wollstonecraft’s generation to Beauvoir’s—to give up their longing for inclusion in the world as men had made it. Americans, by contrast, were moved to harden their hearts against the romantic pull of that world and concentrate instead on the denial of what had been promised them by right of birth into a democracy. This was the generation of feminists we call the First Wave, and it was nothing less than visionary. The passion and conviction that kept these women fighting for a set of legal and social recognitions that only included suffrage was likened to a religious calling. Devotion to the cause was what, for thousands of them, made life worth living.
However, it took sixty years just to gain the vote, and by the time it came, in 1920, the philosophical largeness of the nineteenth-century visionaries had drained away. Once suffrage was achieved, the movement—by then composed of single-issue organizers—fell back, exhausted. After all, what more was there to fight for? The radical feminist Alice Paul had an answer for that question. What was needed, she said, was an amendment to the Constitution that would guarantee equal rights for women in every sphere of life. But there was no more fight left in anyone—and the Equal Rights Amendment has yet to be passed into constitutional law.
The period following the First World War is one of the most interesting if not dispiriting in the history of women’s rights. On the one hand, this was the Progressive Era, a time of unprecedented social activism and political reform in the United States during which the crimes of machine politics, corporate monopoly, corruption in government, immigrant exploitation, and child labor galvanized activists and muckrakers alike. This was the movement into which women such as Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, Florence Kelley, and Eleanor Roosevelt threw themselves. Ironically enough, these very progressive women opposed the Equal Rights Amendment because they saw it as the enemy of the protective laws for women they were working to put in place.
At the same time, postwar disillusion had loosened social constraints and made prevail among young women who had no politics at all a false sense of agency. “I’m a free woman,” many boasted as they put on lipstick and slept around. And so they were—until they married or tried to enter a profession, whereupon they hit the same brick wall their mothers and grandmothers had.
Fifty more years pass—with the status of women lying so dormant it is as though all this history had never been—and we arrive at the 1970s, when another period of “original discovery” bursts upon us. Suddenly, as though awakening from a long sleep, a mass of women finds itself speaking the language of Elizabeth Stanton and Susan Anthony.
Looking back on those visionary years of the 1970s, what I find most remarkable is the swiftness with which the course of feminist thought and action widened and deepened. Almost from the beginning, the movement was philosophical in its nature, existential in its grasp. Yes, equal pay for equal work. Yes, pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Yes, legal abortion and an end to job discrimination. Yet surrounding all this down-to-earth politicking, one feminist perspective after another—from psychologists, historians, political scientists, and literary critics—seemed to be addressing the human condition through its analysis of the insecurity behind society’s need to agree that women would live a half life in order that men might gain the courage to pursue a whole one. A profound recognition of the fear of human loneliness as a motive force began to prevail among those of us who cared to think about it, and we applied that recognition to every imaginable aspect of life, even as we campaigned for full inclusion in the democracy.
Great movements for equality have paid lip service to the cause of women—and promptly ignored it.
This time around, the visionary years lasted a decade and a half before they began, in the late 1980s, to narrow down to single-issue organizing, the issue now being abortion instead of suffrage.
Fast-forward another twenty-five years, and we’re into what’s called Third Wave feminism—a non-movement movement whose participants seem to bear an uncanny resemblance to the young women who called themselves free women in the 1920s.
Now for the books in hand.
• • •
In April of 2008 the journalist Rebecca Solnit (a woman now in her fifties) posted a piece on the Internet called “Men Explain Things to Me.” It began with an anecdote about a man at a party who, upon being told of the publication of one of Solnit’s more famous books, began explaining her own subject to her. The presumption on his part was that, while he had not read her book, he, of course, knew more about it than she possibly could.
The essay, as the vernacular has it, went viral. Overnight, hundreds of posts appeared from women in a variety of professions attesting to the same experience. In England, Helen Lewis, deputy editor at the New Statesman, wrote of appearing on a television show about politics with a male journalist who afterward started explaining the lobby system to her as though she’d “won the opportunity to appear on a politics TV show in a raffle.” In the United States a website called “Academic Men Explain Things to Me” appeared on which scores of university women “shared their stories of being patronized, belittled, talked over, and more.”
“Men Explain Things to Me” became the title piece of Solnit’s new book of essays, almost all of which speak directly to the damage such practices inflict on women, especially young women:
It’s the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation.
Solnit was begged by friends to write this essay because younger women, they said, needed to hear this, they “needed to know that being belittled wasn’t the result of their own secret failings.” It was “the boring old gender wars” that were still in operation; wars that “nearly every woman faces every day” and encourage “a belief in . . . superfluity, an invitation to silence.”
The essays in this book are almost all written in the same spirit as the title piece, employing the same vocabulary and tone of voice to address a readership that seems to be grossly ignorant of insights that many if not most of us would have thought belong to Feminism 101 by now. “Well,” I thought, reading these pieces, “if that’s where we are that’s where we are.” But the sense of déjà vu was disorienting.
Deborah Rhode’s What Women Want: An Agenda for the Women’s Movement is, perhaps, the book I should have read first. It goes a long way toward accounting for the news that Rebecca Solnit seems to be bringing us from the front. Rhode’s book is a contemporary version of Susan Faludi’s 1991 Backlash. Instead of giving us an account of the progress women have made toward social and political equality, it concentrates on all in our society that remains resistant to that progress.
At the start Rhode tells us that she began teaching at Stanford Law School in 1979 as one of two women in a faculty of thirty-six. Today “about half of law students and 30 percent of full professors are female, and examples of blatant discrimination are rare.” It is this very success, she posits, that is the central problem for women today, as there is a “lack of consensus that there still is a serious problem” (emphasis original). This “‘no problem’ problem” prompted her to write the book because while
we have made major strides in identifying the barriers to equal opportunity . . . . we have done far less well in developing solutions. On virtually every major dimension of social status, financial well-being, and physical safety, women still fare worse than men. Sexual violence remains common, and reproductive rights are by no means secure. Women assume disproportionate burdens in the home and pay a price in the world outside it. Yet these issues are not cultural priorities.
Rhode then takes a well-researched look at the lives of women today through their status at work, in the family, and in positions of leadership. In the last fifty years, she tells us:
Women’s labor force participation has nearly doubled; they now earn 60 percent of college degrees; their representation in elite professions has grown from under 5 percent to over 30; the wage gap has been cut almost in half; and the percentage of wives out-earning husbands has grown from 4 to nearly 40 percent. Yet . . . . the labor force remains gender-segregated and gender-stratified, with women still overrepresented at the bottom and underrepresented at the top.
It is the persistence of social bias, Rhode posits, that, more often than not, prevents or circumvents the enforcement of legal reform. “Four decades’ experience has taught that what the Constitution protects in principle, society can deny in practice.”
Rhode strongly believes that the only solution to the problem is the return of a vital women’s movement. But here is the catch: “When polls give the dictionary definition of feminism as someone who supports political, economic, and social equality for women, most polls find 65–77 percent of women . . . consider themselves feminist.” But “the most recent polls offering no definition find that only about a quarter to a half of women identify as feminist.” This is because most people equate the word feminism with activism, and nowadays—in contradistinction to the ’70s and ’80s—that equation constitutes a “barrier to mobilizing Americans around gender issues.”
The most surprising of these books is Feminism Unfinished, written by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Linda Gordon, and Astrid Henry, three historians with a revisionist take on Second Wave feminism that sees the 1970s and ’80s as decades in which the great (if not criminal) mistake of the women’s movement lay in ignoring the problems of working-class women and women of color. With this book, I’m sorry to say, I felt myself quarreling almost from start to finish. Fortunately, the quarrel was stimulating.
The book is divided into three sections, each written by one of its authors. The first, and by far the longest, is Cobble’s account of the women who, between the 1930s and ’60s, worked as organizers and activists in the labor and civil rights movements. This section—a blizzard of names, dates, and accomplishments—is, in fact, a history of those movements as seen through the activities of the women who worked in government, business, unions, and advocacy groups, women who were first and foremost devoted to issues of class and race. Cobble, however, presents them as “social justice feminists,” as though women’s rights were somehow a motive force behind their work. This is badly misleading. True, there were always “women’s committees”—especially in the unions—that, year after year, proposed an “equal pay for equal work” bill before Congress. But none of these committees was prepared to put the rights of women before the rights of workers or blacks.
Many of Cobble’s social justice feminists did gather to help form the President’s Commission on the Status of Women. The Commission’s 1963 report—à la the Progressive Era—concentrated on “paid maternity leave, universal childcare services for women . . . and changes in Social Security that would allow housewives to build up equity as if they were earning wages.”
However, Cobble tells us, “by the 1970s, with a new feminist movement in full bloom, the PCSW report began to be described as timid and maternalist, meaning it overemphasized women’s home identities.” Then there was the fact that the PCSW did not endorse the Equal Rights Amendment, “and this failure made it appear conservative to many feminists,” who read the report as “reinforcing the gender status quo.” This, Cobble insists, is a misreading of the report. In my view it is not at all a misreading. The PCSW is more akin to Mother’s Day than it is to the Year of the Woman.
The second section, written by Linda Gordon, is a sketchy but recognizable account of the women’s liberation movement as most of us know it: the 1970s uprising that named sexism as the enemy and contributed materially to the historic struggle for women’s rights. Yet, once again, the author’s focus lies in the assertion that
middle-class whites did not take sufficiently into account the situation of women who experienced racism, low wages, ill health, and dangerous neighborhoods. Those poor and working-class women, in turn, frequently felt that the women’s liberation movement did not represent them.
For me, this is an extraordinarily skewed interpretation of this piece of history. The women’s movement of the ’70s was spontaneous combustion itself. If ever there was a moment when an idea whose time had come was viscerally present, this was it. The women who flocked, independent of one another, to the movement’s many and varied venues, were drawn—as though suddenly—by an intense and overwhelming need to speak out on behalf of their own experience. Among them were utopians and crazies and churchgoers: the radically reckless and the radically respectable alike. These many thousands were women who had nothing in common except that they were now awakened to their second-class citizenship and were calling out that they wanted equal rights and they wanted them now.
Of course it was primarily white, middle-class, educated women returning the call. After all, if such was your identity, and still you experienced yourself as a second-class citizen, you were a poster child for the women’s movement. On the other hand, if you were black, poor, uneducated—and those parts of your identity were most pressing—you most likely did not see yourself reflected in the movement’s rhetoric and shied away. Many of us had ourselves been born into one form of outsiderness or another—I, for instance, came from the Jewish immigrant working class—and understood the dilemma perfectly. The solution, however, as far as I was concerned, was not to dilute the question of women’s rights by taking on that of class and race discrimination. It was to understand ever more perfectly that history was on our side and to believe that in thirty years those black and working-class women who at this moment did not feel the urgency of women’s rights would be standing where we stood. And so it has turned out.
The next near-fatal mistake that the 1970s movement made, according to Gordon, was in thinking that women’s rights had to split itself off from the great range of progressive causes. “Women had been criticizing their treatment in the labor, civil rights, peace, and environmental movements for decades,” Gordon writes, “but that criticism did not usually mean divorce, any more than does criticism of family or friends.”
Again: this is simply not true. Divorce is exactly what it meant. What it has always meant. It is automatically assumed that the subjugation of women will be of primary concern to those on the revolutionary left, but such has never been the case. From the French Revolution on, great movements for freedom and equality have paid lip service to the cause of women and then promptly ignored it. I myself grew up on the left at a time when “The Negro Question” and “The Woman Problem” (or was it the other way around?) were popular slogans. Ever since I could remember I’d been told that “come the revolution” the discrimination against these two major groups of humanity would be at an end. I came of age and discovered that these slogans had been exactly that, slogans. Nothing more. To raise the question of women’s rights was to be told you were being divisive.
Women’s rights has always had to make its way alone; ask Elizabeth Stanton, she’ll tell you. For that matter, ask Mary Wollstonecraft or Fanny Wright or Simone de Beauvoir. Wollstonecraft and Tom Paine came out of the same eighteenth-century radical movement surrounding the French Revolution. When Paine wrote Rights of Man, he was celebrated; when Wollstonecraft wrote Rights of Woman, she was scorned. Fanny Wright, born an aristocratic Scot, was a member of Robert Owens’s early nineteenth-century socialist movement. She left the Owenites when she became convinced that, for them, the cause of women’s rights was and would remain of distinctly secondary interest. Stanton herself came out of the American abolitionist movement and came to the same conclusion as Wright when the abolitionists deserted the cause of universal suffrage in support of the Fifteenth Amendment’s extension of suffrage to black men but not women. As for Beauvoir, she thought the existentialist intellectuals in her circle—the men surrounding Jean-Paul Sartre—would applaud the publication of The Second Sex. Instead they ridiculed it.
The third section of Feminism Unfinished, written by Astrid Henry, a generation younger than her coauthors, gives an account of feminism since 1990—the Third Wave—and never did I feel more clearly thrown back into the 1920s than I did reading this chapter. There on the page were the Progressive Era women—and there also the brash young moderns whose politics are as colorfully diffused as the Second Wave’s were passionately consolidated. The most defining feature of the Third Wave, as Henry observes, “is its inability to be defined by any single political goal, ideological perspective, or way of being feminist.” It does not throw down a gauntlet; to the contrary, its style is free-ranging mockery and provocation. Many in it love calling themselves sluts and bitches, dressing in spike heels and black lipstick, assuming facial expressions that are the equivalent of “don’t even think about it.” Comparing the women’s rock bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s with those of this new generation, Henry tells us that they have “often presented their feminist messages while wearing hyperfeminine clothing, rejecting the earlier era’s androgyny in favor of the sexually provocative feminist style pioneered by Madonna in the mid-1980s.”
These women practice what seems to anyone not of their generation a kind of virtual rather than on-the-ground politics. They do not march or hold meetings; they go online. Their presence on the Internet is ubiquitous. Smart and sassy, they are marvelously quick to slap down the slightest display of sexism, private or public. For instance, during his second presidential debate Mitt Romney referred to “binders full of women,” and within seconds there were hundreds of angry, taunting posts on the Internet; the next day there appeared a “Binders Full of Women” Facebook page that now has more than 300,000 likes. “Our activism,” said one feminista, “is inseparable from technology. . . . Blogs are our consciousness-raising groups.”
Among the most popular of these blogs is Feministing, cofounded in 2004 by Jessica Valenti, who has emerged as a major feminist writer of today’s mainstream media. The site’s stated purpose was to use the Internet to help further what the women of her generation consider the unfinished feminist revolution. Feministing covers sex and pay equity, art and legislation, pop culture and reproductive rights, and is awash in feminist opinion deriving from the daily lives of both staff and readers. Its comments section provides an ongoing conversation—comic and serious, scholarly and goofy—that is today’s equivalent of a political broadsheet.
Throw into this mix the practice of hooking up—that is, sex without ties—and the in-your-face boldness of this generation of feminists is sufficiently established. For some young women, hooking up is a nightmare, but for many it is a liberation. As one college student told the New York Times, “I can’t have a meaningful romantic relationship, because I’m always busy . . . . everyone says, ‘make time, make time.’ But there are so many other things going on in my life that I find so important that I just, like, can’t make time, and I don’t want to make time.” Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men (2012), said of the practice, “To put it crudely, feminist progress right now largely depends on the existence of the hookup culture.”
Henry writes about blogs and hookups in order to cover the bases, but her heart is with the many women, also out there, for whom doing politics still consists of the time-tested practice of finding a cause, forming a collective, writing a manifesto, organizing an event. Interestingly (or depressingly) enough, the cause is almost never women’s rights as such; rather, it might be justice for the poor, the illegal immigrant, the victimized unionist. These are the Progressive Era women of today, the women for whom Henry feels a clear affinity. The women, she tells us, who feel that “feminism must be intersectional and acknowledge that gender justice is inextricably tied to other social justice movements.”
Once again we hear the familiar injunctions of this book:
Feminism . . . must be a broad-based social justice movement concerned with a range of issues that affect women’s (and men’s) opportunities and rights. In this way, younger feminists . . . attempt to see feminism as being intertwined with a broad agenda of political issues, since true gender justice can only be achieved through addressing racism, economic injustice, xenophobia, and homophobia.
And once again I find myself protesting, not so.
At the end of What Do Women Want, Rhode writes, “More women must see personal difficulties as social problems calling for collective action. . . . They need to challenge the gender stereotypes that devalue the competence and commitment of working mothers and that penalize assertive behavior in women leaders. They also need to address the ways that society trivializes and tolerates sex-based aggression. . . . This is not a modest agenda. . . . The challenge now is to recognize our distance from that goal, and to build a movement capable of reaching it.”
I read these words—words that were once a call to revolutionary arms—with interest and some dismay. The challenge now? Build a movement now? Break the stereotypes of the working mother and the woman leader now? But, I conclude, if they are being written today, obviously they need to be written and attention must be paid to that need.
When I was a college student in the ’50s, I met a 1920s suffragist who was still pushing the Equal Rights Amendment, and I remember thinking, “What on earth is she talking about?” I also remember being grateful twenty years later for having met her. She was one of those who had kept the issue alive until there arose a generation that would once again know what to do with it.
Right now women’s liberation is in a holding pattern—not likely to recover its visionary impetus in my lifetime—and these books, all of them, are the equivalent of that suffragist who, over the years, came to seem to me like the ember that is kept glowing while wood is being gathered to rekindle the waning fire.
I always said it would take another hundred years, but now that it is taking another hundred years, I must say it is painful. On a good day—when I really remember how slowly movements for social change progress—I am glad to have these books in my possession. On a bad day, I want to cry.
Vivian Gornick’s books include The Odd Woman and the City, Fierce Attachments, The End of the Novel of Love, The Men In My Life, and Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. She teaches writing at The New School.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
David Hogg and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz discuss replacement theory, the gunman’s manifesto, and how we organize against violent white supremacy.
Companies are unreliable allies in the fight for queer rights and social justice. We must rebuild a working people’s movement.
Decades of biological research haven’t improved diagnosis or treatment. We should look to society, not to the brain.