If the officers of the “great suffrage army”, as Carrie Chapman Catt put it, were to call out the women of today for their accomplishments, how would we measure up?
While there have always been maverick women throughout history sticking their necks out for change, the first wave of organized feminist reformers began in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York at the first Women’s Rights Convention. Thus began the 72 year march toward equality. And what did equality mean to them? The first wave feminists knew that men and women are different long before the recent discovery that men are from Mars and women are from Venus. They wanted women to bring their own unique voices to the table to be considered alongside men’s voices. “It is right that a woman keep her home, but how can she keep it if she has no say in the conditions that influence it?” wrote feminist Katherine Anthony in 1908. Women saw equality as having their voices be complimentary to men’s voices. If only men’s voices and men’s points of view run the world, then only men’s perspectives will make the decisions. Their idea of equality was that both perspectives would be heard.
Fast forward to the 1960s. When the second wave feminists saw equality as something different. “Anything you can do, I can do and maybe better,” they said. “I’ll prove that I can be just like the men – I’ll burn my bra, disown my role as wife and mother, demand access to the board room, wear suits and I’ll show men I can be just like them.” (my words) Watching this behavior from the sidelines was embarrassing for many women, many who may have been feminists at heart but did not want to identify with this militant, anti-male and anti-family road to being heard.
So how’s that working out for us? When Jeannette Rankin decided to run for US Congress in 1916, she said since women are half the population, they should be half the Congress. Today they are 17% of the Congress, and about 24% of legislatures nationally. The US ranks 84th in the world for women in elected office, behind Mexico, China and Pakistan. Only three states – Maine, Connecticut and Hawaii – have gender parity in their US House representatives, even though the census reveals more adult women than men in the US.
Why? Rankin, who represented Montana as the first woman elected to Congress, said when you are first at anything, you don’t have anyone to follow. For women blazing those new trails into politics, the role models were men, and gender bias against women is so ingrained in our culture that creating authentic new role models has been a huge challenge. Pioneers in politics like Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, Patsy Mink, and Geraldine Ferraro, along with today’s visible women – Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachman – regardless of their politics, are they leaders modeling strong, authentic feminine behavior that we can be proud of and look up to? And what about the other voices out there – Phyllis Schafley and those opposed to the ERA, as well as the Rush Limbaughs of the world, referring to some women as femi-nazis. In a patriarchal society, creating an authentic female voice and perspective has been more challenging than early feminists may have counted on.
I found Emerge America which calls itself a “premier training program for Democratic women. We inspire women to run, we hone their skills to win.” http://emergeamerica.org Being the nonpartisan individual, when I first read this I glossed over the capital D – we’re all democratic women working for a better world, right? Wouldn’t it be great if there was an organization with the same agenda where the D was not capital? I did not find similar organizations in support of other parties – but in South Carolina, there is a non partisan organization seeking to help women run for office there –http://www.postandcourier.com/news/2011/sep/26/are-you-a-woman-who-can-lead/
One of the second wave’s icons is Gloria Steinem. This article in Forbes recaps second wave feminist experience and highlights some young, next generation feminists – could they be the third wave? http://www.forbes.com/sites/shenegotiates/2011/08/12/gloria-who-to-a-generation-of-women-she-was-martin-luther-king-jr-2/ –
Those early feminists had high hopes. In 1926, engineer and inventor of alternating electrical current Nikola Tesla, who did not care much to have women in his personal life, nevertheless wrote,” This struggle of the human female toward sex equality will end in a new sex order, with the female as superior. . . the female mind has demonstrated a capacity for all the mental acquirements and achievements of men, and as generations ensue that capacity will be expanded . . . for the dormant faculties of her brain will be stimulated to an activity that will be all the more intense and powerful because of centuries of repose. Women will ignore precedent and startle civilization with their progress.”
We’re not reposing, but have we startled anyone? Former US secretary-general Kofi Annan said, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.” And women all over the world, not just in America, are pushing to be powerful – Newsweek’s September 26th issue cover proclaims “Where Women are Winning” and explores that globally.
So how do we measure up to what the first wave feminists hoped for? I haven’t intended to take sides here, just to give you some food for thought. There are many other arenas – business, medicine, education – besides politics where women have made incredible inroads. But having a voice in changing society comes from political participation – look at the track record for how women have shown up and are showing up in the world. Over lunch with Susan B. Anthony or Carrie Catt or Alice Paul, how would you help them understand how we have honored their sacrifices on behalf of having a voice?