No Turning Back The Historical Resilience of Feminism
A central theme in my feminist studies course is that feminism is a process, not an inherited dogma; only continual reinvention has allowed it to flourish. I also stress this point in No Turning Back, the book based on my course, which documents the historical momentum of women’s activism throughout the world. In class and in speaking publicly about the book, I have found that one of the hardest points to communicate is the theme of paradox. In addition to exploring a key tension in feminism between uni – versalistic and particularistic politics, I try to show how the staples of modern Western history—democracy and capitalism — simultaneously disadvantaged women and enabled feminist political critiques to form.
soon after the revival of the women’s movement in the late 1960s, American journalists began proclaiming the death of feminism. In 1976, Harper’s magazine declared a “Requiem for the Women’s Movement”; in 1980, the New York Times assured readers that the “Radical Days of Feminism Are Gone”; in 1990, Newsweek trumpeted “The Failure of Feminism.” Unconvinced by two decades of obituaries, in 1998 Time magazine asked readers to respond online to the question “Is Feminism Dead?” So ubiquitous is this story that a feminist journalist recently labeled it “False Feminist Death Syndrome.”1 Perhaps these writers notice feminism only during periods of mass public protest and overlook its quieter but more pervasive forms. Or perhaps they are engaging in a form of wishful thinking, for given the power of the media, declaring the death of feminism could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Surveying the interdisciplinary scholarship on women’s movements suggests to me that, contrary to the views of contemporary pundits, feminism has never been more widespread or more politically influential than at this point in history. In some countries, feminist concerns have moved from the margins of alternative culture to infiltrate mainstream politics, whether measured by women’s increased office holding or the importance of controversies over subjects such as veiling, abortion, and lesbian and gay rights. In contrast to issuing premature obituaries for feminism, the news media now regularly
cover the very subjects raised a generation ago only by radical feminists, such as domestic violence, breast cancer research, eating disorders, and rape in both wartime and peacetime. Moreover, just beyond the headlines, we find stories about the ongoing work of nongovernmental organizations (ngos) around the world, such as Women in Law and Development in Africa, the Indian movement against dowry deaths, international lesbian rights groups in Taiwan and South Africa, and myriad others that advance women’s legal and economic equality. Quietly, grassroots movements are transforming cultures, such as the successful village-based health campaigns in Senegal to end the practice of female genital cutting.
Turning to the United States, the social consequences of political change are so pervasive that we sometimes forget how recently women’s opportunities have expanded. In the past generation, women’s athletics finally achieved public recognition and enthusiastic participation, in large part because of the legal push for gender equity in school funding. Women’s professional education has expanded enormously: from under 10 percent a generation ago, women’s representation in law and medical school classes has risen to nearly 50 percent. To give a personal example of the impact of this change, in 1976, when I moved to a liberal community in California, I could not locate a woman doctor to serve as my primary care physician, nor could I find a female gynecologist under my health plan. Today, however, both my primary care provider and several of my health specialists are female. When I ask audiences about their own doctors, from half to three-quarters report having at least one female provider. Health care by women practitioners is now widespread because in the 1970s feminists succeeded in removing admissions quotas at medical schools, and qualified women flocked to the profession.
Another measure of change can be found in the public response to violence against women, evidenced recently by the worldwide impact of Eve Ensler’s play, The Vagina Monologues. A few years ago, Ensler brought her “V-Day” benefit performance to the San Francisco Bay area. In one evening, with the help of a cast of feminist luminaries, she raised half a million dollars to donate to local antiviolence projects and to aid women in Afghanistan. As impressive as the fund-raising itself is the fact that San Francisco, like many other communities, now has an extensive feminist infrastructure that is ready to put that money to good use: shelters for battered women; rape crisis phone lines; groups like Women against Rape; self-defense classes; girls’ empowerment programs; and men’s groups conducted in county jails to prevent recurrent violence. These resources simply did not exist a generation ago. Although feminists have not ended violence against women, they have named it, provided services, changed legal practices, and created “zero tolerance” campaigns against rape, wife beating, and sexual harassment, all of which were once considered the inevitable price of being born female. At the same time, the continuing need for these antiviolence campaigns, given the ongoing abuse of women, belies the claims that we live in a “postfeminist” era. This term implies that women have already achieved equality, that women’s movements are obsolete. Feminists like Ensler and those who staff antiviolence programs refuse to resign from the unfinished challenge of undermining patriarchy.
In short, both the historical record and contemporary politics suggest strongly that the momentum of feminism remains powerful. In the United States, public opinion polls conducted in 2000 revealed that although only 29 percent of Americans called themselves feminists, 85 percent agreed with the goals of the women’s rights movement. Setting aside the labels, we find that aspirations for equal pay and political representation for women, as well as sexual and reproductive choice, have never been greater. Moreover, in a 2001 poll, 64 percent of adult American women responded positively to the word “feminism.” Looking beyond the United States, in the European Union, over 80 percent of adults polled in 2005 agreed that women deserved higher education and jobs as much as men do.2 Throughout the world, more women hold elected office than at any time in history, while in some northern European countries, men’s willingness to take responsibility for household work and child care has risen significantly.
I want to be very clear, however, that I am not suggesting that we have arrived at a state of gender equality. Indeed, feminists have a great deal to do in the industrialized regions to address women’s economic status, political representation, athletics, and health care — especially for women of color — as well as sexual violence and shared parenting; we have only begun to recognize the importance of securing full human rights for women in many parts of the world. Nor am I ignoring the formidable backlash that confronts us every time women gain power, for change is threatening, especially to those who fear they will lose power as a result. What I am pointing out is that the fruits of past feminist movements should be noted rather than denied and that the momentum of history convinces me that there is no turning back from the movement toward full citizenship and full human rights for women. In this essay, I argue that the malleability and diversity of feminism have produced sufficient strength to help feminism infiltrate mainstream political cultures and withstand recurrent opposition. To make my case for feminist resilience, I turn first to the political and economic histories that initially shaped feminism, then to a survey of how multiple feminist strategies have been redefined over time and place, and finally to both the prospects for and the obstacles to a feminist future.