In an important article at Salon last week, Linda Hirshman suggests that the past month's ferment on contraception in particular, and reproductive health generally, might reawaken the women's movement. While I'm not sure I agree precisely on her analysis of how feminism went to sleep to begin with—Hirshman doesn't definitively assign blame either—she's absolutely right in this:
For 40 years, women, the majority of the population and the majority of the electorate, have been the Sleeping Beauties of American politics, slumbering obliviously while vigilant and relentless adversaries surround their rights with a thicket of thorn trees.
She suggests that "women" didn't see the danger in the Hyde Amendment, which may be true. Feminists at the time were outraged by it, but by then were effectively being boxed in by other powers. And she's absolutely right to identify some of the smart young feminists who have been working in the past decade to wake us all up, using new tools, tactics, and talking points that resonate better for our time. I deeply hope that Hirshman is correct that a new women's movement may now be waking up.
After reading Hirshman's piece, a colleague asked me why I thought that the LGBT movement had been so successful over precisely the same period that not just the women's movement but most progressive issues had failed. I wrote about the issue for the Prospect in some depth a decade ago, when Bob Kuttner first asked me the same question. But I've had some more thoughts since. Last week I noted how strange it's been to feel that my gay side is winning while my lady side has been backsliding, pretty much at the same crazy pace. So let me explain a bit about the differences I've seen.
The women's movement of the 70s/80s got very, very far, as far as it could, before those women ran out of power. For instance, it's just amazing to think that I started working only about ten years after women had to bring lawsuits to get jobs as reporters or doctors. That breakthrough took a generation's energy. But once they broke in, they couldn't push any farther to create truly family-friendly environments. (Longtime national columnist Ellen Goodman tells the story of coming back to work after having her first child and being asked so often what she was doing about her infant that, finally, she just started saying she'd left the refrigerator open and was sure that would be fine.) The women's movement had a long list of other demands, but no more traction to push for them. Subsidized childcare, flex time, equality in the home, federally funded reproductive health, and much more ended up either disappearing from public discussion or being fought for one by one, which is a recipe for failure. Every now and then a "teachable moment' put another issue on the public agenda—as when Anita Hill's allegations of Clarence Thomas's sexual harassment put every employer in the country on notice that it was illegal. But progress slowed.
Meanwhile, the mainstream news media acted as if the battles had been won and what had been won was putting women in careers.
Feminists fumed at that mischaracterization, but had no power to revise it. At the same time, heterosexual women had to negotiate intimate power struggles within marriages/partnerships, which are extremely difficult to navigate, since the power dynamics between any two people are already complicated. (The power struggle at home is tangled enough when you're the same sex; I send my deepest sympathies to all my nongay sisters.) At home, women had to contend with men's invisible social power, with gendered expectations about each partner's behavior, with the fact that one sex had been trained never to notice dirt while the other sex had been trained that her worth depended on having a clean house. Navigating social change at home is exhausting. Sometimes I think that those personal battles zapped the energy of a generation's worth of women.
LGBT folks were starting from much farther behind. We might have had it a little easier at home, but in public we faced far more direct hatred. We were fighting for our lives—for gay men, quite literally. Both the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the 1990s backlash referenda were unspeakable. But those who were fighting against us were fighting an idea. As I wrote in my 2002 piece on the LGBT culture wars, as more of us started to come out, people realized that they already knew lesbians and gay men—and it became harder to hate us. MTV's "Real World" did us an enormous favor by always putting one of us in that trailblazer reality show, which had a big impact on several generations of young people. Lesbians and gay men already live in every zip code and every family in the country. Accepting us means accepting cousin Akisha, whom you already love and have over to Sunday dinner, and giving up pretending that her "friend" isn't sharing her life.
Here's the difference between the LGBT movement and every other progressive effort: When women—or pretty much any other group—ask for more power, someone else loses power. That's not really true for LGBT folks. The only thing we've been asking for has been recognition and acceptance. That costs nothing. A minority of religious people truly believe we are evil, but they look increasingly foolish. Accepting us into existing social institutions chips away at a particularly anti-feminist intellectual philosophy about gender—Maggie Gallagher, perhaps the chief foe of marriage equality, gets that, which is why she's fighting us tooth and nail--but that's too abstract to sway most people. Making women fully equal—enabling women's bodily, emotional, and intellectual autonomy—is much more personal for most people, and changes far more things. It changes marriages, dating, children's lives, workplaces, social institutions, and whether or not someone has to pick up.
My world has changed since I first came out in the Mesozoic era. Back then, I thought women were easily on the road to full equality, and could rest. Making it possible to introduce "my friend" without fear was far more exciting. That's flipped. Now it feels as if I've won as a lesbian, but that as a woman, things have been utterly static and sometimes worse. Toy aisles are far more gendered than when I was young. There is less access to abortion than when I was young. The gendered wage gap has been effectively stagnant for about fifteen years. I could go on. I deeply hope that the ferment of the past months means, as Linda Hirshman suggests, that the women's movement, that sleeping beauty, is reawakening.