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One of the more disturbing newsreels of the early twentieth century—now, like the Zapruder film, easily found on the Web—shows Emily Davison, a militant English suffragist maddened by the injustices she felt had been done to women, throwing herself in protest in front of the king’s horse at the Epsom Derby on June 4, 1913. In nine jerky seconds you see it all: a somersaulting horse, a woman down and lying motionless, men in boaters running onto the track. Jockey and horse survived; Davison, struck in the head, died without regaining consciousness. Fellow suffragists saw her death as a martyrdom. Davison, wrote Emmeline Pankhurst, no doubt believed that through her grotesque self-sacrifice she might “put an end to the intolerable torture of women.”
Like watching Davison’s suicide, perusing old Atlantic essays on the century-long female struggle for equal rights can provoke mixed feelings—especially in the erstwhile feminist. On the one hand, one is grateful for the fearlessness with which various Atlantic writers, male and female, have argued over the years on behalf of women’s rights. It’s hard not to rejoice at Samuel McChord Crothers’s eloquent defense of women’s suffrage, or Virginia Woolf’s surprisingly passionate assault on the exploitation of female domestic labor. My favorite blast from the feminist past here is the ferocious “Desperate Housewives,” in which Nora Johnson, two years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, decries the exhausting work of child care as “the simple, nerve-wracking, mindless, battering-ram process of trying to teach a savage to use a fork.”
On the other hand, in gloomier moods, I find myself wondering if true sexual equality—the kind Davison killed herself for—will ever be achieved. Women in Western societies now have the vote, of course, along with many other rights and protections. Yet women and men continue to collide in countless ways in modern life. In an essay here from 1997, Katha Pollitt itemizes the many fields (business, politics, media, science, religion, etc.) in which American women are underrepresented; the disparities persist in 2006. Women’s historic entry into the workforce, one fears, has yet to produce any net gain in human happiness; men continue to resent female competition (sometimes with good reason); women themselves struggle to combine careers with the demands of motherhood and running a household. Nor has the “intolerable torture of women” mentioned by Mrs. Pankhurst exactly come to a halt—not yet, at least, in some of the more barbarous places around the globe. One suspects we’re not quite done with it: the woman on the track, the king’s horse bearing down; the conflict, the pain, the waste.
Meditations on Votes for Women (October 1914)
by Samuel McChord Crothers
In 1914, as the women’s suffrage amendment languished in Congress, Samuel McChord Crothers, a popular essayist and a Harvard Square–based Unitarian minister, made the case for equal suffrage. (The amendment did not pass that year, however; American women would not win the right to vote for another six years.)
Talent, Opportunity, and Female Aspirations (June 1926)
by Faith Fairfield
Six years after the Nineteenth Amendment had given American women the right to vote, Atlantic contributor Faith Fairfield pointed to an ongoing double standard in other areas.
Equality of Opportunity and Pay (May and June 1938)
by Virginia Woolf
In 1938, Virginia Woolf, a champion of equal opportunity for women and the author of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and A Room of One’s Own, responded scathingly in the pages of The Atlantic to a written solicitation she had received in the mail asking “the daughters of educated men” to join in the cause against war. What women really ought to lobby for, she argued, is equal opportunity and better pay for themselves.
Science: Careers for Women (October 1957)
by Helen Hill Miller
In 1957, Helen Hill Miller, a Washington, D.C.-based writer and a correspondent for The Economist, considered the social and psychological obstacles facing women attempting to forge careers in science.
Desperate Housewives (June 1961)
by Nora Johnson
Two years before Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique articulated “the problem that has no name,” novelist and essayist Nora Johnson considered the frustrations of the well-educated homemaker.
Feminism's Unfinished Business (November 1997)
by Katha Pollitt
Decades after the women's-liberation movement began the battle to break down gender barriers and put women on a more equal footing with men, social critic and columnist Katha Pollitt pointed out that sexism and gender bias continued to play an insidious—and largely unacknowledged—role in women's lives. She called for a revitalized feminism to rectify the problem.