150 Years Of The Atlantic June 2006

Women’s Empowerment

This is the fifth in a series of archival excerpts in honor of the magazine’s 150th anniversary. This installment is introduced by Terry Castle, a professor of English at Stanford. Her books include The Apparitional Lesbian and Courage, Mon Amie
November 1997

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.

It takes a real talent for overlooking the obvious to argue that women have achieved equality in contemporary America. After all, despite thirty years of feminist activism and much social change, virtually every important political, social, cultural, and economic institution is still dominated by men: legislatures, courts, corporations, labor unions, the news and entertainment media, education, science, medicine, religion. Study after study shows that women make less money than men even when they do the same or similar work, which they have a hard time getting; that they shoulder the bulk of child-rearing and housework, even in families where both husband and wife work full-time …

But if the evidence is all around us, why doesn’t everybody see it—or see it for what it is? In recent years a seemingly endless parade of social critics have achieved celebrity by portraying not sexism but feminism as the problem …

Denial is mostly the privilege of those who benefit, or hope to benefit, from the status quo … At least in surveys, it’s men who hold rosy beliefs about equality, like the two thirds of fathers in one study who claimed to share child care equally with their wives—an outcome wildly inconsistent with virtually all the research, not to mention the experience of most mothers …

What would a revitalized feminist movement look like? What made the movement so compelling in the 1970s was in part the clarity of the demand it made on America to live up to its own values: fair play, equal treatment under the law, respect for individual merit and difference and so forth, and the responsibility of government to ensure that women receive an equal helping of these important social goods … But there was another, more radical side to the movement, which had to do with the promise feminism held out to women of a life not just with more justice but also with more freedom, more self-respect, more choices, and more pleasure. Feminism promised that one could become more conscious of the social forces limiting one’s life, and that from this new awareness positive change could come. That is what the much-maligned slogan “The personal is political” meant … It was a do-it-yourself, direct-action social movement. It might take a revival of this spirit to get us beyond “denial.”

Volume 280, No. 5, pp. 160–164

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