For a second-wave feminist like myself, this election year has been a roller-coaster ride: exciting, and sick-making, and yet again exciting. We have seen an eminently qualified woman contend for a presidential nomination and fail, at least in part because she was demonized as a dragon lady; then we have seen a shamefully unqualified woman handed a vice presidential nomination, at least in part because she was a walking advertisement for Mrs. America. Taken together, such unforeseen events have been remarkable, especially insofar as they remind us of where we are, as a culture, in the centuries-long struggle to normalize equality for women.
The second wave of American feminism is now in a period of quietude, even of setback. After nearly 40 years of noisy activity on behalf of women’s rights, a large part of the country thinks the revolution’s been won, another large part thinks what feminists have accomplished amounts to a drop in the bucket, and yet a third part remains irredeemably opposed to feminist values. Such an extraordinary division of viewpoint indicates that whatever the gains for women have been, they are by no means indisputable, much less guaranteed a lasting life.
An incontestable piece of evidence that high-level sexism persists in the United States was the astonishing treatment meted out to Hillary Rodham Clinton throughout her tortured campaign to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. She was trashed all over the country -- in the papers, on television and on the Internet -- solely, repeatedly, insultingly, not as a Washington insider, or as a senator who endorsed the Iraq war, or as a member of a would-be political dynasty, but as a woman.
She was routinely characterized as strident and aggressive; criticized on her hair, her clothing, her figure; called an uppity woman on television; and on the Internet one could see a notice that read, “The bitch is back ’08,” as well as a video of a man at a rally screaming at Clinton, “Iron my shirt.”
The degree to which this trashing persisted administered a shock to the system of anyone who wanted to believe that simple woman-hating was a thing of the near past. It is painful and instructive to realize that it was unthinkable to level equivalent open racism at Barack Obama. Obviously, if you were so inclined, you could think racist thoughts, but you could not speak them; whereas, with sexism, it was no holds barred.
Another indisputable piece of evidence that sexism is still very much with us was the nomination of Sarah Palin for vice president on the Republican ticket: a piece of cynicism that was truly an insult to all of us, women and men alike. Palin was chosen, with an ugly wink at the country, because she was a sexy, cheerleading fundamentalist. It was as though the conservatives felt free to say, “You want a woman? We’ll give you a woman” -- as they trotted out a parody of American politics that could have been invented by Thomas Pynchon.
At the same time, it has been thrilling to see thousands upon thousands of women (and men too) rise up in righteous anger against the sexism inherent in both Clinton’s defeat and Palin’s ascent. The twin event has politicized people who, until that moment, did not think they had feminist politics. The spectacular protest is a true measure of how far American feminism has actually come -- how much deeper it has penetrated the shared sensibility of the body politic than we have generally realized -- and how far it has yet to go. This aspect of a hardly credible election year has been a joy and a high for many of us, and a salutary reminder that the struggle over women’s rights remains one of the longest and most resilient on human record.
The modern women’s movement dates from the 1792 publication of Mary Wollstonecraft’s “Vindication of the Rights of Woman.” Written in the wake of the French Revolution, this remarkably radical treatise posits that women need to use their minds more than they need to be mothers and wives, in the same way that men need to use their minds more than they need to be fathers and husbands. Not instead of, just more than.
Every 50 years since that time, the movement has raised its head, opened its mouth, made yet another effort to have that sentiment heard, absorbed and acted on. Each time around, its partisans have been renamed -- new women, odd women, free women, liberated women -- but in actuality, they are always the same women. And, while they have had different issues to take up -- the right to vote, or divorce, own property, go to medical school -- their underlying message has always been the same: The conviction that men by nature take their brains seriously, and women by nature do not, is based not on an inborn reality but on a cultural belief that has served our deepest insecurities. That is the real issue, and around it there has collected over these two centuries a great amount of thought and feeling, and an even greater amount of anxiety, in women and men alike.
It is, I think, safe to say that the question of equality for women, each and every time around, has opened a Pandora’s box of fear, hope and confusion that is existential in its very nature and has made its resolution even more recalcitrant than the matter of equality for people of color. In short: Behind the idea that it is natural for women to take an equal part in the world-making enterprise lies an internal self-division -- a conflict of social will -- that, at this moment, is far from clarified. Someday, perhaps, it will be, but today is not that day.
However, an election year such as we have just had in the United States should make every feminist in the country eager to press on.