The Feminist Movement in the 20th Century: Feminist Legal Battles

views updated



SOURCE: Castro, Ginette. "Feminism and the Law." In American Feminism: A Contemporary History, translated by Elizabeth Loverde-Bagwell, pp. 199-222. New York: New York University Press, 1990.

In the following essay, originally published in French in 1984, Castro details the political goals of the women's movement, including the struggle to pass the Equal Rights Amendment and efforts to ensure equality for women in the workplace.

The Program

About 1973, the liberal branch of the Women's movement began trying to establish a detailed program. This new orientation seems to us to have been a realistic adjustment to take account of two factors. First, some basis for action appeared necessary in order to enable the movement to move forward coherently and to use its energy constructively toward external goals instead of wasting it in internal quarrels. Second, it was essential to build as broad a base as possible to unify women, particularly so as to make available to the struggle the resources of nonfeminist women's organizations that had been alienated from the movement by shock actions or outrageous declarations, and that could weigh heavily in determining the outcome of the battle. The development of a platform for reform would reveal how much common interest there was between feminist and non-feminist women's organizations. Moreover, the inclusion of a wide range of proposals in this platform would have another advantage: every woman, from radical militant to nonfeminist, and every organization, from political caucus to labor union, could find something in it to support.

The first formal program platform developed by the new feminist movement in the United States was the National Women's Agenda, presented on 2 December 1975 to President Gerald Ford, the governors of the fifty states, and members of Congress. It had been signed by ninety women's organizations, who recognized in the preamble the priority of their common interest in every sector and at every level of American society, while affirming their continuing desire for pluralism in their purposes and points of view. The platform covered eleven headings for bold and substantial reforms.

The second platform was developed at the National Women's Conference held in Houston in November 1977. It, too, corresponded to a pragmatic spirit of coalition: "We must agree when we can, disagree when we have to, but never lose sight of our overall objectives."1

Adopted within the framework of a conference financed by federal funds, the Houston action plan was duly made official on 17 August 1978 by the publication of a 308-page report, The Spirit of Houston, and the nomination of a National Advisory Committee for Women, cochaired by Bella Abzug and Carmen Delgado Votaw. The committee's assignment under the Department of Labor was to advise the president and Congress with a view toward gradual execution of the plan. This official recognition corresponded to the will of the Houston delegates, as expressed in Resolution 26 of the platform, and translated their desire to make the government face up to its responsibilities and recognize women's issues as a national concern.


BELLA ABZUG (1920-1998)

"We are bringing women into politics to change the nature of politics, to change the vision, to change the institutions. Women are not wedded to the policies of the past. We didn't craft them. They didn't let us."

Abzug, Bella. "Plenary Speech, Fourth World
Conference on Women. September 12, 1995,
Beijing, People's Republic of China." Gifts of
Speech at Sweet Briar College (online)

Sporting her trademark floppy hats, attorney, activist, congresswoman, and author Bella Abzug was outspoken in her efforts to bring awareness to women's issues, to defend her clients against Senator Joseph McCarthy's investigation into alleged communist activities, to end the war in Vietnam, to advocate civil rights, and to impeach President Richard M. Nixon following the Watergate scandal. Born July 24, 1920, in New York City, Abzug began her career as an attorney, being admitted to the Bar of New York State in 1947. She worked as a private practice attorney from 1947 to 1970. In 1961 she served as legislative director of the Women's Strike for Peace, a position she held until 1970 when she became the first Jewish woman elected to Congress. She served in the House of Representatives from 1970 until 1976. On her first day in Congress in 1971, Abzug introduced a resolution calling for the withdrawal of all troops from Indochina, and in 1975 she introduced the first bill addressing civil rights for gays and lesbians. Abzug became an assistant whip to House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill, Jr., and coauthored legislation concerning privacy acts and the freedom of information act. Abzug served as co-chair of President Jimmy Carter's National Advisory Committee on Women from 1978 to 1979, and assisted and founded a number of women's advocacy groups, including Women-USA, Women's Foreign Policy Council, Women's Environmental and Development Organization, and the National Women's Political Caucus. Abzug's published works include Bella! Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (1972) and Gender Gap: Bella Abzug's Guide to Political Power for American Women (1984; coauthored with Mim Kelber).

The Houston action plan contains twenty-six resolutions, three of which have been widely publicized because of the bitter divisions they have provoked among women and the doubt that has reigned over their adoption. We are speaking of the Equal Rights Amendment, the right to the voluntary interruption of pregnancy, and freedom of choice in sexual preference. With deliberate regularity, each of the twenty-six resolutions is introduced in the platform by a time-honored phrase placing the issue in the hands of legislators at the federal or state level, either demanding the establishment of permanent structures (as in the case of all the resolutions on violence), recommending new legislation (supporting child care centers and opposing discrimination against pregnant working women), or demanding enforcement of existing laws.

Political Power


Having obtained official recognition of their demands, the feminists who believed in reforming the existing system particularly favored one method of action over others: political pressure on government agencies, the president, or Congress. A powerful feminist lobby developed, of which the leading voices were the National Women's Political Caucus (NWPC), the Women's Lobby, Inc., founded by Carol Burris and Flora Crater, and the National Organization for Women (NOW).

Political pressure from liberal feminists was considerably increased in the 1976 presidential election campaign. The NWPC had formed a Democratic Task Force in 1974 and a Republican Task Force in 1975, which participated in the state party caucuses and the national party conventions. In 1976, Republican women had obtained their party's support for the Equal Rights Amendment, although not a declaration in favor of the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion; however, they suffered a dual setback in 1980 when President-elect Ronald Reagan and the New Right vowed firm opposition to both abortion and the ERA. Democratic feminists, who were much more numerous in the NWPC than Republicans, no doubt because most women in Congress were Democrats, had no difficulty in persuading their party to support the ERA. More delicate were their negotiations that led the Democratic party to approve the Supreme Court decision allowing the voluntary interruption of pregnancy. Needless to say, the sexual preference plank of the feminist platform was rejected out of hand by both Democrats and Republicans.

Although the women of the NWPC were close to the traditional parties and had entrée to the inner circles of national politics, the same could not be said of NOW. Some of its officers, Karen de Crow and Artie Scott, were asked by the NWPC Republican Task Force to leave Kansas City, where the 1976 Republican party convention was being held, for fear that their mere presence might suffice to jeopardize the negotiations for adoption of the ERA in the party platform. Similarly, the evening reception to which NOW invited delegates to the Democratic convention was ostentatiously snubbed by many of them, while the one given by the NWPC was a huge success. In the eyes of politicians, NOW was a frighteningly militant organization, incarnating their worst nightmares of feminism. We see this factor as both positive and necessary, in that NOW's independence from traditional politics enabled it to retain its uniqueness as a feminist organization, and was the only way to guarantee the support of the radical minority of feminists, whose presence in the ranks was, we believe, the best guarantee against the movement's being co-opted. By the end of the 1970s, NOW had lost its aura of middle-class respectability, and was even perceived as belonging to the radical Left, as Elinor Langer2 points out. In any case, it was a force to be reckoned with; if we can take the word of Gloria Steinem, it was collecting more money than even the Democratic party.

The 1976 presidential campaign also saw the appearance in the liberal feminist press of political profiles of the candidates according to their positions on women's issues. Ms., for instance, measured the views of five presidential hopefuls and forty congressional candidates. The NWPC, after having passed feminist judgment in 1976 on the respective positions of presidential candidates Ford and Carter, came back to the charge in the 1978 congressional elections and devoted five pages of the Women's Political Times to the voting records of all the members of the House of Representatives on sixteen feminist bills submitted in the intervening two years, scoring them from 0 to 100. The practice was continued in subsequent elections.

In the lead-up to Ronald Reagan's election, it appears, therefore, that liberal feminists were gambling on the strength of the women's vote, counting feminists and nonfeminists. However, this would not be a block vote resulting from any specifically feminine characteristic, but rather would be a reflection of women's new political awareness and participation, inspired by feminists of the androgynous approach. Militants were cheered in this gamble by the results of a 1980 Harris poll showing that significantly more women intended to vote, as well as a twenty-point difference between male and female voters among supporters of Ronald Reagan in the 1980 presidential campaign. The gender gap was born, and it continued to make headlines in all the publications of the Women's movement. Gloria Steinem and her staff at Ms. even devoted the magazine's cover to it in March 1984, inviting readers to participate in a new Harris poll on their intention to vote and their views for or against the reelection of Ronald Reagan. As another publication subsequently reported, "the 1984 election results showed the same gender gap that had first appeared in 1980. Women were still 8% more likely to vote Democratic than men. But because the gap did not increase, the press coverage gave the impression that it had disappeared."3

Only time will tell whether the new factor of the women's vote will have a durable existence as such in a still sexually polarized society, or whether it is a temporary phenomenon, as a personally directed reaction against a president who, after campaigning on his opposition to the ERA, blamed rising unemployment on the increased number of women in the labor market and did everything possible to overturn the 1973 Supreme Court ruling permitting abortion. In August 1983, American women's antipathy for Ronald Reagan was intensified when Barbara Honnegger resigned from her position in charge of women's affairs at the Department of Justice, denouncing the hypocrisy of the "demagogue" in the White House who publicly claimed to oppose sexual discrimination but privately had blocked Honnegger's report on a hundred discriminatory statutes.


The Ninety-eighth Congress of the United States, elected in November 1982, counted only twenty-four women. Granted, thanks to a theatrical gesture from President Reagan, a woman, Sandra Day O'Connor, had finally been appointed to the Supreme Court; granted, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (Jeanne Kirkpatrick) and the secretary of transportation (Elizabeth Dole) were women; but, important though they were, these promotions remained exceptions to the rule and ought not to mask the dramatic underrepresentation of women in American politics.

In 1976, according to figures gathered in the bicentennial year by the National Women's Education Fund, in the course of two centuries of American history, the Senate had seated only 11 women in contrast to 1,715 men, and the House of Representatives, 87 women against 9,521 men. In the same period, only 5 women had held cabinet posts, and none had ever sat on the Supreme Court.

These statistics were scrupulously published by the Women's Political Times, demonstrating that the NWPC was actively aware of this underrepresentation of women. Faced with the reluctance of lawmakers to enact legislation responding to feminist demands, the NWPC, in keeping with the philosophy of liberal feminists, presented itself as a lobbying organization whose purpose was to build a "national feminist network." This expression used by Mildred Jeffrey, then president of the NWPC, seems to have been calling for a counterpart to the "old boy network." Congresswoman Barbara Nikulski (Democrat from Maryland) parodied the way in which key posts were assigned: "You know," she said, "Pete Preppy looks through his yearbook, calls up Mike Macho and says 'Got anyone good for State?' 'Sure,' answers Mike, 'try Tom Terrifico.'"4

Clearly, the NWPC's main concern has been effectiveness. A program of feminist demands already has existed for more than a decade; its execution depends upon bringing more women into political life. The introduction of women, in the NWPC's view, should be done according to the traditional rules of the political game, and within the two-party system. The NWPC has never foreseen a third-party effort; this stance was reiterated in 1989 when the NWPC resisted NOW's call for one. Therefore, the first level of action by NWPC militants has been to gain more representation by women at the national Democratic and Republican party conventions. Their work has met with partial success, since in 1980, the goal of equal sexual representation among delegates was attained among Democrats, but not among Republicans.5

The NWPC itself also has held national conventions. The one held in San Antonio in July 1983 attracted a number of candidates for the Democratic nomination. "I am a feminist," Walter Mondale was not afraid to declare, but his proposals on women's issues, like those of the other candidates, were rather vague. The NWPC strengthened its efforts to promote the election of more women by making financial contributions to their campaigns, knowing full well that money is the overriding problem of all candidates.

But what precisely has become of feminism among women candidates and women elected to office? In the light of ten sample candidacies followed by the NWPC in 1976, it appeared that even if the candidates were known to hold feminist views, they never campaigned solely on feminist issues. Some even restrained their ardor when appearing in heartland areas. The position of those already elected is obviously more comfortable. Several interesting initiatives and successes can be signaled here. First, there are the results obtained in the Ninety-third and Ninety-fourth Congresses. The passage of the landmark Equal Credit Opportunity Act, forbidding sexual discrimination in the granting of credit, was due to the work of Margaret Heckler, Leonor Sullivan, and Bella Abzug. Minimum wage legislation was extended to domestic workers thanks to the initiative of Shirley Chisholm, and the military academies were opened to women on a bill introduced by Patricia Schroeder. The honors, again, are due to a woman, Martha Keys, for the measure granting a 20 percent tax deduction to low-income families for expenses related to child care. During the Ninety-fifth Congress, for the first time in the history of the United States, fifteen of the eighteen congresswomen formed a bipartisan women's committee to transcend party differences and to join forces, whenever possible, on issues concerning women. The committee agreed to meet every Tuesday and invite various cabinet members to discuss their policies, particularly regarding the hiring and promotion of women.

The NWPC congratulated itself for another initiative, presenting it as a good illustration of the feminist network in operation, as a chain of solidarity linking elected women to their women constituents. In one of the first examples of this networking, the NWPC president Mildred Jeffrey testified, in January 1978, before the congressional committee charged with studying proposed amendments to the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, and made several suggestions for modifying the bill. Some days later, Barbara Mikulski took up the relay, and introduced in Congress a number of measures proposed by the NWPC. On 9 March 1978, two of these measures were enacted by the legislators: increased child care facilities for single mothers, and greater representation of women and ethnic minorities on the consulting committees proposed by the Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, in proportion to their members in the labor force.

Again, the rule of equal representation, dear to liberal feminists, has been at work in the ultimate illustration of how feminist networking has enabled women to gain access to power. According to the NWPC, the federal agencies which, under President Jimmy Carter, were directed by women—Patricia Robert Harris at Housing and Urban Development, Juanita Kreps at Commerce, Eleanor Holmes Norton at the EEOC, and Grace Olivarez at the Community Services Administration—recruited as many women staff members as men.

The picture darkened considerably under President Ronald Reagan. Sandra Day O'Connor appeared little disposed to support feminist claims, as witness her dissenting vote in June 1983 when the Supreme Court reasserted the right of American women to the voluntary interruption of pregnancy. As for Elizabeth Dole, in an interview granted to Judith Mann soon after taking office as secretary of transportation, she was content to repeat President Reagan's statements on sexual discrimination, without lending any support to the Equal Rights Amendment.

The Constitutional Battle and the Struggle against the Antifeminist Backlash


At the start of the 1980s the liberal forces of the Women's movement were still fighting for the same cause that the National Women's party had been championing since the end of World War I: the Equal Rights Amendment. This had become the primary objective of the egalitarian feminists, and they threw all their resources into this battle. This factor contributed to the general impression that the liberal wing had taken over the Women's movement at the expense of the radical influence, an impression that was reinforced by the forming of coalitions around the egalitarian battle plan.

The reasons for such crystallizations are obvious. Although militants recognized that the Equal Rights Amendment alone could not eradicate sexist prejudices from individuals or the society, they nevertheless believed that an amendment to the Constitution was the only possible remedy to destroy the underlying prejudice of the fundamental law of the land. The soundness of their argument cannot be denied, if we recall the government interpretation, in the case of women army doctors in World War II claiming equal pay, that the accepted constitutional meaning of the term person did not include the female sex. It was all the more frustrating and humiliating for American feminists, in the best-organized women's rights movement in the world, to be facing defeat, after more than half a century of combat, for lack of three ratifying votes. In 1980, in fact, thirty-five states had ratified the amendment, thirty-three having done so in the three years following the historic vote of Congress in 1972 passing the ERA. But after 1975, only two further ratifications had been scored, and in three states, legislatures that had already voted ratification now voted in favor of rescinding their previous votes, although the constitutionality of this rescission was doubtful. Not surprisingly, the strongest opposition came from the South. The same nine southern states that had earlier refused to ratify the amendment granting women the vote now refused to ratify the one granting sexual equality. The taste of defeat was all the more bitter in that numerous surveys had shown that, with little variation, there was a constant majority of public support for the ERA. When President Reagan took office, this majority even rose sharply from 58 to 63 percent.

How, then, can we explain the ERA's successive failures to be ratified, either through legislative votes, as in North Carolina and Florida, or by local referendum for the adoption of a home-grown ERA modifying the state constitution, as in New Jersey and New York? Feminist analysts have decided that the main reason lies in their previous underestimation of the opposition. It had been naive of them to believe that their only opponents were sincere but misguided housewives. In the analysis of the NWPC, NOW, and the editors of Ms., the ERA's real adversaries have been the organized political forces of the extreme Right. Of the women who have made careers out of urging other women not to have careers but to stay home and vote against sexual equality, the most notorious include the following: Phyllis Schlafly, an outspoken ultraconservative and head of the National Stop ERA Movement; Helen Andelin, author of The Secret Power of Femininity and founder of the Femininity Forum, under whose banner the California anti-ERA forces were assembled; Maureen Startup, also from California, who organized a convention for that state's annulment of its previous ratification of the ERA; Annette Stern, a "home executive" in her own preferred term, leader of the New York group most hostile to the ERA, Operation Wake Up, and founder of WUNDER.6 According to feminist sources, the funding for these groups has come, partially or entirely, from openly racist organizations like the John Birch Society, from anti-Communist groups like the Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation, or from bastions of traditionalism like the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution. Powerful opposition has also come from the direction of organized religion, led by the Baptist, Mormon, and Catholic churches. Last but far from least, the economic implications of equality must not be overlooked. As the NOW leaders observed, big business has been visible by its absence from the coalitions supporting passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. The hostility of the world of high finance is definitive proof of early feminist successes. Courtordered retroactive correction of sexual discrimination has cost big companies a lot of money: $100 million for AT& T, for example, and $75 million for Sears. But these sums are minuscule in comparison with the real amounts involved, according to the estimate of a private economist consulted by Elinor Langer:

If, in 1970, women who worked had earned the same amount per hour as men who worked, it would have cost employers an additional $96 billion in payroll alone.…If women had earned the same as men and worked the same number of hours, the addition to the payroll would have been $303 billion.7

More recent figures from the Labor Department show that in 1988, women made up 44.8 percent of the U.S. labor force, and that in the 1990s, they will fill 60 percent of new jobs, so that by the year 2000, women will account for about half of the work force.

It is understandable what worry this can cause in powerful and recalcitrant business sectors, such as insurance companies, for example, which furthermore are well represented in state legislatures, according to a NOW study of the Illinois state senate.

In state legislatures called to vote for or against the federal amendment, therefore, it has been easy for multinational companies to defend their special interests. The ERA has become a political hot potato, and this, say the feminist analysts, is the second reason for its defeat. The vote of Florida legislators on the ERA, for example, as the local press objectively reports, was not really for or against sexual equality; instead, the ERA vote was used by them as a bargaining chip for unrelated political transactions, some negotiating to retain their chairmanship of a committee, others wanting to put an obstacle in the path of a political adversary favorable to the amendment. As the editorial writer of the Women's Political Times bluntly put it, "They're playing political football with our issue."8

Naturally, this sport has been concealed behind a smokescreen. When speaking publicly, opponents of the ERA have found pretexts in the language of the amendment itself, with scare talk about the institutionalization of public toilets in common to both sexes, homosexual marriages, and the military draft for women, all scaremongering images which they evoked as representative of the Women's movement itself, and as the logical outcome of passage of the ERA. Now we confront the third reason for the ERA's failure, in the view of feminist analysts: the negative image that many women have of feminists, stereotyped as ruthlessly ambitious career women with hearts of steel under their elegant business suits, or else as bare-breasted, bisexual flaming revolutionaries. Trying to understand the crushing defeat suffered by the ERA in New York, Lindsy Van Gelder interviewed four women whose interests and opinions coincided with the spirit of the ERA, but who nonetheless had voted against it in a referendum simply because they had wanted to censure the Women's movement for the image it gave of itself, and had refused to give the movement their vote of confidence.9

Here we reencounter the same old problem of credibility, which has always undermined feminist efforts. The problem is all the more serious in that it creates opposition to feminism in certain categories of women themselves, particularly housewives and low-income wage earners. While some opposition comes from groups that defend their special interests by pretending to believe that the concept of a politically organized women's rights movement is fundamentally unsound and unnecessary, housewives and low-income women are sincere in rejecting the ERA out of fear for their own security. Feminists engaged in reform face a double challenge: on the one hand, to convince women that their action is worthwhile and that the stereotypes are false; on the other hand, to expose the intrigues of power and money interests hiding behind the skirts of Phyllis Schlafly and her troops.

To meet this challenge, feminists recognized early the need to come out of isolation and form alliances. They saw that well-chosen allies could bring much-needed credibility to their image; this would signify the creation of a united front, as opponents had done in the National Stop ERA Movement. For this reason, as soon as the anti-ERA backlash effect began to appear, a policy of coalition emerged among feminists, beginning in about 1975, of which the first fruit was the US National Women's Agenda. A broad coalition for the ERA was created in the following year: ER-America, which, from its founding, brought together more than a hundred diverse organizations, including women's clubs, religious groups, labor unions, and civic bodies, all denouncing the sexual discrimination that afflicted American women and proclaiming the legitimacy of the amendment through which they were seeking their place in the Constitution. This coalition, which opened a new era in feminist militancy, did not come about solely through the will of feminists; it seems to have resulted from a growing awareness among all sorts of liberal organizations of the real implications of opposition to the ERA, thus confirming what feminists had been alleging about the true identity of the special interest groups opposing it. In fact, it began to appear more and more evident that the extreme Right was using the ERA as a political "litmus test," as a victory on this issue could be the prelude to other conservative offensives against, for example, arms reduction, consumer protection, and labor union demands. According to the Women's Political Times, key liberal leaders held an important strategy meeting in Washington from 17 to 19 April 1978 to devise common ways of countering the new upsurge of strength on the extreme Right.10 They decided to establish a permanent regional structure to facilitate communication with each other. But even more important, it seems to me, was the dialogue opened in the late 1970s between feminists and labor union leaders, ending more than a century of mutual suspicion. New relationships of reciprocity developed: in exchange for labor union support for the ERA, the NWPC committed itself to support labor and social legislation such as the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act and the Labor Law Reform Bill. I think it is important to mention this agreement, since it rested on a basis of equality and mutual respect. By this I mean that there was no trace of paternalism in this labor union support, and this fact, expressing united struggle for a common cause, is the great advance achieved by the new feminism of the 1960s and 1970s over the protofeminism of the postwar years.

This cooperation with others seems to us to have opened a new era for militant feminism in more than one way. It has not only brought feminism out of isolation, but also drawn it out of a defensive posture. Too often, in fact, feminists have been content to spend their time denying the half-truths spread by Phyllis Schlafly about public toilets, homosexual marriages, and the draft. Regarding public toilets common to both sexes, for example, feminists have recalled that the Supreme Court has already recognized a constitutional right to personal privacy in intimate matters in the 1965 case Griswold v. Connecticut. The legalization of homosexual marriages would not be discriminatory if it applied to both sexes. On the draft, feminists have proposed that both men and women should be exempt if they have children under eighteen years of age. But in the new era of cooperation, starting in the late 1970s, feminists began a positive approach to demonstrate the benefits of the Equal Rights Amendment to those most frightened by it: housewives. In the case of divorce, they began emphasizing, the elimination of inequality before the law would mean that housewives would be guaranteed the right to compensation for services rendered, instead of uncertain and humiliating alimony payments. Widows whose husbands had died without leaving a will would automatically be entitled to receive their husbands' pensions, instead of having to fight a costly legal battle to do so. The ERA would eliminate an existing tax inequality, in which the estates of widows but not widowers were subject to inheritance taxes. Every housewife would have the same access to credit as her husband, which was not yet the case, in spite of the Equal Opportunity Credit Act.

This return to the offensive was marked by renewed vigor in NOW, 100,000 members strong after gaining new adherents at the Houston conference. The oldest organization in new feminism started off on a new footing in February 1978, with a solemn proclamation of a state of emergency for the Equal Rights Amendment, excluding any possibility of failure. "We have passed the point of no return,"11 they said, in announcing a new, two-level strategy: state and federal. At the state level, they would mount a campaign in every state that had not yet ratified the ERA. At the federal level, they would lobby Congress to obtain an extension of the deadline for ratification, originally set at 30 March 1979.

The boldest scheme devised by NOW was a boycott of the states whose legislatures had voted against ratification. All liberal organizations were urged not to hold any meetings or conventions in the fifteen recalcitrant states.12 The boycott results were encouraging for feminists, since 380 organizations of all types heard the appeal. The NOW initiative cost many cities dearly, hitting where it hurt. Miami Beach lost $9 million following the cancellation of convention reservations by the American Library Association, the National Organization of Religious Women, and the National Education Association. Chicago lost $15 million in similar circumstances. The attorney general of the state of Missouri, estimating the lost business to Kansas City and Saint Louis at $18 million, filed a suit against NOW for violation of the antitrust laws. Similar legal action was brought by the state of Nevada and by a travel agency in New Orleans. Recalling that the antitrust laws were aimed at business activities in restraint of trade, NOW retorted that a boycott was not a business activity, and that in any case, independent organizations were free to opt for or against the boycott. Further, NOW filed a countersuit for defamation, claiming $20 million from each of the accusing states. An initial success was gained when a federal district court in Missouri recognized that a boycott is a legitimate form of political expression.

The National Organization for Women out-shone itself with another initiative: the demand for extension of the original seven-year deadline for ratification of the ERA. Credit is due to NOW for the legal research regarding the constitutionality of the extension measure. Investigations revealed that no clause in the Constitution imposes a time limit for ratification; this practice began only with the Eighteenth Amendment. They also argued that although a time limit was mentioned in the preamble to the ERA, there was none in the text of the amendment itself; furthermore, since this time limit had been set by Congress, then Congress had the authority to modify it. Having done its homework, the feminist lobby threw all its weight into the battle and carried off a new success, since the extension of the deadline was voted in by a comfortable majority of 233 to 189 in the House of Representatives, and by 60 to 39 in the Senate. As recalled by the countdown kept by the National NOW Times, a new date was set for sexual equality: 30 June 1982.

This proved to be a vain effort, alas, because under fire from the New Right, the new deadline expired without the Equal Rights Amendment being ratified by any other state. With regard to the Constitution, the new feminist militants had suffered the same setback as the post-World War II ERA activists; that is, although they were uncontestably better organized and better supported, with a majority in numerous public opinion polls, they were still far from escaping from the trap of combat by proxy. In July 1982, immediately after expiration of the deadline, the Equal Rights Amendment was introduced anew to Congress, but American women would have to await the pleasure of the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees for the ERA to be inscribed again on the legislative calendar. A vote did take place in the House of Representatives in November 1983, but the amendment failed, six votes short of the required two-thirds majority, with the Democrats dividing 225-38 in favor and the Republicans opposing it 109-53.13


On 22 January 1973, in the case of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court, ruling for the first time on the issue of abortion, rendered a decision in favor of its legality in the United States. This historic decision immediately aroused an army of dissenters. The forces opposing a woman's right to choose the voluntary interruption of pregnancy have been, by and large, the same as those fighting the Equal Rights Amendment. On each anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling, in contrast to the symbolic funeral rites feminists used to hold for women who had died from the butchery of illegal backstreet abortions, now the antichoice forces, calling themselves partisans of the "right to life," began organizing emotional demonstrations in front of the Capitol Building and elsewhere. Thousands of children from Catholic and fundamentalist Protestant schools, let out of lessons for the occasion, were paraded, waving red roses symbolizing the children who will never be born. The Catholic church is believed to have invested huge sums annually in the campaign to overturn the Supreme Court decision, and there has also been a faction of resistance in the medical professions. Opposition has been focused in the National Right-to-Life Committee, established in the 1970s. The most fanatical foes of abortion have frequently had recourse to violence against family planning centers and feminist clinics. A more insidious and more dangerous strategy, from the feminist point of view, has been the attempt to outlaw abortion entirely through a constitutional amendment. In spring 1977, only four years after Roe v. Wade, the Women's Political Times announced that seventy members of Congress had already offered such constitutional amendments. Feminist ranks were worried, recognizing that there was a serious risk of returning to the days of dangerous illegal abortions that existed before 1973; in 1977, with those days still fresh in mind, the journalist Roberta Brandes Gratz summarized the case in a thought-provoking article entitled "Never Again! Never Again?" She cited Koryne Horbal, a member of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), who reproached feminists for being too soft and yielding on this question: "women's groups have not made it clear to liberal Congressmen and state legislators that abortion is a non-negotiable issue."14

It was essential to communicate to liberal male politicians that they could not dodge an uncomfortable situation by giving their support to women on other controversial issues in exchange for defection on the thornier question of abortion.

In early 1983, after Senator Jesse Helms had tried in vain to push through a constitutional amendment asserting that human life begins at conception, his colleague Orrin Hatch attempted to open debate on another amendment that would give state legislatures or Congress the right to outlaw abortion. In 1983, and again in 1986, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the right of American women to voluntary interruption of pregnancy, but opposition only increased. Just before the end of President Reagan's second term, his administration filled a friend-of-the court brief with the Supreme Court, asking it to overturn its 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. The Court, fortified by conservative members named by President Reagan, agreed to review the case of Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, in what many viewed as the most serious challenge to the legality of abortion since 1973. The case came before the Supreme Court in April 1989, and to show their support for Roe v. Wade, feminists rallied in one of the largest political demonstrations ever held in Washington, rivaling others that have marked historic turning points, such as the 1963 march for civil rights. Working together through the coordination of the Fund for the Feminist Majority under President Ellie Smeal, feminists drew an estimated 300,000 women from all over the United States, in contrast to only a few hundred antichoice advocates who marched in opposition. "It's a turning point," said Ellie Smeal. "It's a totally new ball game. It's given us the confidence that we are the majority."

The Supreme Court's decision, in July 1989, considerably reduced American women's abortion rights, confirming several essential clauses of a restrictive Missouri law. By five votes to four, the Court held constitutional the provision forbidding public funding for the voluntary interruption of pregnancy. Therefore, the decision left the states free not to finance abortions. Also, contrary to the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the July 1989 decision allowed tests on the viability of the foetus at twenty weeks after conception. In addition, the Court under Chief Justice Rehnquist judged constitutional the preamble to the Missouri law which declared that "life begins at conception." Admittedly, the justices said that this declaration did not necessarily have concrete applications on the right to abortion; nevertheless, they let stand Missouri's definition of conception as the moment of fertilization. Finally, the Court reversed itself on one of the fundamental bases of its 1973 ruling, which gave women an absolute right to abortion during the first trimester (three months) of pregnancy without state intervention in their privacy; henceforth, following Webster, the states can intervene from the first trimester.

Consequently, the abortion debate now will be focused at the state level. Instead of a uniform law for the whole country, each state will have its own abortion laws. American women who have the means to pay for an abortion will travel to the so-called liberal states, but the new restrictions will dramatically strike poor women, as well as the youngest and those least informed. Pro-choice advocates fear a return to risky illegal abortions.

In the three months following the Webster decision, the Supreme Court agreed to review other abortion-related cases: Ohio and Minnesota laws involving the constitutionality of parental-notification rules for minors, and an Illinois statute requiring abortions to be performed in strictly licensed clinics. The Pennsylvania legislature was about to pass new severely restrictive legislation that appeared destined to be challenged in the Supreme Court, and other collisions seemed likely.

The decision in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services galvanized American public opinion and political attention. It not only gave a jolt to the Women's movement, but seemed to arouse pro-choice advocates far beyond the ranks of already convinced feminists. In a story headed, "Can Pro-Choicers Prevail?," Time magazine reported on 14 August 1989 that since the Court had agreed to review the case, NOW and NARAL had each gained 50,000 new members. Three months after the decision, when President George Bush vetoed legislation that would have provided federal funding of abortions for women who were the victims of rape or incest, the House only failed by a narrow margin to override the veto. The president's stance, which was seen as allowing abortion rights to women of means and denying them to all others, was widely criticized by members of his own party as politically damaging. Representative Bill Green, Republican, of New York, said, "Mr. Bush may have stumbled on the one issue that could cost him the election in 1992."

The Feminist Struggle and Women at Work

In keeping with Resolution 10 of the Houston platform, and in keeping with the importance assigned by egalitarian feminists to women's rights in the workplace and their systematic attacks on sexual discrimination, numerous initiatives have aimed at combating sexually discriminatory practices and at improving women's lot in employment. The observer could even conclude that the fierce fighting for the Equal Rights Amendment is primarily motivated by the desire to obtain equality for women in hiring, salaries and job responsibilities. This is the basis on which all the previously mentioned professional associations operate, considering that women are not "stealing men's jobs," but that an enormous majority of them are working out of economic necessity. In 1981, they represented 43 percent of the total national active labor force (including full-time and part-time work), and of these, roughly 45 percent were single, widowed, separated, or divorced, while about 25 percent were married to men earning less than $10,000 per year. In 1988, the figure for working women in the national active labor force had risen to 44.8 percent, and among young women, it was much higher. The Labor Department estimated two-thirds of married women aged 20 to 34 were working, and that by the end of the century, women would represent roughly half the American labor force. According to the feminist philosophy of survival, work, for a great many women, is a necessity, the only way to escape social determinism.


The preferred form of legal action has been to file a court suit pleading for application of existing legislation, specifically, the legislation known as Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. It must be said that the author of the sexual clause of this act had considerably underestimated its importance. Feminists and women plaintiffs influenced by feminism have, in fact, invoked Title VII not only regarding injustices in hiring, salary, or promotion, but also for any matter concerned with sexual harassment. Numerous feminist advice centers15 were set up in the 1970s to provide information about the legal procedures to follow in such cases. Numerous such suits have been filed and won under Title VII; in one of the first examples, Diane Williams, an employee at the Department of Justice, received $16,000 in back pay for having been fired after refusing to give in to the sexual advances of her boss.

Feminist militancy in the workplace has favored court action, and particularly, class action suits. As a new embodiment of "sisterhood," this form of protest appears above all as the collective response of women to their common oppression. It was born, in the most spontaneous way, among women in journalism. On 16 March 1970, forty-six women employed by Newsweek filed a suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) claiming that the magazine was practicing sexual discrimination by restricting them to tasks of research and compilation; Newsweek at that time had only one female editor for fifty-one male editors, twelve female reporters for sixty-four male reporters and thirty-four female researchers for only one male researcher. An agreement was signed, on the symbolic date of 26 August 1970, stating a declaration of good intentions on the part of the employer and establishing a women's committee charged with seeing that the management carried out its promises. Two months after the Newsweek initiative, 147 women employees of Time Incorporated undertook similar action, for the same reasons. The accord reached in the Time suit stipulated that all jobs in the company should be henceforth open to all qualified persons, regardless of sex, and that compliance would be supervised by the Human Rights Division of the State of New York.

The class action suit for sexual discrimination took on a new dimension when filed by a group whose common interests were outside the job field. It became a collective summons to a class of officials issued by an organized class of feminists. This was the interesting procedure followed by the Women's Equity Action League (WEAL) regarding discrimination in higher education.

Before it is possible to enter battle in the name of the law, there has to be a law covering the issue; in this case, the law concerned private or public institutions of higher education receiving federal funds. Now, although Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act included sexual discrimination, this title does not mention education. However, Title VI of the same act applies to all institutions receiving federal funds, therefore including teaching institutions, but does not include the clause on sexual discrimination. Thus, a gap existed in the law as it stood, and it needed to be remedied. WEAL did research to dig up an appropriate precedent, and found executive order 11246 of 24 September 1965, amended by executive order 11375 of 13 October 1967, which forbade sexual discrimination in federal employment and applied to all contractors and subcontractors with the federal government.

On 31 January 1970, WEAL filed its first class action suit, summoning the federal administration to apply this executive order to all university establishments bound by contracts with the federal government. Several hundred suits were filed by the same and other organizations within the Women's movement against institutions of higher learning, the first target being the University of Maryland. Feminist pressure was also exercised on Congress, through Edith Green, Democratic congresswoman from Oregon, who in February 1970 submitted four bills aimed at eliminating all sexual discrimination in teaching institutions. Under pressure from two directions, in the euphoric year of 1972, which also saw the passage by Congress of the Equal Rights Amendment, the Ninety-Second Congress adopted Title IX of the Amendments to the Federal Education Act stipulating that:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.16

Now it was a matter of getting the law enforced. This was the second grand offensive of WEAL, launched when the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare published some alarming statistics: HEW revealed, in fact, that of 3,472 university-level institutions, nearly two-thirds had either not returned the proper forms certifying their conformance with the antidiscriminatory legislation, or had falsified their declarations. In spite of this, no institution had been penalized. WEAL's response was immediate and dramatic. The group filed suit against the secretary of health, education, and welfare for administrative negligence in the matter of sexual discrimination. The suit was granted a favorable outcome by the courts, which ordered further investigations in seventeen states. A settlement was reached in 1978 between the parties, in which the secretary undertook to investigate respect for civil rights in schools and universities, and to recruit 898 staff members, to be assigned to an HEW subagency, the Office of Civil Rights; by this recruitment, HEW was to make up for its delay in examining 3,000 discrimination complaints that had been lying unattended, and to do so by 30 September 1979.

These figures belied a new myth circulating in the 1970s on university campuses alleging reverse sexual discrimination; rumors were heard of women being hired and promoted just because they were women. In 1978, representation of women on the faculties of America's ten most prestigious universities was stagnating at 15 percent, after having declined between 1971 and 1974, and overall, only 8 percent of these women had reached the peak of the academic pyramid. However, by 1981, according to data presented by Catharine Stimpson at a colloquium in Toulouse, France,17 35 percent of all U.S. college and university teachers were women.

Another major initiative undertaken by WEAL in this second offensive concerned sexual discrimination in the retirement schemes that applied in most universities. Until 1978, in fact, it was customary in the United States for women to pay higher retirement contributions than men for an equal or lower pension, on the theory that women live longer than men. However, 84 percent of men and women have equal longevity. In other words, all women were penalized because a minority of them live longer. This was the basis of a class action suit filed by WEAL against more than 2,000 university establishments whose retirement funds were administered by the Teacher's Insurance and Annuity Association. In July 1983, the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's 1978 decision which ended the regime of higher retirement contributions for women, proclaiming the principle of equal retirement pensions for equal contributions. However, this decision had no retroactive effect.


Feminists' interest in legal action has been shown by a massive influx of women enrolling in law schools. In 1970, for example, women represented only 10 percent of first-year law students; in 1980, they made up a quarter of the beginning enrollment. By 1989, 40 percent of the law students in the United States were women. Pursuing law studies has been seen as a political act in the cause of women's rights, and figured among the militant activities listed by one of my radical feminist correspondents. As early as 1973, Judith Hole and Ellen Levine reported the words of a woman jurist who said that every law school in the country was harboring a group of militant feminists. If anyone wonders about the political motivation that might drive an increasing number of young women toward this sector of the university, it seems obvious that their choice is the result of a primary commitment to the feminist movement and their awareness that women need to know how to use the laws or reform them for their own benefit. In any case, the Women's Liberation movement has always needed lawyers.

The first action by feminist law students consisted of transforming women' rights issues into a new branch of legal studies. Their objective was to gain acceptance in the law schools of an emerging academic discipline, to be called women's rights law. Their argument was that numerous sexist laws remained on the books in many states, and that lawsuits for sexual discrimination were on the increase; these factors provided substantial material for debate and for fascinating research. Furthermore, it was important that graduating classes of women lawyers should be trained in these areas to prevent this lucrative market being entirely taken over by men. The mission of eradicating sexism from the patriarchal legal system could only be incumbent upon women of goodwill.

The first success in this matter was the appearance of specific courses on women and the law, such as the one taught by the feminist jurist Diane Schulder at the University of Pennsylvania, beginning in 1969. The following year, similar courses were started at Yale, Georgetown, and George Washington University, focusing on sexism in state laws and analyzing Supreme court decisions concerning the status of women. The year 1971 saw the birth of the first periodical aimed at jurists specializing in women's rights law: the Women's Rights Law Reporter.

Actions by women law students had early echoes in the legal professions. The Law Women's Caucus of the faculty of the University of Chicago Law School filed a suit with the EEOC in February 1970 against the university's placement office, which offered its services to notoriously sexist law firms. Under pressure from the EEOC, the law school promised to ostracize any firm guilty of sexual discrimination. Similar decisions were taken by the law schools of the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan.

At the professional level, feminist lawyers naturally took up the relay. Here again, they resorted to class action suits. In March 1971, the Legal Task Force of the Professional Women's Caucus filed a class suit against all law schools receiving federal funds, for sexual discrimination in the recruitment of law students. The action was based on statistics published by the Committee on Women in Legal Education formed by the Association of American Law Schools, indicating that between 1966 and 1970, the number of women law students had only increased by an average of 3 percent, and in the same period, a third of the law schools had seen their percentage of women students decline.

Following the same reasoning that inspired women to study law, feminist lawyers have put their skills at the service of the cause of women's rights. Nonprofit groups and associations were formed. Human Rights for Women, for example, was born in 1968. This tax-exempt foundation, created with a generous donation from Alice Paul, one of the leading suffragists, specialized in the documentation or even financing of sexual discrimination lawsuits. Landmark suits aided by this foundation include the 1969 cases of Bowe et al. v. Colgate Palmolive and Mengelhock v. State of California.18 In the same spirit, but on a larger scale, radical feminists of the Chicago Women's Liberation Union established a legal clinic where, every Wednesday night, legal advisers came to give counseling to women wishing to pursue legal action to defend their rights.

By 1989, women lawyers made up 20 percent of their profession and were boldly challenging the status quo. From 30 March to 2 April 1989, over 1,300 women attended the Twentieth Women and the Law Conference held in Oakland, California, on the theme "In the Courtroom and in the Community: Twenty Years of Feminist Struggle." There were more than a hundred workshops, covering a broad range of issues in criminal law, education, economic empowerment, employment, feminist jurisprudence, family law, housing, health, immigration, international law, sex, violence, and women in prison. The workshop called Unpacking Violence against Women focused on a feminist theoretical basis for activism against violence against women; its closing speaker was Catharine A. MacKinnon, one of the leading feminist scholars of jurisprudence, best-known for pioneering the theoretical work behind establishing sexual harassment as a form of sex discrimination and for drafting an antipornography ordinance with Andrea Dworkin.


Feminist legal action has also been undertaken by office workers, and this is interesting from another point of view: it shows the emergence of permanent workers' defense structures in an employment sector that is overwhelmingly female (80.1 percent of office workers are women). By 1984, a grid of mutual-interest groups covering this enormous force of working women was well established. In the feminist surge of the 1970s, some twenty or more such associations were organized, usually at the city level. The most well known have been Union WAGE in Berkeley, Women Organized for Employment (WOE) in San Francisco, Women Employed (WE) in Chicago, Women Office Workers (WOW) in New York, and 9 to 5 in Boston. The financial resources of these groups have come from dues paid by the members, grants given by various nonprofit organizations, conferences, lectures, and other initiatives. On the morning of 16 July 1977, when I met members of the group 9 to 5, they were busily engaged in a book sale, selling such feminist works as Jean Tepperman's Not Servants, Not Machines: Office Workers Speak Out, at the foot of Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge.

For the day of the national secretaries' strike in 1974, Women Employed and 9 to 5 jointly published a Secretary's Bill of Rights, which first proclaimed the human dignity of secretaries, and went on to address the social legislation covering them. As a member of 9 to 5 told us, clerical workers were asking not only for their rights on the job, but also wanted the consideration of being treated as human beings. To achieve this goal, different groups have pursued two types of strategy. One consists of putting pressure on government agencies to enforce the law; thus, the group 9 to 5 filed lawsuits against banks, insurance companies, and publishing firms in Boston, in order that the official order for "affirmative action" should not be just vain words. The second strategy consists of organizing workers at the workplace. In this case, the aim is to make them aware of the political dimension of their position as workers in relation to management, and to train them in activist techniques enabling them to use their power, organize meetings, and manage protest activities.

Although these groups have won some legal battles against an insurance company here or there, their successes remain fragmentary. According to a pamphlet published in 1979 by the Women's Work Project,19 the condition of office workers had even deteriorated in the previous twenty or thirty years, particularly in the matter of salaries. A woman office worker who, in 1956, received 72 percent of the salary of her male colleagues, only received 60 percent of a man's salary in 1975. Inevitably the question arose, as asked by Jean Tepperman in 1976 and repeated by Wendy Stevens in 1979:20 don't we need a union of women office workers? The idea quickly spread among those concerned. The group 9 to 5, which formerly had viewed the idea unfavorably, now began to think that women were ready to try this. In fact, thanks to the activities of the organization mentioned above, many women office workers have acquired experience in activism and public speaking, enabling them to play a role at the highest levels of labor unions, and perhaps to amend existing unions so that feminism is not entirely absorbed by unionism. It seems certain that only a national organization, bringing together women office workers in a united front, would permit these new talents to have sufficient impact to make a real change in the working conditions for women in this employment sector and to protect their jobs. A new menace is cited by the Women's Work Project pamphlet, that is, the accelerated pace of office automation, which they claim is being used by big banking corporations as a convenient way of ridding themselves of the growing demands of their employees.

In the employment sector, as in the civil rights field, a policy of unity is needed. We have seen the first fruits of the struggle, and we can say that this experimentation with a strategy of coalition is the most significant evolution in feminism in recent years. This new orientation recalls that followed by nineteenth-century feminism in its earliest phase, when the cause of women was linked with that of the black slaves in a common struggle for rights. Do twentieth-century feminists run the risk of being the big losers in this policy of coalition, as their sisters were in 1865? I think a negative answer can be given to this question, since the political contexts appear to me to be quite different. In the 1860s, the black question was the crucial issue, and the women's question had been raised, in some ways, as a side issue. In contrast, if we consider the virulence of the antifeminist backlash in the 1980s, it appears that the women's question, even if it does not make the headlines every day, has been perceived as the primordial issue today in the field of civil rights. Nevertheless, this assessment does not imply a relaxation of vigilance.


  1. "Houston: A Reaffirmation for NWPC," editorial, Women's Political Times 2, no. 4 (Winter 1977): 2.
  2. Elinor Langer, "Why Big Business Is Trying to Defeat the ERA: The Economic Implications of Equality," Ms. 4, no. 1 (May 1976): 106.
  3. Jo Freeman, "Women at the 1988 Democratic Convention," Off Our Backs (October 1988): 5.
  4. "Mr. President, Thank You, But," editorial, Women's Political Times 2, no. 1 (Winter 1977): 2.
  5. Yet, the requirement for equal division by sex does not apply to superdelegates (members of Congress and governors) whose presence "still tips the balance in favor of males. The 1984 Democratic party convention had 50 more men than women delegates, and in 1988, there were over a hundred more men." Off Our Backs (October 1988): 4.
  6. Women United to Defend Existing Rights.
  7. Langer, "Why Big Business," 102.
  8. "ERA Down the Wire," Women's Political Times, 2, no. 2 (Spring 1977): 2.
  9. Lindsy Van Gelder, "The 400,000 Voter Misunderstanding," Ms. 4, no. 9 (March 1976): 67.
  10. Diane Fitzgerald, "Liberal Leaders Plan Counter to Right," Women's Political Times 3, no. 2 (Summer 1978): 5.

    The participants were Gloria Steinem for Ms.; Mildred Jeffrey for the NWPC; Ellie Smeal for NOW; Ben Albert and Victor Kramber for the AFL-CIO; Carl Wagner for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees; Jim Farner for the Coalition of American Public Employees; the Democratic senator from New Hampshire, Thomas J. McIntyre; Russ Hemenway for the National Committee for an Effective Congress; Joyce Hamlin for the United Methodist church; Carol Costin for Network, and Wes McCuun, a researcher who had specialized for sixteen years in studying right-wing political activities.

  11. National Organization for Women, "Declaration of a State of Emergency," March 1978.
  12. The NOW boycott was aimed at Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah, and Virginia.
  13. Berry, Why ERA Failed, 106.
  14. Cited by Roberta Brandes Gratz in "Never Again! Never Again?" Ms. 6, no. 1 (July 1977): 54.
  15. Among these were the Alliance against Sexual Coercion, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the Working Women United Institute, in New York.
  16. U.S. Department of Labor, Handbook on Women Workers, Bulletin 297 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), 300.
  17. "Femmes, féminisme et recherches," colloquium held in Toulouse, France, 17, 18, and 19 December 1982.
  18. These two cases concerned so-called protective legislation, claiming that such laws actually imposed a handicap on women by their provisions forbidding women to lift certain weights and to work overtime.
  19. The Women's Work Project, Women Organizing the Office (Washington, D.C.: Women in Distribution, 1979).
  20. Tepperman, Not Servants, Not Machines, 92. Wendy Stevens, "Women Organizing the Office," Off Our Backs 9, no. 4 (April 1979): 10.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]


SOURCE: Kaminer, Wendy. "Feminism's Identity Crisis." In Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism, edited by Dawn Keetley and John Pettegrew, pp. 458-67. Madison, Wis.: Madison House, 1997.

In the following essay, first published in 1993, Kaminer charts the evolution of feminist ideas through popular culture and the media in the 1990s, noting a persistent ambivalence toward the role of women in society.

My favorite political moment of the 1960s was a Black Panther rally in a quadrangle of Smith College on a luxuriant spring day. Ramboesque in berets and ammunition belts, several young black males exhorted hundreds of young white females to contribute money to Bobby Seale's defense fund. I stood at the back of the crowd watching yarn ties on blonde pony-tails bobbing up and down while the daughters of CEOs nodded in agreement with the Panthers' attack on the ruling class.

It was all so girlish—or boyish, depending on your point of view. Whatever revolution was fomenting posed no apparent threat to gender roles. Still, women who were not particularly sensitive to chauvinism in the counterculture or the typical fraternity planned to attend graduate or professional school and pursue careers that would have been practically unthinkable for them ten years earlier. Feminism was altering their lives as much as draft avoidance was altering the lives of their male counterparts.

Today, three decades of feminism and one Year of the Woman later, a majority of American women agree that feminism has altered their lives for the better. In general, polls conducted over the past three years indicate strong majority support for feminist ideals. But the same polls suggest that a majority of women hesitate to associate themselves with the movement. As Karlyn Keene, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has observed, more than three quarters of American women support efforts to "strengthen and change women's status in society," yet only a minority, a third at most, identify themselves as feminists.

Many feminists take comfort in these polls, inferring substantial public support for economic and political equality, and dismissing women's wariness of the feminist label as a mere image problem (attributed to unfair media portrayals of feminists as a strident minority of frustrated women). But the polls may also adumbrate unarticulated ambivalence about feminist ideals, particularly with respect to private life. If widespread support for some measure of equality reflects the way women see, or wish to see, society, their unwillingness to identify with feminism reflects the way they see themselves, or wish to be seen by others.

To the extent that it challenges discrimination and the political exclusion of women, feminism is relatively easy for many women to embrace. It appeals to fundamental notions of fairness; it suggests that social structures must change but that individuals, particularly women, may remain the same. For many women, feminism is simply a matter of mommy-tracking, making sure that institutions accommodate women's familial roles, which are presumed to be essentially immutable. But to the extent that feminism questions those roles and the underlying assumptions about sexuality, it requires profound individual change as well, posing an unsettling challenge that well-adjusted people instinctively avoid. Why question norms of sex and character to which you've more or less successfully adapted?

Of course, the social and individual changes demanded by feminism are not exactly divisible. Of course, the expansion of women's professional roles and political power affects women's personality development. Still, many people manage to separate who they are in the workplace from who they are in bed, which is why feminism generates so much cognitive dissonance. As it addresses and internalizes this dissonance and women's anxiety about the label "feminism," as it embarks on a "third wave," the feminist movement today may suffer less from a mere image problem than from a major identity crisis.

It's difficult, of course, to generalize about how millions of American women imagine feminism and what role it plays in their lives. All one can say with certitude is that different women define and relate to feminism differently. The rest—much of this essay—is speculation, informed by conversations with editors of women's magazines (among the most reliable speculators about what women want), polling data, and ten years of experience studying feminist issues.

Resistance to the Label

Robin Morgan, the editor in chief of Ms., and Ellen Levine, the editor in chief of Redbook, two veterans of women's magazines and feminism, offer different views of feminism's appeal, each of which seem true, in the context of their different constituencies. Morgan sees a resurgent feminist movement and points to the formation of new feminist groups on campus and intensified grass-roots activity by women addressing a range of issues, from domestic violence to economic revitalization. Ellen Levine, however, believes that for the middle-class family women who read Redbook (the average reader is a thirty-nine-year-old wage-earning mother), feminism is "a non-issue." She says, "They don't think about it; they don't talk about it." They may not even be familiar with the feminist term of art "glass ceiling," which feminists believe has passed into the vernacular. And they seem not to be particularly interested in politics. The surest way not to sell Redbook is to put a woman politician on the cover: the January, 1993, issue of Good Housekeeping, with Hillary Clinton on the cover, did poorly at the newsstands, according to Levine.

Editors at more upscale magazines—Mirabella, Harper's Bazaar, and Glamour—are more upbeat about their readers' interest in feminism, or at least their identification with feminist perspectives. Gay Bryant, Mirabella's editor in chief, says, "We assume our readers are feminists with a small 'f.' We think of them as strong, independent, smart women; we think of them as pro-woman, although not all of them would define themselves as feminists politically." Betsy Carter, the executive editor of Harper's Bazaar, suggests that feminism has been assimilated into the culture of the magazine: "Feminism is a word that has been so absorbed in our consciousness that I don't isolate it. Asking me if I believe in feminism is like asking me if I believe in integration." Carter says, however, that women tend to be interested in the same stories that interest men: "Except for subjects like fly-fishing, it's hard to label something a man's story or a woman's story." In fact, she adds, "it seems almost obsolete to talk about women's magazines." Carter, a former editor at Esquire, recalls that Esquire's readership was 40 percent female, which indicated to her that "women weren't getting what they needed from the women's magazines."

Ruth Whitney, the editor in chief of Glamour, might disagree. She points out that Glamour runs monthly editorials with a decidedly "feminist" voice that infuses the magazine. Glamour readers may or may not call themselves feminists, she says, but "I would call Glamour a mainstream feminist magazine, in its editorials, features, fashions, and consumerism." Glamour is also a pro-choice magazine; as Whitney stresses, it has long published pro-choice articles—more than any other mainstream women's magazine, according to her. And it is a magazine for which women seem to constitute the norm: "We use the pronoun 'she' when referring to a doctor, lawyer, whomever, and that does not go unnoticed by our readers."

Some women will dispute one underlying implication of Betsy Carter's remarks—that feminism involves assimilation, the merger of male and female spheres of interest. Some will dispute any claims to feminism by any magazine that features fashion. But whether Ms. readers would call Harper's Bazaar, Mirabella, and Glamour feminist magazines, or magazines with feminist perspectives, their readers apparently do, if Betsy Carter, Gay Bryant, and Ruth Whitney know their audiences.

Perhaps the confident feminist self-image of these up-scale magazines, as distinct from the cautious exploration of women's issues in the middle-class Redbook, confirms a canard about feminism—that it is the province of upper-income urban professional women. But Ms. is neither up-scale nor fashionable, and it's much too earnest to be sophisticated. Feminism—or, at least, support for feminist ideals—is not simply a matter of class, or even race.

Susan McHenry, a senior editor at Working Woman and the former executive editor of Emerge, a new magazine for middle-class African-Americans, senses in African-American women readers "universal embrace of women's rights and the notion that the women's movement has been helpful." Embrace of the women's movement, however, is equivocal. "If you start talking about the women's movement, you hear a lot about what we believe and what white women believe."

For many black women, devoting time and energy to feminist causes or feminist groups may simply not be a priority. Black women "feel both racism and sexism," McHenry believes, but they consider the fight for racial justice their primary responsibility and assume that white women will pay primary attention to gender issues. Leslie Adamson, the executive secretary to the president of Radcliffe College, offers a different explanation. She doesn't, in fact, "feel" sexism and racism equally: "Sex discrimination makes me indignant. Racial discrimination makes me enraged." Adamson is sympathetic to feminism and says that she has always "had a feminist mind." Still, she does not feel particularly oppressed as a woman. "I can remember only two instances of sex discrimination in my life," she says. "Once when I was in the sixth grade and wanted to take shop and they made me take home economics; once when I visited my husband's relatives in Trinidad and they wouldn't let me talk about politics. Racism has always affected me on a regular basis." Cynthia Bell, the communications director for Greater Southeast Healthcare System in Washington, D.C., offers a similar observation: "It wasn't until I graduated from college that I encountered sexual discrimination. I remember racial discrimination from the time I remember being myself."

Black women who share feminist ideals but associate feminism with white women sometimes prefer to talk about "womanism," a term endorsed by such diverse characters as Alice Walker (who is credited with coining it) and William Safire. Susan McHenry prefers to avoid using the term "women's movement" and talks instead about "women moving." She identifies with women "who are getting things done, regardless of what they call themselves." But unease with the term "feminism" has been a persistent concern in the feminist movement, whether the unease is attributed to racial divisions or to residual resistance to feminist ideals. It is, in fact, a complicated historical phenomenon that reflects feminism's successes as well as its failures.

"The Less Tainted Half"

That feminism has the power to expand women's aspirations and improve their lives without enlisting them as card-carrying feminists is a tribute to its strength as a social movement. Feminism is not dependent on ideological purity (indeed, it has always been a mixture of conflicting ideologies) or any formal organizational structure. In the nineteenth century feminism drew upon countless unaffiliated voluntary associations of women devoted to social reform or self-improvement. Late-twentieth-century feminism has similarly drawn upon consciousness-raising groups, professional associations, community-action groups, and the increased work-force participation of middle-class women, wrought partly by economic forces and a revolution in birth control. Throughout its 150-year history feminism has insinuated itself into the culture as women have sought to improve their status and increase their participation in the world outside the home. If women are moving in a generally feminist direction—toward greater rights and a fairer apportionment of social responsibilities—does it matter what they call themselves?

In the nineteenth century many, maybe most, women who took part in the feminist movement saw themselves as paragons of femininity. The great historic irony of feminism is that the supposed feminine virtues that justified keeping women at home—sexual purity, compassion, and a talent for nurturance—eventually justified their release from the home as well. Women were "the less tainted half of the race," Frances Willard, the president of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, declared, and thus were the moral guardians of society.

But in the long run, identifying feminism with femininity offered women limited liberation. The feminine weaknesses that were presumed to accompany feminine virtues justified the two-tier labor force that kept women out of executive positions and political office and out of arduous, high-paying manual-labor jobs (although women were never considered too weak to scrub floors). By using femininity as their passport to the public sphere, women came to be typecast in traditional feminine roles that they are still playing and arguing about today. Are women naturally better suited to parenting than men? Are men naturally better suited to waging war? Are women naturally more cooperative and compassionate, more emotive and less analytic, than men?

A great many American women (and men) still seem to answer these questions in the affirmative, as evidenced by public resistance to drafting women and the private reluctance of women to assign, and men to assume, equal responsibility for child care. Feminism, however, is popularly deemed to represent an opposing belief that men and women are equally capable of raising children and equally capable of waging war. Thus feminism represents, in the popular view, a rejection of femininity.

Feminists have long fought for day-care and family-leave programs, but they still tend to be blamed for the work-family conundrums. Thirty-nine percent of women recently surveyed by Red-book said that feminism had made it "harder" for women to balance work and family life. Thirty-two percent said that feminism made "no difference" to women's balancing act. This may reflect a failure of feminists to make child care an absolutely clear priority. It may also reflect the association of feminism with upper-income women like Zoë Baird, who can solve their child-care problems with relative ease. But, as Zoë Baird discovered, Americans are still ambivalent about women's roles within and outside the home.

Feminism and the careerism it entails are commonly regarded as a zero-sum game not just for women and men but for women and children as well, Ellen Levine believes: wage-earning mothers still tend to feel guilty about not being with their children and to worry that "the more women get ahead professionally, the more children will fall back." Their guilt does not seem to be assuaged by any number of studies showing that the children of wage-earning mothers fare as well as the children of full-time homemakers, Levine adds. It seems to dissipate only as children grow up and prosper.

Feminists who dismiss these worries as backlash risk trivializing the inevitable stresses confronting wage-earning mothers (even those with decent day care). Feminists who respond to these worries by suggesting that husbands should be more like wives and mothers are likely to be considered blind or hostile to presumptively natural sex differences that are still believed to underlie traditional gender roles.

To the extent that it advocates a revolution in gender roles, feminism also comes as a reproach to women who lived out the tradition, especially those who lived it out unhappily. Robin Morgan says, "A woman who's been unhappily married for forty years and complains constantly to her friends, saying 'I've got to get out of this,' might stand up on a talk show and say feminism is destroying the family."

The Wages of Equality

Ambivalence about equality sometimes seems to plague the feminist movement almost as much today as it did ten years ago, when it defeated the Equal Rights Amendment. Worth noting is that in the legal arena feminism has met with less success than the civil-rights movement. The power of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s was the power to demonstrate the gap between American ideals of racial equality and the American reality for African-Americans. We've never had the same professed belief in sexual equality: federal equal-employment law has always treated racial discrimination more severely than sex discrimination, and so has the Supreme Court. The Court has not extended to women the same constitutional protection it has extended to racial minorities, because a majority of justices have never rejected the notion that some degree of sex discrimination is only natural.

The widespread belief in equality demonstrated by polls is a belief in equality up to a point—the point where women are drafted and men change diapers. After thirty years of the contemporary women's movement, equal-rights feminism is still considered essentially abnormal. Ellen Levine notes that middle-class family women sometimes associate feminism with lesbianism, which has yet to gain middle-class respectability. Homophobia is not entirely respectable either, however, so it may not be expressed directly in polls or conversations; but it has always been a subtext of popular resistance to feminism. Feminists have alternately been accused of hating men and of wanting to be just like them.

There's some evidence that the fear of feminism as a threat to female sexuality may be lessening: 77 percent of women recently surveyed by Redbook answered "yes" to the question "Can a woman be both feminine and a feminist?" But they were answering a question in the abstract. When women talk about why they don't identify with feminists, they often talk about not wanting to lose their femininity. To the extent that an underlying belief in feminine virtues limits women to feminine roles, as it did a hundred years ago, this rejection of the feminist label is a rejection of full equality. In the long run, it matters what women call themselves.

Or does it? Ironically, many self-proclaimed feminists today express some of the same ambivalence about changing gender roles as the "I'm not a feminist, but …" women ("… but I believe in equal opportunity or family leave or reproductive choice"). The popular image of feminism as a more or less unified quest for androgynous equality, promoted by the feminists' nemesis Camille Paglia, is at least ten years out of date.

The Comforts of Gilliganism

Central to the dominant strain of feminism today is the belief, articulated by the psychologist Carol Gilligan, that women share a different voice and different moral sensibilities. Gilligan's work—notably In a Different Voice (1982)—has been effectively attacked by other feminist scholars, but criticisms of it have not been widely disseminated, and it has passed with ease into the vernacular. In a modern-day version of Victorian True Womanhood, feminists and also some anti-feminists pay tribute to women's superior nurturing and relational skills and their "general ethic of caring." Sometimes feminists add parenthetically that differences between men and women may well be attributable to culture, not nature. But the qualification is moot. Believers in gender difference tend not to focus on changing the cultural environment to free men and women from stereotypes, as equal-rights feminists did twenty years ago; instead they celebrate the feminine virtues.

It was probably inevitable that the female solidarity at the base of the feminist movement would foster female chauvinism. All men are jerks, I might agree on occasion, over a bottle of wine. But that's an attitude, not an analysis, and only a small minority of separatist feminists turn it into an ideology. Gilliganism addresses the anxiety that is provoked by that attitude—the anxiety about compromising their sexuality which many feminists share with nonfeminists.

Much as they dislike admitting it, feminists generally harbor or have harbored categorical anger toward men. Some would say that such anger is simply an initial stage in the development of a feminist consciousness, but it is also an organizing tool and a fact of life for many women who believe they live in a sexist world. And whether or not it is laced with anger, feminism demands fundamental changes in relations between the sexes and the willingness of feminists to feel like unnatural women and be treated as such. For heterosexual women, feminism can come at a cost. Carol Gilligan's work valorizing women's separate emotional sphere helped make it possible for feminists to be angry at men and challenge their hegemony without feeling un-womanly. Nancy Rosenblum, a professor of political science at Brown University, says that Gilliganism resolved the conflict for women between feminism and femininity by "de-eroticizing it." Different-voice ideology locates female sexuality in maternity, as did Victorian visions of the angel in the house. In its simplest form, the idealization of motherhood reduces popular feminism to the notion that women are nicer than men.

Women are also widely presumed to be less warlike than men. "Women bring love; that's our role," one woman explained at a feminist rally against the GulfWar which I attended; it seemed less like a rally than a revival meeting. Women shared their need "to connect" and "do relational work." They recalled Jane Addams, the women's peace movement between the two world wars, and the Ban the Bomb marches of thirty years ago. They suggested that pacifism was as natural to women as childbirth, and were barely disconcerted by the presence of women soldiers in the Gulf. Military women were likely to be considered self-hating or male-identified or the hapless victims of a racist, classist economy, not self-determined women with minds and voices all their own. The war was generally regarded as an allegory of male supremacy; the patriarch Bush was the moral equivalent of the patriarch Saddam Hussein. If only men would listen to women, peace, like a chador, would enfold us.

In part, the trouble with True Womanhood is its tendency to substitute sentimentality for thought. Constance Buchanan, an associate dean of the Harvard Divinity School, observes that feminists who believe women will exercise authority differently often haven't done the hard work of figuring out how they will exercise authority at all. "Many feminists have an almost magical vision of institutional change," Buchanan says. "They've focused on gaining access but haven't considered the scale and complexity of modern institutions, which will not necessarily change simply by virtue of their presence."

Feminists who claim that women will "make a difference" do, in fact, often argue their case simply by pointing to the occasional female manager who works by consensus, paying little attention to hierarchy and much attention to her employees' feelings—assuming that such women more accurately represent their sex than women who favor unilateral decision-making and tend not to nurture employees. In other words, different-voice feminists often assume their conclusions: the many women whose characters and behavior contradict traditional models of gender difference (Margaret Thatcher is the most frequently cited example) are invariably dismissed as male-identified.…

Feminism Succumbs to Femininity

The feminist drive for equal rights was supposed to have been revitalized last year, and it's true that women were politically activated and made significant political gains. It's clear that women are moving, but in what direction? What is the women's movement all about?

Vying for power today are poststructural feminists (dominant in academia in recent years), political feminists (office-holders and lobbyists), different-voice feminists, separatist feminists (a small minority), pacifist feminists, lesbian feminists, careerist feminists, liberal feminists (who tend also to be political feminists), anti-porn feminists, eco-feminists, and womanists. These are not, of course, mutually exclusive categories, and this is hardly an exhaustive list. New Age feminists and goddess workshoppers widen the array of alternative truths. And the newest category of feminism, personal-development feminism, led nominally by Gloria Steinem, puts a popular feminist spin on deadeningly familiar messages about recovering from addiction and abuse, liberating one's inner child, and restoring one's self-esteem.

The marriage of feminism and the phenomenally popular recovery movement is arguably the most disturbing (and potentially influential) development in the feminist movement today. It's based partly on a shared concern about child abuse, nominally a left-wing analogue to right-wing anxiety about the family. There's an emerging alliance of anti-pornography and anti-violence feminists with therapists who diagnose and treat child abuse, including "ritual abuse" and "Satanism" (often said to be linked to pornography). Feminism is at risk of being implicated in the unsavory business of hypnotizing suspected victims of abuse to help them "retrieve" their buried childhood memories. Gloria Steinem has blithely praised the important work of therapists in this field without even a nod to the potential for, well, abuse when unhappy, suggestible people who are angry at their parents are exposed to suggestive hypnotic techniques designed to uncover their histories of victimization.

But the involvement of some feminists in the memory-retrieval industry is only one manifestation of a broader ideological threat posed to feminism by the recovery movement. Recovery, with its absurdly broad definitions of addiction and abuse, encourages people to feel fragile and helpless. Parental insensitivity is classed as child abuse, along with parental violence, because all suffering is said to be equal (meaning entirely subjective); but that's appropriate only if all people are so terribly weak that a cross word inevitably has the destructive force of a blow. Put very simply, women need a feminist movement that makes them feel strong.

Enlisting people in a struggle for liberation without exaggerating the ways in which they're oppressed is a challenge for any civil-rights movement. It's a particularly daunting one for feminists, who are still arguing among themselves about whether women are oppressed more by nature or by culture. For some feminists, strengthening women is a matter of alerting them to their natural vulnerabilities.

There has always been a strain of feminism that presents women as frail and naturally victimized. As it was a hundred years ago, feminist victimism is today most clearly expressed in sexuality debates—about pornography, prostitution, rape, and sexual harassment. Today sexual violence is a unifying focal point for women who do and women who do not call themselves feminists: 84 percent of women surveyed by Redbook considered "fighting violence against women" to be "very important." (Eighty-two percent rated workplace equality and 54 percent rated abortion rights as very important.) Given this pervasive, overriding concern about violence and our persistent failure to address it effectively, victimism is likely to become an important organizing tool for feminism in the 1990s.

Feminist discussions of sexual offenses often share with the recovery movement the notion that, again, there are no objective measures of suffering: all suffering is said to be equal, in the apparent belief that all women are weak. Wage-earning women testify to being "disabled" by sexist remarks in the workplace. College women testify to the trauma of being fondled by their dates. The term "date rape," like the term "addiction," no longer has much literal, objective meaning. It tends to be used figuratively, as a metaphor signifying that all heterosexual encounters are inherently abusive of women. The belief that in a male-dominated culture that has "normalized" rape, "yes" can never really mean "yes" has been popularized by the anti-pornography feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. (Dworkin devoted an entire book to the contention that intercourse is essentially a euphemism for rape.) But only five years ago Dworkin and MacKinnon were leaders of a feminist fringe. Today, owning partly to the excesses of multiculturalism and the exaltation of victimization, they're leaders in the feminist mainstream.

Why is feminism helping to make women feel so vulnerable? Why do some young women on Ivy League campuses, among the most privileged people on the globe, feel oppressed? Why does feminist victimology seem so much more pervasive among middle- and upper-class whites than among lower-income women, and girls, of color? Questions like these need to be aired by feminists. But in some feminism circles it is heresy to suggest that there are degrees of suffering and oppression, which need to be kept in perspective. It is heresy to suggest that being raped by your date may not be as traumatic or terrifying as being raped by a stranger who breaks into your bedroom in the middle of the night. It is heresy to suggest that a woman who has to listen to her colleagues tell stupid sexist jokes has a lesser grievance than a woman who is physically accosted by her supervisor. It is heresy, in general, to question the testimony of self-proclaimed victims of date rape or harassment, as it is heresy in a twelve-step group to question claims of abuse. All claims of suffering are sacred and presumed to be absolutely true. It is a primary article of faith among many feminists that women don't lie about rape, ever; they lack the dishonesty gene. Some may call this feminism, but it looks more like femininity to me.

Blind faith in women's pervasive victimization also looks a little like religion. "Contemporary feminism is a new kind of religion," Camille Paglia complains, overstating her case with panache. But if her metaphor begs to be qualified, it offers a nugget of truth. Feminists choose among competing denominations with varying degrees of passion, and belief; what is gospel to one feminist is a working hypothesis to another. Still, like every other ideology and "ism"—from feudalism to capitalism to communism to Freudianism—feminism is for some a revelation. Insights into the dynamics of sexual violence are turned into a metaphysic. Like people in recovery who see addiction lurking in all our desires, innumerable feminists see men's oppression of women in all our personal and social relations. Sometimes the pristine earnestness of this theology is unrelenting. Feminism lacks a sense of black humor.

Of course, the emerging orthodoxy about victimization does not infect all or even most feminist sexuality debates. Of course, many feminists harbor heretical thoughts about lesser forms of sexual misconduct. But few want to be vilified for trivializing sexual violence and collaborating in the abuse of women.

The Enemy Within

The example of Camille Paglia is instructive. She is generally considered by feminists to be practically pro-rape, because she has offered this advice to young women: don't get drunk at fraternity parties, don't accompany boys to their rooms, realize that sexual freedom entails sexual risks, and take some responsibility for your behavior. As Paglia says, this might once have been called common sense (it's what some of our mothers told us); today it's called blaming the victim.

Paglia is right: it ought to be possible to condemn date rape without glorifying the notion that women are helpless to avoid it. But not everyone can risk dissent. A prominent feminist journalist who expressed misgivings to me about the iconization of Anita Hill chooses not to be identified. Yet Anita Hill is a questionable candidate for feminist sainthood, because she was, after all, working for Clarence Thomas voluntarily, apparently assisting him in what feminists and other civil-rights activists have condemned as the deliberate nonenforcement of federal equal-employment laws. Was she too helpless to know better? Feminists are not supposed to ask.

It is, however, not simply undue caution or peer pressure that squelches dissent among feminists. Many are genuinely ambivalent about choosing sides in sexuality debates. It is facile, in the context of the AIDS epidemic, to dismiss concern about date rape as "hysteria." And it takes hubris (not an unmitigated fault) to suggest that some claims of victimization are exaggerated, when many are true. The victimization of women as a class by discriminatory laws and customs, and a collective failure to take sexual violence seriously, are historical reality. Even today women are being assaulted and killed by their husbands and boyfriends with terrifying regularity. When some feminists overdramatize minor acts of sexual misconduct or dogmatically insist that we must always believe the woman, it is sometimes hard to blame them, given the historical presumption that women lie about rape routinely, that wife abuse is a marital squabble, that date rape and marital rape are not real rape, and that sexual harassment is cute.

Feminists need critics like Paglia who are not afraid to be injudicious. Paglia's critiques of feminism are, however, flawed by her limited knowledge of feminist theory. She doesn't even realize what she has in common with feminists she disdains—notably Carol Gilligan and the attorney and anti-pornography activist Catharine MacKinnon. Both Paglia and MacKinnon suggest that sexual relations are inextricably bound up with power relations; both promote a vison of male sexuality as naturally violent and cruel. But while Paglia celebrates sexual danger, MacKinnon wants to legislate even the thought of it away. Both Paglia and Gilligan offer idealized notions of femininity. But Gilligan celebrates gender stereotypes while Paglia celebrates sex archetypes. Paglia also offers a refreshingly tough, erotic vison of female sexuality to counteract the pious maternalism of In a Different Voice.

To the extent that there's a debate between Paglia and the feminist movement, it's not a particularly thoughtful one, partly because it's occurring at second hand, in the media. There are thoughtful feminist debates being conducted in academia, but they're not widely heard. Paglia is highly critical of feminist academics who don't publish in the mainstream; but people have a right to choose their venues, and besides, access to the mainstream press is not easily won. Still, their relative isolation is a problem for feminist scholars who want to influence public policy. To reach a general audience they have to depend on journalists to draw upon and sometimes appropriate their work.

In the end feminism, like other social movements, is dependent on the vagaries of the marketplace. It's not that women perceive feminism just the way Time and Newsweek present it to them. They have direct access only to the kind and quantity of feminist speech deemed marketable. Today the concept of a feminist movement is considered to have commercial viability once again. The challenge now is to make public debates about feminist issues as informed as they are intense.

About this article

The Feminist Movement in the 20th Century: Feminist Legal Battles

Updated About content Print Article