Last week I was cleaning out my closet and found sweaters and handbags that I hadn't worn in a decade or two (but who's counting). I decided to resurrect a few of my favorites -- and the young women I work with were full of compliments about my "new" clothes. It made me think about where we are now and where we were then in the women's struggle for equality.
When I was in bellbottoms and platform shoes, it seemed that we were moving past this place of politicizing women's health -- battles were being fought, but we were going to win this war. The recent standoffs surrounding breast cancer screenings and birth control reveal that the momentum we felt in the 70s has slowed down. But as I am seeing familiar clothes and shoes in fashion magazines today, I wonder, are we headed for another upswing?
Nearly 40 years ago the future for women seemed bright -- after tremendous struggle, we saw a wave of landmark victories:
• The Equal Rights Amendment, which was introduced for the first time in 1923 by Alice Paul finally passed both houses of Congress in 1972.* It attempts to modify the U.S. Constitution to include this basic affirmation: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex."
• Title IX (1972) ended discrimination in federally funded education activities and has led to significantly increased participation by women in high school and college sports.
• Roe v. Wade (1973) affirmed women's Constitutional right to privacy that allowed women to control their own bodies.
• The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (1974) made credit discrimination illegal, so women may now apply for credit and buy cars and houses without needing her father or husband to cosign.
Today, personhood amendments and mandatory ultrasounds continue to chip away at women's access to health care. In fact, these attacks inspire some more equal-minded leaders to propose satirical legislation. Oklahoma State Senator Constance Johnson's "every sperm is sacred" measure is a sharp rebuttal to assertions that the government should mandate that life begins at conception. Virginia State Senator Janet Howell's narrowly-defeated amendment would have required rectal exams before doctors can prescribe Viagra was in response to her fellow lawmakers who are intent to require women to undergo unnecessary procedures before granting an abortion.
While these amendments are clever and even funny - most important, they are making a point. It is simply ludicrous that legislators (in Oklahoma, the state legislature is 87% men; in Virginia, 81% men) are continuing to spend their time restricting access to women's health instead of creating jobs and bolstering the economy.
Have we finally reached the tipping point? Have we been pushed too far when breast cancer is battling birth control?
Fortunately, new efforts are springing up across the country to swing the pendulum the other way. By the end of this summer women should be guaranteed access to free preventive care that includes contraceptive services and the Pentagon now formally allows some women in combat. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has recently launched Off the Sidelines to get more women to make their voices heard about the issues they care about. Director Jennifer Siebel Newsom's MissRepresentation is a powerful documentary film and a call-to-action campaign that seeks to empower women and girls to challenge limiting labels in order to realize their potential, and to encourage men and boys to stand up to sexism and the 2012 Project is a national non-partisan campaign to increase the number of women in Congress and state legislatures by taking advantage of the once-in-a-decade increase in open seats due to redistricting and reapportionment in 2012.
Whether you're in bellbottoms or skinny jeans, one thing is clear -- We can all start taking action today and help rebuild the momentum towards equality. It's common sense and it's time.
(* ERA expired in 1982 since it had failed to be ratified by enough States).
Follow Barbara Lee on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BarbaraLeeSays