Gloria Steinem, The Help and Good News About Discrimination in America

08/16/2011 02:59 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2011

I watched the HBO documentary about the inspirational Gloria Steinem last night.

And I finished reading the book, The Help, by Kathryn Stockett.

Given these two facts, it is no wonder that I am thinking about discrimination and inequality. But maybe not in the way one would expect. There is so much bad news today, everywhere you look, that I am focusing on the progress; I am looking at the bright side.

While many of the large injustices visited upon African-Americans are well-known to most Americans, the novel The Help lays out in painful detail the "ordinary" indignities, the everyday humiliations and the fear that black maids felt at the hands of their white employers. This situation is even more upsetting ("ironic" seems like too flippant a word) because these white women clearly viewed themselves as good, Christian, moral and generous.

But it is astounding to think about how far we've come in a person's lifetime -- say a 50-year span, from 1961 to 2011. Jim Crow laws were still on the books in some states in 1965 and today we have an African-American president. We can feel proud as a country and grateful as Americans for the inspiring, courageous and costly efforts of those who have gone before us and those still with us who worked and fought to make this change happen.

I expected to find the Gloria Steinem documentary interesting and inspiring. What I didn't expect (and what strikes me as bizarre but was clearly "normal" at the time) was what many educated and famous people said about women, the women's movement, and even Gloria Steinem, personally. Their attitudes ranged from patronizing to angry, from dismissive to antagonistic. One of the more interesting was ABC news anchor Harry Reasoner's unreasonable commentary on Ms. Magazine: "I'll give it six months before they run out of things to say." Really? It seems that even "the most Neanderthal" men wouldn't think women would run out of things to say. There were a hundred magazines about fashion, babies and housekeeping. Maybe they thought we didn't have anything to say (and no interest in reading) about politics, business and the world.

But it is astounding to think about how far American women have come in only 50 years. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act barred employment discrimination on the basis of race and sex. In 1967, affirmative action was expanded to apply to gender as well as race. In 1976 -- yes, 1976 -- the first marital rape law was passed in Nebraska, making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.

Today, we take this progress for granted. Even though, in some ways, and on some days, I feel that we are slipping slowly backward, I still am inspired by the fact that, in addition to women Secretaries of State, and presidential candidates, there are courageous women like Lisa Ling and Lara Logan, doing investigative reporting in dangerous situations, there are women astronauts, and there are countless brave women serving in the military -- all of which is now viewed as unremarkable. Women today live "everyday" lives that would have been unthinkable to the majority of women in 1961. Or even in 1971.

Again, we can feel proud as a country and grateful as Americans for the amazing efforts and success of those who have gone before us and those still with us who have worked and fought to make this change happen.

These are two huge cultural shifts. Think about how significantly the attitudes of most Americans must have changed. Is it not possible to think that a white child raised in one of those households depicted in The Help has voted for a black president? That a man who thought his wife should never have a job has proudly attended his daughter's graduation from med school?

Notwithstanding this impressive (yet overdue) progress, there is still a long way to go with respect to racial discrimination and with gender inequality. But those are stories for another day -- or days.

Today, I will just be happy thinking about how much American culture has changed over the very short span of 50 years. What was inconceivable to our grandparents is taken for granted by us. Maybe what we're struggling for today will be yesterday's news for our grandchildren.