So let's say it's a random weekday morning and you're getting ready for your day while the morning news is on. Your ears perk up when you hear a story on the "Top Ten Companies" to work for if you're a mother or pregnant; and you think to yourself, "This is good news -- how far we've come."
You may think you're awake, but not awake enough.
The realities lurking behind the myth that we live in a post-feminist society are exposed by historian Barbara Berg with eloquence, fine research and heartfelt passion in her new book, Sexism in America: Alive, Well, and Ruining Our Future.
Sexism exists in obvious forms, but she highlights how it also thrives underground. Taking the example above, for working women considering maternity leave, sexism stays alive in the subtext. Women are still being fired for getting pregnant, and getting demoted when they return from maternity leave.
"...Employees know they're viewed as not serious enough if they take advantage of these policies'' states one executive recruiter, a stance Berg backs up with personal stories of women who were demoted or lost their jobs after taking the leave they were guaranteed by their employers. "All over the country women report similar scenarios, and many of the offenders were among the thirty companies routinely designated by Working Mother magazine as the country's "Best Companies to Work For.'"
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. The statistics and stories of reproductive rights and health care are a chilling embarrassment to our country. I can't get the story of Regina McKnight out of my head:
"In May 2001 [in South Carolina], as McKnight grieved over the stillborn death of her third daughter, Mercedes, I'm sure she didn't imagine she'd end up in prison. But she was soon put on trial for the death of her baby. After deliberating for fifteen minutes the jury reached a verdict. McKnight, a homeless, seasonal tobacco-farm worker with a tenth-grade education [in classes for the mentally impaired] and no criminal record, addicted to drugs after her mother was run over by a truck and killed, became the first woman in America convicted of murder for using cocaine while pregnant. She was sentenced to twenty years imprisonment, reduced to twelve."
Despite outcries of support for Ms. McKnight from highly regarded medical, public health and reproductive health professionals and organizations, the Supreme Court refused to review the case.
How can this exist in a post-feminist society, Berg asks?
Although she examines affluent and middle class women and girls, Sexism in America is especially admirable for her attention to the populations that truly need their voices amplified: the working poor; the unemployed poor; the completely marginalized women in prison; and, the most innocent of all, impoverished children on our own soil.
Her analysis covers the years under Bush I, Clinton, and Bush II as well as the beginning of the Obama administration. She tracks the effective organizing power of the extreme Right and explores post 9/11 fear and its effect on how we view gender roles. Violence against women and popular culture's portrayals of women (which overlap in ways more gruesome than you might imagine) and many other topics -- some regarding what our girls are exposed to -- are brought into focus as they relate to the future for women and girls. And in her conclusion, she offers pages of resources and suggestions for women who want to be a part of this national dialogue toward equal rights, ranging from running for office to receiving email petition alerts.
Like Backlash, Sexism in America will galvanize us, but it's an easier read and will appeal to more women because Berg writes with an ease that makes you feel as if you're engaged in a discussion with her. I almost felt the presence of other women while reading her -- as if I were part of a larger group, all of us dropping our jaws together.
It's a tribute to her that in spite of all the madness she reveals I didn't feel defeated. I felt energized. And eager to be a part of this third wave of feminism.