Feminism Needs More Than Women's Marches

We must now join together in the deep, long-term work of moving our culture forward.
03/16/2017 07:08 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2017

Co-Authored by: Valerie Young, JD, Outreach director for CPS’s Caring Economy Campaign. Valerie’s work appears extensively in social media, @WomanInDC on Twitter, Your (Wo)Man in Washington on Facebook, and blogging for Mom-mentum.org. She also has written for The Shriver Report, Brain/Child Magazine, and is frequently featured on BlogHer.com as well as the CPS and CEC blogs.

Women’s marches and public protests have emerged into a concerted resistance movement to the hardline actions of the Trump administration. But if the momentum unleashed by these resisters is to have lasting impact, it must drive a progressive agenda that will reverse the current regression toward misogyny, scapegoating, and “strongman” rule in both the family and state.

This requires long term, focused work – and an understanding of how and why the struggle over gender norms is a major factor behind the current U.S. political and cultural regression.

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The Stalled Struggle over Gender Norms

Real changes were made in the late 60’s and early 70’s because women came together to challenge the injustice of gender inequity through both private and public discussions. Public protest morphed into political pressure through the women’s liberation movement, and blatantly discriminatory laws and practices that kept women in a subservient position were struck down. As a result, today women are half the US workforce, receive more academic degrees than men, and earn a significant share of household income, with 25% of married women earning more than their husbands.

However, the pay gap between men and women has been stuck at about 20% for years, and occurs in every occupational sector, at every level, at every age. Wages of black and Latina women are even further behind. There are more CEO’s named John among the S&P 1500 (5.3%) than there are women in that position (4.1%). Although women are mostly employed full-time and year round, even when they have children, they spend about twice as much time per week on housework and child care than their male partners.

In short, women continue to be devalued, and all too often qualities ascribed to the “the feminine” (i.e. caring, nurturing, gentleness, patience, compassion), are regarded as soft, weak, or yielding. This devaluation is visible in our utter lack of public policy supporting care and caregivers. For instance, alone among advanced economies, the U.S. has no national guaranteed paid parental leave policy ― a primary contributor to the high poverty rates of women and children in our wealthy nation.

Clearly, the promise of progress for women (and all of us) has stalled. But why?

The problem started in the late 70s, when the rightist-fundamentalist alliance came together to oppose the Equal Rights Amendment to the US Constitution – a simple amendment that would just have prohibited discrimination on the basis of sex by federal and state governments.

Alarmed by women’s gains, ERA opponents argued that this amendment would destroy the American family. And they succeeded, not only in defeating the ERA, but in pushing cultural attitudes toward gender and family relations back.

So successful were they, that today young women largely reject the feminist label and relegate gender discrimination to a bygone era, as something that possibly happened to their mothers or grandmothers, but is no longer relevant for them. As we saw in the 2016 political campaign, today many young women who consider themselves progressives do not want to talk about gender at all.

How could this happen?

The Cultural and Political Regression

Starting with their anti-ERA campaign, a well-planned long-term strategy pushed US culture back to a “traditional” male-headed, authoritarian family. Gender equity was pushed to the sidelines and feminism was demonized. In 1992, when Americans were asked if the “father of the family is master of the house,” 42 percent said yes. By 2004 the percentage had risen to 52 percent. In other words, while women were advancing at work and earning an ever larger share of household income, the “lord and master” sentiment was actually growing.

This anti-gender equality campaign not only orchestrated a retreat from the advancement of women, but from the basic ideals of democracy. As documented by research across cultures and time, a “traditional” male-headed authoritarian family conditions people to vote for “strong” leaders.

So in 2016 a man who claimed that only he had all the answers, called women untrustworthy and disgusting, bragged about his sexual assaults, incited scapegoating, and condoned violence at his rallies, won the U.S. Presidency.

The defeat of the ERA was the first time in U.S. history that an attempt to expand constitutional protection was defeated. As one of us, Riane Eisler, predicted in her 1979 The Equal Rights Handbook, its defeat would usher in not only a massive backlash against women’s rights but a major political regression. Research shows that the two are inextricably interconnected.

In this time of economic and social upheaval, the appeal of “strong-man” rule and returning to “good old times” when all women and most men still knew their place in a world of top-down ranking is strong, especially for people who have been taught that men should dominate women and “inferior” men.

And things will get worse, not better, until we all recognize the centrality of gender roles and relations to the kind of society we live in.

Reclaiming Family, Values, and Morality

We too must do the long-term planning needed to reclaim family, values and morality from those who hijacked feminism, dug in on authoritarian families, and elevated violence over shared prosperity, equity, and peace. We must show that gender equity is not only moral but key to a healthy economy and society.

Ranking one gender over another, whether in families or public institutions, wastes valuable human resources and limits opportunities for everyone. Limiting power and leadership to one kind of person guarantees decisions on household spending and national budgets are less effective. Economies expand when irreducible human needs for care, health, and education are met. Policies that support families, like paid family leave, work flexibility, and accessible, affordable child care, are the key to national security.

A first step is changing our narratives around “women’s issues,” “women’s work,” and “feminine.” Messaging influences our thinking tremendously, and our current gender-normed vocabulary distorts reality and separates us from precisely the new kind of thinking we need to devise and implement more effective methods of confronting injustice, inequality, and violence.

Hillary Clinton’s historic campaign brought misogyny, feminism and women’s rights back into national focus. Now it’s up to us to get U.S. culture back on track toward gender equity – and with this, toward a more just and caring society for us all.

Devising and implementing a long-term strategy for changing gender norms back was how the rightist fundamentalist alliance pushed our culture backward. We must now join together in the deep, long-term work of moving our culture forward. This means going beyond being reactive to being proactive.

We’ve seen how public discourse changes and how power shifts when backward-looking gender norms are reinforced and gender is pushed out of the conversation. After this hate-filled and hostile election cycle, feminism, civil rights, human rights, and social justice have never been more relevant.

Riane Eisler, JD, is president of the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS) and author of The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics and The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future.

Valerie Young, JD, is Outreach & Social Media Director for CPS’s Caring Economy Campaign.

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