01.11.09

How Feminism Became the F-Word

The current women's rights movement, embodied by the planned "special Inaugural edition" cover of Ms. magazine, is hardly recognizable to those who are trying to advance the discourse on gender.

Who is looking out for the women of this country? Well, I will tell you who is not: Ms. magazine.

Ms. was co-founded by Gloria Steinem and Letty Cottin Pogrebin in 1971. The first cover of Ms., emblematic of the women’s movement of the time, was brave and bold. A giant figure of Wonder Woman strides across the landscape, while the caption proclaims, “Wonder Woman for President.” No small irony that, four decades later, when a real live wonder woman ran a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton was mysteriously absent from the cover of Ms. Nor did this real live wonder woman have the full support and endorsement of many of the women’s groups that had sprung from the second wave of the women’s rights movement.

It is time that we take back the term "feminism" and restore its dignity and honor. It is time that we, our daughters, and granddaughters discover our inner Wonder Woman.

Our story starts in 1961, when a true heroine, Eleanor Roosevelt, chaired the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women.The 1960s and 1970s are full of heroines of all political stripes making groundbreaking strides for women. Shirley Chisholm, Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Robin Morgan fought for political representation, maternity leave, equal pay, affirmative action, and reproductive rights. Somewhat less well known to modern day women are heroines like Margaret Chase Smith, who in 1964 became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for the US presidency, and Mary Dent Crisp, co-chairwoman of the Republican National Committee in 1977, who was driven from the post in 1980 after publicly assailing the RNC for its opposition to abortion rights and the Equal Pay Amendment. (Strange irony that several decades later the Democratic Party would almost deny a candidate who received 18 million votes a chance to have her name put into nomination, and in that same year, the party that has yet to choose a female chairperson would select a man for head of the Democratic National Committee.)

The work of the second wave of the women’s rights movement is central to many of the liberties that women of today take for granted. But after the battles of the 1960s and 1970s had been waged and won, something strange happened to the movement for women, and with it, the term “feminism.” A backlash set in, and the women’s movement retreated from the streets to the committee rooms. National women’s organizations became increasingly tied to the Democratic Party and to pro-choice politics. A period of decline in interest in and membership of national women’s organizations ensued. But this is hardly the fault of the women and like-minded men of this country. You see, most of them were no longer “allowed” to be part of the movement. The movement had devolved and morphed into a clique instead. And this clique only allowed members with certain rites of entry: liberal Democratic women who were pro-choice.

wonder-woman---ms-magazine-04

The current women’s rights movement is hardly recognizable to those of us who are truly trying to advance the discourse on gender. Exhibit A, the planned “ special Inaugural edition” cover of Ms. magazine. I will readily admit, when this visual first hit my inbox, my first thought was that it was a hoax or a joke. But it is not, and this is hardly a laughing matter. The current vision of “feminism” is a man striking a Superman pose. Is it any wonder, then, that when The Daily Beast conducted a poll in November 2008, it found that just 20 percent of women are willing to use the term “feminist” about themselves and 17 percent would welcome their daughters using that label. The term feminism is hardly recognizable to itself at this point. It has been hijacked and corroded by those who formed the clique, excluded most of us from joining, and used feminism for their own purposes.

Meanwhile, who has been looking out for the women of this country? Where are the modern day national organizations to act as champions of women and to speak out against the issues that affect us all? Where is the outrage about the alarming escalation of domestic violence? Or the fact that women still earn 78 percent of what men do? Or the fact that our representation in politics, academia, and corporate leadership tends to hover around 16 percent? There is a pattern here—we are moving backward.

You see, here’s the trick. These issues do not affect just liberal, Democratic, pro-choice women. They affect all women, our children, and grandchildren. These issues affect men who are fathers, husbands, and sons. And here’s the other trick: Women and like-minded men do care. But they are not included in the clique, nor do they particularly understand what the clique is fighting for anymore. The clique has become a like a cocoon that, though it perhaps has good intentions, has lost sight of the big picture and, as a result, has inadvertently sold out the women of this country.

Fortunately, as with any superhero movie, there can be a rescue and a happy ending.

Witness the rebirth: the start of the fourth wave of the women’s rights movement, a big tent movement that invites women and like-minded men of all political parties and views on reproductive rights. A women’s movement that stands up and speaks out for the women of this country when other groups will not. A women’s movement that keeps a watchful eye on its constituency and their needs.

It is time that we take back the term “feminism” and restore its dignity and honor. It is time that we, our daughters, and granddaughters discover our inner Wonder Woman.

And, for those of us who dream, maybe Ms. and the former national women’s movement will return in the sequel as Superwomen once again.

Amy Siskind is co-founder of The New Agenda, a non partisan organization devoted to advancing women’s rights.