No one doubts there was a time when feminism was relevant and necessary. Since the dawn of time, or at least since the institution of patriarchy, women were at the mercy of fathers, brothers, uncles, nephews, and sons. At some point along the way, we had had enough; more than enough. Societal pressure on women provoked a reaction—feminism—to redress wrongs and claim rights.
As the pendulum swings, so too do equal and opposite reactions. Over time, feminism provoked its own reaction—a caricature of real feminism that Christina Hoff Sommers calls “fainting couch feminism.” I happen to like “snowflake feminism,” but it’s all the same. What once made us free and strong now weakens and trivializes us.
It’s time for another equal and opposite reaction; the next step in the story of women.
The baton of feminism has passed from generation to generation, generating ever more freedom and power since Elizabeth Cady Stanton organized the first Women’s Conference in 1848.
Fresh from the abolitionist movement, Stanton focused on the liberation of women. History remains mute on the question of how her attire fueled the cause, but like women’s shoes pinch their feet today, it’s entirely possible that Stanton’s drive to liberate women originated from the confines of her voluminous bell-shaped skirts, crocheted shawls, linen caps, and large bonnets.
At first it was campaigning for guardianship of infants, property rights, divorce, access to higher education and the medical professions, control of their own money, equal pay, and protective legislation for women workers. Twenty frustrating years later, Stanton realized that liberated voices and less restrictive clothing weren’t enough. She and Susan B. Anthony went for broke, staking claim on a woman’s right to vote; the radical National Woman Suffrage Association was born in 1869.
How radical was it? A modern day equivalent might be the preposterous claim that men can get pregnant. As certain as we are today that only women can become pregnant, men in 1869 were just as certain that only they could vote. To share power with women in the shaping of society was unthinkable.
Stanton and Anthony fought for more than thirty years before passing the baton to a fresh wave of feminists. Long after both had died, limited suffrage was granted, but only to women over thirty with the right property qualifications.
Am I the only one who smells a husband rat in there somewhere? Statistically, how many women were unmarried by the age of thirty in 1918? Limited suffrage was likely further limited by early 20th century marital dynamics. Still, some women had the vote, and ten years of fight later, so did all the rest.
It’s no coincidence that women were granted universal suffrage in the years after WWI, having proved themselves a vital part of the workforce needed to support the war effort. When a woman has done her part to win a war, how do you tell her she can’t decide on city council members, or governor, or president?
WWII only reinforced the gains made after WWI. After being handed the baton, Rosie and most of the Riveters never left the workforce. They were displaced by returning soldiers in the most physically demanding jobs, but as women (and cats) are wont to do, they landed on their feet.
The 1960s and especially 70s spawned the most radical feminism yet. The Pill, abortion on demand, and shirts that read “A Woman Without a Man Is Like a Fish Without a Bicycle” left no doubt as to the arch enemy: men. Women declared that they needed men for nothing and were obligated to men for nothing. A true feminist could beat a man at any game because, as everyone knew, she was innately superior to the knuckle dragger who still wanted her barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.
Feminism reached its peak competing with and ultimately dominating (some said castrating) men while insisting that there were no innate differences between the sexes.
We won. We now have the advantage in college admissions, college degrees, and human resource policies. We have the same sexual freedom as men. Our power can even derail a presidential candidate who has the nerve to maintain a list of the best of us to choose from in a binder on his desk.
So 150 years of opportunity and power later, are we happier with ourselves and our lives than we were in shawls and bonnets?
No. In some crucial ways, not at all.
Feminism is, at its core, a philosophy of injustice perpetrated on women because of their sex, a backward-looking, negatively-framed experience of womanhood.
With much props to Stanton, Anthony, Rosie the Riveter et al, we’ve moved beyond what they could envision. We are now 21st Century Women, and we’ve gone on to build a magnificent edifice wherein the 21st Century Woman can thrive.
There’s no question that the 21st Century Woman is powerful and can choose any life she wants for herself. She is distinctly different from her forebears in that she is secure in her power, no longer engaged in a winner-take-all battle with men.
Feminism’s primary aim was to prove that women are no different than men. It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now. The 21st Century Woman recognizes and celebrates differences between the sexes, finding part of her power in the beautiful, feminine, nurturing aspect of her nature. Because she is no longer trapped in the false reality that men and women are the same, she is free to be uniquely female: powerful and vulnerable. It’s the vulnerability that feminism stole—the ends justified the means—but the 21st Century Woman reclaims both aspects of her fullest self.
She is no longer in competition with men because there are no winners and losers. Differences between men and women are complementary and beautiful, not obstacles to overcome. A 21st Century Woman can be as strong as she wants to be, can revel in a lifetime of accomplishments, and still purr with satisfaction in the presence of a man who is her equal.
Old style feminism is the scaffolding we used to build the 21st Century Woman’s magnificent throne. We wouldn’t be here without it, but like all scaffolding, once it has served its purpose, it only gets in the way. What was once the stepping stone to better lives for women is now what blocks the view. Only when we jettison that scaffolding will we have an unobstructed view of the light, beauty, and emotional impact within us.
Feminism, you’re fired!