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Taking Stock of Feminism’s Enduring Lessons

/ Published March 19, 2014

Today's women's rights activists are confronting new issues and forging new paths, but as Professor of Sociology Nancy Whittier observes, they need not stray too far from the course Gloria Steinem and other feminist leaders charted some 50 years ago.

I have been studying and writing about the women's movement since I was in graduate school in the 1980s. Born too late to participate in the mass mobilization of the second wave, I grew up with a feminist mother and, as a young adult, entered a world already reshaped by the work of Gloria Steinem '56 and many others. Perhaps my own generational location—old enough to have had a glimpse of the world before feminism and young enough to grow up seeing the world through a feminist lens—shaped what have become enduring research questions. How have the women's movement and feminist activists changed over time? What have been the movement's lasting influences? What is left to be achieved, and why are some changes so hard to come by?

Women and men who participated in the feminist movement during its peak years from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s have been indelibly marked by that experience. It has shaped their worldview, their approach to love and child-rearing, their work choices, their friendships and even their needs as they age. They have also been shaped by the historical context in which they came of age. When Gloria Steinem and others began organizing in the 1960s, feminist veterans of the suffrage movement 50 years earlier barely recognized the emerging movement, whose priorities and style grew from the sixties, not the teens. What women needed in 1965 was different from what they needed in 1915.

Nancy Whittier

The same is true today. The circumstances that women face in 2014 are very different from those that activists confronted in 1970, in part because of the efforts of Steinem and countless others. In fact, the scope of change is breathtaking. The U.S. no longer has sex-segregated job advertisements, restrictions on married women's credit, legal rape within marriage, massive silence and stigma attached to nonheterosexual sexualities, and so many other characteristics of a society that confines women and men to narrow and unequal pigeonholes. Movements that grew from feminism, like activism against child sexual abuse, have spun off into influential—if not always overtly feminist—initiatives. Many other movements, like those for peace, economic justice and immigrant rights, have taken the lessons of attention to gender and sexuality to heart. Gloria Steinem has been important in all these advances. She didn't do it alone, but it wouldn't have been the same without her.

Yet women still do most of the housework and childcare, still face a sexual double standard and rampant sexual assault, and the strictures around the lives of women of color and poor women are tighter and more oppressive than ever. Girls learn about Photoshop's deceptions even as their bodies are judged by its standards, and spaces for boys to live outside traditional masculinity are few and far between. In a time when horrifyingly large percentages of black and Latino men and women are incarcerated, when poverty among single mothers and their children has reached historic levels, and when violence against women, children and transgender people is widespread, there is clearly much work remaining for feminist activists.

Activists who hope to change these things forge a new path, by necessity, but it need not be disconnected from what has gone before. Although the battles are different, the essential feminist lessons about how seemingly individual experiences grow from larger social forces and about the integration of gender into other forms of injustice remain crucial. In addition, a deep understanding of the forces and people that brought us to the present can help us understand the circumstances and events that promote or hinder social change. More important, Gloria Steinem, many other longtime activists well-known and anonymous, and the organizations and initiatives they started are thriving. Unlike the suffrage movement, the feminist movement that began in the 1960s has remained vibrant and active. It has changed form, with fewer grassroots protests and more formal organizations, such as feminist studies in colleges and universities, rape crisis centers, and big national organizations like the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and the National Organization for Women. New organizing by women of color, college students, lesbians and queer women, transgender activists, and others simultaneously builds on and sometimes conflicts with longterm organizations and activists. Generational disputes within feminism are common, now as always, over everything from racism to transgender issues to pubic hair. While some may see this as detracting from the cause, research suggests that healthy social movements include intense conflict.

Gloria Steinem is the most visible example of long-term, passionate commitment to feminism. For many younger people, she is the only feminist activist they can name. Her activist work has centered on connecting, listening, inspiring, mentoring and learning. Too often, veteran and newer feminists talk about each other without talking to each other, assuming and dismissing each other's perspectives. Gloria Steinem, as one of the most influential and well-known feminists in recorded history, is also one of the most humble and collaborative. The qualities that build cross-generational feminist collaboration between Steinem and others are the same qualities that build a long-lived feminist movement. As we celebrate her 80th birthday, we should also celebrate sometimes-contentious and often-challenging cross-generational collaborations. These connections, as Gloria Steinem's activism models, hold the promise for deeper ongoing social transformation.

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