Recent events — particularly Rush Limbaugh’s “slutgate” scandal, the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s controversial decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood (which they later reversed), and harsh new anti-abortion legislation in the states, particularly the notorious provisions requiring ultrasound transvaginal probes — have brought women’s issues to forefront of the national conversation once again. These “where the women at?” conversations seem to pop up every couple of years, then fade away into the background, where uncomfortable questions about women’s still distinctly inferior economic and social status can be safely ignored once again.
This time it feels different, though, and feminist women’s voices sound more passionate, and more urgent.. Maybe it’s because the stakes are higher, especially where reproductive justice is concerned, because intrusive state laws have been dramatically whittling away at Roe v. Wade, to the point where it seems a mere shadow of its former self. Our maybe it’s because, for years, women’s frustrations — at the backlash against feminism, about our stalled progress toward gender equality — have been mounting for years now, and at last the floodgates are open.
In recent weeks, I’ve been participating in many earnest conversations about these issues, online and off, with other feminists. One issue we’ve discussed is whether women are still making progress toward equality, or whether that progress has halted, or even reversed itself. For a lot of reasons, this is a difficult question to answer. For one thing, to come up with an empirically grounded answer, it would take a thorough analysis of a wide range of data, which to my knowledge, no one has done yet. But my argument, which thus far is more impressionistic than data-driven, is that women’s progress has indeed stalled. Are women better off now than they were 50 years ago, in the bad old retrograde, Mad Men days? Absolutely. But have we progressed much in the past 20 years? It’s my contention that we haven’t.
Clearly, some things are better than 20 years ago. Women are becoming increasingly better educated, and have continued to advance, albeit at a glacial pace, in business life and the professions. Rates of sexual violence have declined significantly. RU-486 and the morning after pill are widely available, and very soon free contraception will be part of nearly every woman’s health care package.
But we’ve also seen little or no progress in some areas (e.g., child care and family leave policies) and outright backlash in others (most notably concerning abortion rights). Eating disorders among women are epidemic, and it seems like women are judged more harshly than ever on the basis of physical appearance. (One recent survey, for example, shows that men today rank “good looks” as a more important quality in a prospective wife than men did over 70 years ago). Female bylines are still grossly underrepresented in major magazines. Vanishingly few Hollywood films are directed by women. Yes, a woman did make a very credible run for the White House recently, but women are still only 17% of the U.S. Congress. In an excellent recent piece on the status of women in the Daily Beast, Leslie Bennetts wrote about women and “the leadership gap”:
“Women remain hugely underrepresented at positions of power in every single sector across this country,” said Barnard College president Debora Spar at a White House conference on urban economic development last month.
“We have fallen into what I call the 16 percent ghetto, which is that if you look at any sector, be it aerospace engineering, Hollywood films, higher education, or Fortune 500 leading positions, women max out at roughly 16 percent,” Spar said. “That is a crime, and it is a waste of incredible talent.”
One way in which things are much, much worse for women these days than 20 years ago is the sheer amount of virulent misogyny that is openly expressed, and tolerated, in our society. It feels to me that, in many ways, our culture is much more openly sexist now that it was then. Rush Limbaugh’s comments about Sandra Fluke are only the most recent and notorious example of this new misogyny. You see it online; women bloggers, for example, report they are frequently the target of vicious verbal abuse, up to and including rape threats and death threats. Female political leaders of both parties are held to a double standard and subjected to much humiliatingly sexist treatment. Many movies and TV shows,and reality shows especially, traffic in extremely sexist stereotypes; TV commercials sometimes seem to go out their way to be offensive to women. Tabloids obsessively police the bodies of female celebrities and cruelly ridicule any famous woman who dares to go out in public looking less than perfect.
There’s an extremely nasty edge to much of this running media commentary about women. It’s not just garden variety sexism, because it’s very conscious of itself and a lot of it is clearly driven by pure hatred. Here are some examples of what I mean:
— When I was growing up, there was certainly a lot of sexism in television shows, but misogyny is something different. Sexism was Archie Bunker calling his wife Edith a dingbat; annoying and insulting, certainly; sexist, definitely; but not violent or hateful. An example of misogyny is, for example, the way the character of the daughter, Meg, is portrayed in the popular cartoon sitcom, The Family Guy. Meg is frequently the subject of rape “jokes” and cruel jibes about her supposed ugliness; a frequent theme is that she is worthless and beneath contempt because she is not “hot.”
— Well-known men have publicly referred to women using terms that they never would have thrown around openly, say, 25 years ago. Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank calls Hillary Clinton a “mad bitch”; Bill Maher calls Sarah Palin a “c—“; Ed Schultz calls Laura Ingraham a “slut.” This kind of viciously sexist insult is thrown around casually by many men in public life, who almost never suffer negative career consequences for it. (That Rush Limbaugh’s advertisers are deserting him en masse for his comments about Sandra Fluke is a striking anomaly).
— Lest you think it’s just a bunch of cranky old men like Limbaugh spewing this kind of misogynist bile, I would like to direct your attention to a current controversy that’s raging over at Columbia University. Male Columbia students, jealous that Barack Obama has chosen to speak at the graduation at Barnard College, the women’s college that is affiliated with Columbia, have taken to the internets, denouncing Barnard Women in comments on Columbia’s student-run blog. Some sample comments: “Moral of the story is that ugly, feeble Barnard women need to shut their jizz holes and just be happy that Columbia let Barnyard pretend it was affiliated for this long,” “this is why we hate you cum dumpsters,” etc. And there’s more along those lines — much, much more. Read the entire post, if you can stomach it.
I could go on and on in this vein, but let me close with two anecdotal examples from my own life.
About two years ago, my parents took my two 12-year old nieces, their granddaughters, to a football game at Giants Stadium. During the course of the game, drunken fans started chanting and demanding “Show us your t—!” to two young women seated nearby. My parents were understandably outraged. I must say, by the time I was 12 I’d been to a few ball games and witnessed some obnoxious behavior by fans, but never anything that disgusting. What a horrible message for a young girl to receive about how women are valued in our society.
Just the other week, while riding the campus bus in the University of Chicago neighborhood where I live, I overheard a conversation between two young women. One of them said she’d attended a birthday over the weekend, where as special “surprise,” the boyfriend of the birthday girl had hired a stripper to perform! The woman telling the story indicated that she thought this was extremely gross, but didn’t want to leave early, for fear of offending her hosts. Listening to this depressing story, I wondered how in the world we could have gotten to the point where a person smart enough to get into a school like the University of Chicago could possibly assume that a (female) stripper was appropriate entertainment for a mixed gender party.
And if you’re a woman, you’ve definitely been in the same situation that young women was in. You hear or witness something that’s completely sexist and offensive, but you just sit there with a pasted on smile on your face and don’t object. Because God forbid anyone think you were one of those annoying, trouble-making feminists, taking offense at every little thing. Many women have found it’s far easier on their social and professional lives if they just keep the peace and make it a practice to ignore these kinds of insults.
I really don’t have any idea why there appears to be so much more openly sexist behavior now than there was 20 or 30 years ago. The internet allows many people to be extremely nasty anonymously, with impunity — that’s certainly part of it. Pop culture has become more vulgar, and porn has become more widely available, and thus more influential, I think. The proliferation of everything from home video to cell phone cameras to the internet has caused us to become a more visual culture, which partly explains why women today are judged much more harshly on the basis of their looks. We’ve become a much more conservative country, politically, and the Christian right, which is explicitly anti-feminist, has become more powerful. But that can’t be the whole thing.
Sometimes I think the new misogyny is actually a sign of feminism’s success, and that most of the sexism is perpetrated by old white guys bitter about using the patriarchal power they once had, yet refuse to go gentle into that good night. But plenty of young men engage in this kind of behavior as well — witness the ugly behavior of those male students at Columbia University. Perhaps the horrible economy and the increasingly stressful lives and economic insecurity of the 99% have made people in general a lot meaner, and specifically made men more likely to scapegoat women for the problems in their lives, financial and otherwise. Who knows.
What I do know is that the women I talk to and the women writers I read seem to be getting increasingly fed up. And it’s not only self-described feminists who are angry and frustrated; a lot of women with more moderate political views are every bit as disgusted. You know things have really gotten bad when you read that the venerable Southern Poverty Law Center is now including misogynists as one of the “hate groups” it monitors.
Writers like Linda Hirshmann are calling for a feminist revival. And certainly, a strong and revitalized women’s movement is sorely needed. It is not, after all, inevitably ordained that women will continue to make progress until we are equal to men. Contrary to what a great man once said, I’m not sure I believe that the arc of the universe bends toward justice. Certainly, in our own time, in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, we’ve seen societies where women’s rights taken away and women’s status dramatically inclined. Even in our own history, we’ve seen periods where women’s progress stalled or reversed itself. For example, as the historian Alice Kessler-Harris documents in her book Out to Work, in the 1920s, after women got the vote, their rate of increase into the professions began to slow; in some professions, such as medicine, science, and even teaching, the proportion of women began to decline outright. And in the 1930s, laws were passed that made it easier to fire married female teachers and civil service workers.
How women can organize themselves most effectively to combat the onslaught of the new misogyny is a complex problem. Making it clear that misogynist speech is completely unacceptable and that a sexist insult against one women is an attack on the dignity of all women is a great place to start. Perhaps the apparent success of the protests against the once invincible-seeming Rush Limbaugh (he’s lost an astonishing 98 advertisers) is the beginning of something, after all.