Posted by: JanF | August 26, 2011

Reclaiming "Feminism" – Celebrating the 19th Amendment

Today we bring you a little bit of history seasoned with a few facts and topped with a smidgen of outrage and a call to action.

As a woman who came of age during the 1960s and 1970s, I always reflect on the anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the constitution:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The amendment passed on August 18, 1920 when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify it. The amendment became law on August 26, 1920 when the Secretary of State certified the amendment’s adoption.

Congress passed the legislation for the Nineteenth Amendment on June 4, 1919 with Wisconsin becoming the first state to officially ratify it on June 10, 1919 (Illinois claimed FIRST but being Illinois there were irregularities which — well, I will leave it there). The remaining 12 states eventually approved it with Mississippi finally ratifying on March 22, 1984. (One would not want to rush into these things. Sigh.). My grandmother was born with the wrong chromosones to be allowed to vote but died a proud Democrat after voting in nearly every election during her 96 year lifetime.

Ninety-one years ago we got the vote and women were energized to finish the job to ensure equal rights in education, in politics and in the business world for our daughters.

I look around now and I wonder what happened to our enthusiasm. Was it crushed by the inability to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s? Was it stifled by the whittling away of abortion rights from the high point of Roe v Wade in 1973 to today where it is increasingly difficult to find a place to get a legal abortion?

Was it mocked to death by the right-wing railing at Feminazis and the claims that all feminists were men-haters and lesbians? Was it a victim of its own “success” since things “weren’t nearly as bad as they had been”? (How’s that for a most excellent definition of success? Stirs me up!)

It is not as though the work is done. Just last year it became obvious that misogyny and downright hostility towards women and women’s issues is just one unfiltered keystroke away. From Brad Peck at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce:

Most of the current “pay gap” is the result of individual choice rather than discrimination

This statement and the rest of the article generated a firestorm which led the CoC’s Chief Operation Officer to denounce the post as “simplistic and misguided” and “an argument from the 1960’s” and essentially saying that the Senior Director of Communications for the Chamber of Commerce does not speak for … the Chamber of Commerce. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall to see what led to that walk back run back rocket-strapped-to-butt-reverse-thrust back from the original statement.

The 1960’s. Hmmm. Why does that ring a bell? Ah. Because that was when social change was sweeping our country and when Feminism was not a dirty word and when the work of feminists was energizing women to take charge of their own lives.

The 2nd wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s gave us Gloria Steinam, Betty Friedan and this song:

Pardon my French but what the heck happened?

We have some feminist voices. The National Organization for Women still exists and NARAL Pro-choice America is still working to preserve choice. Organizations like the Coalition of Labor Union Women continue to work for women in unions.

And women’s pay and women’s treatment in the workforce are still the biggest issues because it will always boil down to “it’s the economy, gals”. Nearly 62% of women are breadwinners or co-breadwinners.

The pay gap is real, by the way, not the “pay gap” as identified by the Chamber of Commerce. From a Time article “Why Do Women Still Earn Less Than Men?” :

U.S. women still earned only 77 cents on the male dollar in 2008, according to the latest census statistics.
Women earned less than men in all 20 industries and 25 occupation groups surveyed by the Census Bureau in 2007 — even in fields in which their numbers are overwhelming. Female secretaries, for instance, earn just 83.4% as much as male ones. And those who pick male-dominated fields earn less than men too: female truck drivers, for instance, earn just 76.5% of the weekly pay of their male counterparts. Perhaps the most compelling — and potentially damning — data of all to suggest that gender has an influence comes from a 2008 study in which University of Chicago sociologist Kristen Schilt and NYU economist Matthew Wiswall examined the wage trajectories of people who underwent a sex change. Their results: even when controlling for factors like education, men who transitioned to women earned, on average, 32% less after the surgery. Women who became men, on the other hand, earned 1.5% more.

The pay gap by states (link is to an interactive map) shows the gender pay gap in each state. It is not a Blue State/Red State thing (Massachusetts is at 76% and Oklahoma is at 87%) but it is a real gap not just something dreamed up by hysterical females.

The pay gap within industries (link is to an interactive chart) is the one that reveals the “sorry, can’t hide from this” truth. I chose occupations where one would be hard pressed to find differences in the actual job to account for the pay differences:

High school teachers: women make 10% less
Physical therapists: women make 12% less
Human resource managers: women make 32% less

Finally, from Minnesota, one of our more Progressive states, some more “read em and weep” numbers from the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota’s Center on Women and Public Policy :

Minnesota women on average are paid $11,000 dollars less each year than men with the same jobs. The gap exists in every occupation, including those dominated by women, the report said.
Lee Roper-Batker, the president of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, said economists site three reasons for the income gap. She said women often choose careers that pay less and employers sometimes punish women who take time off to have children.

“And the third thing economists say is just unexplainable,” she said. “We don’t know to attribute the wage gap to so we just call that good old fashioned sexism.”

Emphasis: mine. Outrage: all mine.

About being a Feminist… a poll from 2005 gives us a little insight:

Women hold a positive view of the women’s movement. Sixty-nine percent say the movement has made their lives better –- the highest number saying this since this poll started asking the question. In 1999, 48 percent of women said achievements by the women’s movement had improved their lives. A New York Times Poll conducted in 1983 found just 25 percent of women said the women’s movement had made their lives better.

Okay. Great…something to work with here. Women believe that the women’s movement has helped them (and younger women more so – those aged 18 to 35 came in at 75%, and 45-64 at 80%. Women age 65 and older only 47%).

But are they feminists?

Even though many women value the achievements the women’s movement has made, most are reluctant to call themselves a feminist outright. Just a quarter of women say they consider themselves a feminist; 70 percent do not. These numbers have changed little over the years.

Women who call themselves feminists outright are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans by 53 percent to 17 percent. Four in 10 of self-identified feminists say they are moderate, but almost as many say they are liberal. Fifty-two percent are married and 62 percent are currently employed, including half who work full time.

Hey, look! Feminists are us. Progressives. Liberal Democrats.

Here is the part I found fascinating:

The low numbers of self-described feminists may have more to do with the feminist label than with views on goals of the women’s movement. Even though most women (64 percent) consider the word “feminist” a neutral term, they are a bit more likely to think of it as an insult, rather than a compliment.
When a dictionary definition of the word feminist is included in the poll question most women then say they consider themselves a feminist. When a feminist is described as “someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” 65 percent of women identify themselves as a feminist.

Rise Up people who believe in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes!! Or maybe we can reclaim the word Feminist. It certainly fits better on a bumper sticker.

Of course, the larger issue is that the work is not done. The work may never be done. But it will not advance unless and until we pull together as one like our suffragette forbearers did. It took 144 years to get the vote and it took another 53 years to legally gain control of our bodies. 37 years and counting since the last major step forward.

As long as there are men in positions of power like Brad Peck, who in an unguarded moment revealed his true attitude towards women, we will have to keep fighting.

And we might start by reclaiming a word that has a history and a strong story to tell because we are at our best when we are connected to our past.

Just as I am not embarrassed to say I am a Liberal Democrat, I will now say that I am a Proud Feminist: actively working to make life better for my daughter and the yet to be born daughters of us all.

A version of this was originally posted 08/24/2010 at BPI Campus



  1. Turns out that this is a post that can be put up every year (at least).

    This past year saw more attacks on women’s reproductive rights from tea party enabled state legislatures.

    And more reason to be reminded of our history so that we can save our future.