18 August 2010


On this day in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was enacted, prohibiting federal and state governments from denying any citizen the right to vote based on that person's gender. It remains amazing to me that for 144 years of our nation's history, women were denied that fundamental right. Only for the past 90 years, and only after decades of protests and public education by the women's sufferage movement (the first wave of feminism), were women allowed into the polling booth.

I became involved in women's issues (as I did in environmental and civil rights issues) long before it was fashionable to do so. I recall buying the first issue of Ms. magazine in January 1972 -- it featured a woman in military uniform on the cover. Under the informed and visionary guidance of Gloria Steinem, Ms. provided a national forum for the second wave of the feminist movement, helping to legitimize women's issues across the populace. Although labels tend to be constricting and sometimes misleading, I still consider myself to be a feminist/humanist.

My views were given dimension, substance and focus during my university years -- for a time I minored in Womens Studies at the University of Arizona. It was an enlightening time on two levels. First, I was exposed to the thoughts and writings of women in literature, in history, in philosophy and in politics, providing a new window onto the world. Second, as a male among mostly female students in WS classes (the ratio was rarely greater than one man per ten women students), I experienced firsthand what it is like to be a social minority. My presence was variously welcomed, tolerated, or resented by my peers, but welcomed without exception by my instructors. Talk about walking a mile in the other person's mocassins.

Today, feminism is in a surreal state -- the movement seems to have become unfocused, and is even regarded with suspicion by otherwise savvy and insightful women and men. For those under the age of 30, feminism appears to be irrelevant to their lives, an anachronism -- never mind that the determination, creativity and courage of those in both waves of feminism laid the foundations for the rights which so many women now take for granted. That's a pity, because women's status remains far from equal to that of men. On average women still earn between 60 and 70 percent of what men earn for the same work. Huge double standards still exist regarding behavior, dress, and choice of career between the two genders. For example, where a man might be regarded as assertive, a women is seen as pushy or aggressive. Women remain a tiny minority among members of the US Senate and House of Representatives, among top CEOs, and among the higher levels of the military officer corps. We've come a long way, and we have so very far to go.

With all that in mind, I pause to say Thank You to all the women (and men) who carry on the struggle for equality. For another perspective, here is a conversation between NYTimes columnist Gail Collins and writer Stacy Schiff, aptly titled "Of Mama Grizzly Born?".

Note: in international law, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, and is described as an international bill of rights for women. It carries the force of law in those nations which ratify it. The map below (click to enlarge) shows ratifying nations (green), signatory but not ratifying nations (yellow), and non-signatory nations (red). Isn't it remarkable that, as with international environmental accords, human rights accords, and nearly every other form of cooperation between countries, the US stands out as stubbornly isolationist (along with a few repressive dictatorships)? I'm just saying.

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