Women’s Equality Day–that’s what’s coming to Dallas City Hall August 23, with a luncheon to follow at the Women’s Museum–all to celebrate the triumph of the suffragists, that great First Wave of feminism led by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others who won the right to the ballot box on August 26, 1920, when legislators in Tennessee approved the 19th Amendment by one vote.
Equally important to the era was Margaret Sanger, founder of what became Planned Parenthood, a movement, said H.G. Wells in 1931, that “will grow to be, a hundred years from now, the most influential of all time. When the history of our civilization is written, it will be a biological history, and Margaret Sanger will be its heroine.”
That quote was mustered by Gloria Steinem in a piece she did on Margaret Sanger, and it was a case of one heroine praising another. Certainly Ms. Steinem, principal creator of the Second Wave, towered over the last quarter of the 20th century in terms of women’s rights. Brilliant, charismatic, murderously witty, she dissected male privilege and undermined its moorings forevermore.
Even so, the cause for which she criss-crossed the country, over and over, spreading the word, is in a “staging moment,” according to Dr. Bonnie Wheeler, a medieval scholar at SMU who, a few years ago, helped persuade her university to grant Ms. Steinem an honorary doctorate. It did. But the Steinem Second Stage, reminded Dr. Wheeler, was accomplished by “the housewives of America. Now the housewives of America have gone to work. ”
The problem, said Dr. Wheeler, is they’re “being gobbled up by the enterprises they have joined,” and at the same time denied access to the upper ranks. More and more, she explained, “my [former] students come to me and say ‘I should have done something about this before now, and now I don’t dare,’” so fearful are they of losing ground.
Especially imperiled, Dr. Wheeler points out, is abortion, which she believes “needs to be argued through the state legislatures. The issue doesn’t exist in the same way it did before. We can’t lose everything else in order to try to buttress this cause. We can only retrieve that issue when the right wing no longer chooses to make it the only issue.” It will become important to younger women, she said, “only when they lose the right to abortion. Then it will be reinstated in a different way.”
Some in the Third Wave, however, see it differently. Caroline Barlerin, who grew up in Dallas and now pursues the cause of young women in San Francisco, said she’s “not ready to say let’s not look at abortion. It’s a shame to wait till something is lost to deal with it. Doing it head-on may not be the answer,” but it is a matter of “young women’s health. It’s not a time to spin our wheels. We’ve arrived at where we are through lots of intention.”
Ms. Barlerin does acknowledge a “non-awakeness, a malaise” in the women’s movement, but Dr. Wheeler foresees that “at some point this war [in Iraq] will be the issue” that galvanizes a “new consciousness of feminism,” just as the fight against Vietnam and for civil rights gave birth to Gloria Steinem’s Second Wave. Dr. Wheeler urges young women to hang on and not fall for post-feminism which she calls “the worst of all ideas.”
So what to say about the retreat of the feminist imagination? Was Joan Didion right when she wrote this of the women’s movement in 1972: “These are converts who want not a revolution but ‘romance,’ who believe not in the oppression of women but in their own chances for a new life in exactly the mold of their old life.” I don’t believe that, though perhaps she told a partial truth. One thing is clear, however: Third Wave women are coming to understand what their mothers did not: you cannot have it all, all the time. But lives often are long, and much can be experienced if spread over a number of years.
Perhaps the best answer lies in the observation of Ruth Tiffany Barnhouse, an Episcopal priest who once taught at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. The women’s movement, she said, is going to take 500 years and we’re about 250 years along. It’s all the more reason to rejoice in Women’s Equality Day.