Historians are awfully fond of saying “It’s more complicated.” For better or worse, I’m a historian by training and inclination. Consider yourself warned: pedantry ahead!
Even though it’s a decade old, Amy Richards’ and Jennifer Baumgarden’s intro to Manifesta- a quick tour through women’s lives in 1970, the year both were born – is still a great read. I use that chapter, “A Day without Feminism,” every quarter to kick off discussion in my intro class. Courtney Martin, writing in TAPPED, updates it for the millennial generation:
A tenth anniversary edition of Manifesta, updated and with a new preface added, has just been released by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. And in many ways, our last decade was also a baptismal moment of sorts for women (though it’s certainly been less covered by the mainstream media). To steal a page from Jen and Amy, consider the state of all things feminist in the year 2000: Birth politics is a niche issue. Gay celebrities are a scandal. Feminism is about women, not gender, and most U.S. feminists have never heard of child trafficking or female genital cutting. The notion of a woman, much less a black, president is still more pipe dream than actual possibility. There are no feminist blogs.
Courtney is wonderful. She spoke at my campus a couple of weeks ago, and the students really connected with her. Her youth is one asset in her ability to build rapport (though far from the only one; she’s just a really effective speaker). And it’s always a good idea to take stock of where we are in the flow of history. But here, I don’t think Courtney quite gives earlier waves of feminism their due. I’m not a partisan of any particular wave; generationally, I fall in the trough between the second and third waves. I just think it’s easier to move forward if we can avoid reinventing wheels.
And also, well, the past really is more complicated.
To start where Courtney ended: Yes, feminist blogs are very new, and they rock. The only blogs I knew of in the late 1990s were a few people’s personal online diaries. That was it. But by 2000, there were lots of online communities. For me, Salon’s Table Talk filled some of the needs that blogs now meet. I’d just become a mother, and I remember (for instance) lengthy discussions of Andrea Yates’ murder of her children that helped me place her act in a larger, political context of untreated postpartum depression and fundamentalist Christianity. Of course there were trolls on Table Talk, too, but it wasn’t the nightmare that Salon’s letter section is today. So, while blogs were the best invention since wine and cheese, they also built on existing forms of online community.
The prospect of a female president seemed pretty remote in 2000, but then again, democracy itself was under siege with Bush v. Gore and the foiled Florida recount. But if you rewind a little further, there was a moment way back in 1984 when we had reason to hope. I don’t know that Geraldine Ferraro would have been the right woman for the job, given her inexperience at the time and her racist comments on Obama in 2008. But her nomination did signal new possibilities. As for a black president, Colin Powell flirted with the idea in the late 1990, back before he disgraced himself by telling the UN we had hard proof of Iraq’s WMD. At the time, he certainly seemed a more plausible candidate than Obama did at the start of the 2008 campaign.
Child trafficking? This is an issue that feminists have taken up periodically for almost as long as feminism has existed. In the 1800s it was called the “white slave trade.” By the mid-1990s, there was lots of talk about sex tourism by men who wanted to exploit very young child prostitutes in Thailand. What’s new is that some of us are realizing that men, women, and children are trafficked for purposes other than sex, and that this is no less reprehensible.
Female genital cutting? In the mid-1980s, there was a huge flurry of attention when Alice Walker publicized the issue – and African feminists informed her that she should butt out. Ever since then, Western feminists have been upset about the practice but often unsure what, if anything, they can and should do to help.
“Gender” was a central part of academic feminism by 1990 at the very latest. Scholars like R.W. Connell and Michael Kimmel were studying masculinity. Historians of women were strongly influenced by Joan W. Scott’s 1986 article, “Gender: A Category of Historical Analysis,” which called for intersectional analysis along lines of race and class as well. Throughout the 1990s, most academic feminists continued to emphasize the study of women but also took a relational view, comparing women to men and examining femininity and masculinity. By the time a lot of us renamed our programs “Women’s and Gender Studies,” we were just formalizing a change that had been underway for many years.
As for the politics of birth, the main difference is that high-achieving women like Courtney who were college students in 2000 are now thirty-ish, with motherhood no longer such a distant possibility for themselves and their friends. But birth has been politicized ever since the Lamaze method was popularized in the early 1960s. When I first started studying the politics and culture of childbirth in the early 1990s, there was already a rich feminist literature. By then, hospitals had introduced birthing suites in an effort to compete with freestanding birth centers and midwives, which had gained strong support from feminist activism. Sure, Ricky Lake gave home birth a famous face, but the issues were already highly visible twenty years ago. With c-section rates skyrocketing past 30% and maternal and infant mortality a national disgrace, we’re arguably losing ground.
So what has really changed in the past decade? Well, homophobia has a much dimmer future than I would’ve imagined ten years ago. While it’s not quite true that “gay celebrities were a scandal” (Ellen had come out and was still loved), famous gay people were much more likely to remain closeted than they are today. But the biggest shift is in young people’s attitudes. Even my most conservative, religious students are apt to take a live-and-let-live approach, or at least they realize that homophobia is incredibly uncool.
Trans issues have also started to get the attention they deserve. Something similar is happening with issues of ability and disability. In both of these areas, blogs are helping render people and experiences visible. They’re still highly marginalized, but the winds of change are starting to shift.
Feminists are also more aware of intersectionality in general. We talked about it in the 1980s already (before the term “intersectionality” was even coined), but change has been slow in coming. Those of us with multiple privilege still fall short. It’s not just unexamined privilege that’s the problem, either. Analysis is a lot more complex when you’re looking at multiple dimension. Political alliances require more effort when you try to bridge and understand differences rather than just ignoring them. The resulting alliances and analyses are a lot richer, though, and I’m hopeful that those of us with relative privilege are increasingly catching onto that.
And yes, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton made history. So did Nancy Pelosi. Their victories might have seemed remote in 2000. But 1970 – Baumgardner and Richards’ benchmark year – they were completely unthinkable.
So yes, history is complicated, often more so than we think. It doesn’t neatly repeat itself or develop linearly. Nor is there any guarantee of progress toward peace and justice. (See, for example, most of the twentieth century, with its nuclear weapons and genocides.) Sometimes there’s cause for celebration anyway.