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Ruth Rosen: Feminism's Long March

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

 

On February 12th, the Senate passed a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) with broad bipartisan support. But House Republicans (who killed the legislation in the last Congress) have yet to introduce their version of the bill. They're still hung up on what might seem like a minor provision, which they've been battling about for a year and a half. Native American women are two-and-a-half times more likely to be raped than other women, and three out of five are victims of domestic violence. Currently, Native American courts don't have jurisdiction over domestic violence committed by non-native men on tribal lands. This provision would change that.

While there are some Republicans begging the House leadership to pass a bipartisan bill on the double, it's not just Congress they'll have to convince. All across the conservative landscape, voices of opposition have been coming out of the woodwork.

Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) calls the provision about those tribal courts a result of "unconstitutional demands of special interests." Special interests being women. Unconstitutional because he and other legislators claim that men tried in tribal courts would not be able to appeal that court's decision in federal courts (which is not true). Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK) says that what is really at issue is the fear among his colleagues, "veiled in constitutional theories," that "Indian [women] are going to take out 500 years of mistreatment on us through this."

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, is freaking out because the reauthorization of VAWA would, they claim, expand the definition of domestic violence to include "emotional distress," though the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women has called this "a complete fabrication." More to the point, Heritage is worried the bill would give women more power. "The substance of VAWA focuse[s] largely on redistributing power and resources to female victims," says their blog.

Janice Crouse of the conservative Concerned Women for America is  worried that VAWA could bring on "a war against men." The bill "ends up creating a climate of suspicion where all men are feared or viewed as violent and abusive and all women are viewed as victims," she says in a passage that uses the word "feminist" as if it were a curse, not an adjective: "The law is more about building feminist power structures."

Laura Wood, a conservative blogger writing at U.S. News & World Report, decries the "relentless feminist propaganda" around the bill, arguing that it "is opposed to domestic harmony," and claims that "dozens of studies have found that women initiate domestic violence at equal rates to men; due to the superior strength of men, women are more likely to get hurt." According to the National Institute of Justice, studies like those she cites do not measure control or coercion.  The Institute concludes that 90% of "systematic, persistent, and injurious" violence is committed by men.

The high-profile Tea Party group FreedomWorks says nbsp;that if women were forced to deal with this sort of violence on their own, it would empower them: "Supporters of the VAWA portray women as helpless victims -- this is the kind of attitude that is setting women back."

Such overwhelming hostility from social conservatives will be a big hurdle for the House GOP as they move to draft their own version of VAWA (yet again). It's also the kind of resistance that the push for women's rights has faced since its birth, as Ruth Rosen, author of the classic book The World Split Open: How the Modern Women's Movement Changed America, writes today. That such "debates" go on, so many decades after the feminist movement first burst onto the scene, is a reminder that the movement she's been involved with since its inception may indeed be "the longest revolution" of all. Erika Eichelberger

You've Come a Long Way, Baby (Or Have You?) 
The Women's Movement, the Next Half-Century 
By Ruth Rosen

In 1968, the Phillip Morris Company launched a memorable campaign to sell Virginia Slims, a new brand of cigarettes targeting women, itself a new phenomenon.  It had a brand-new slogan: "You've come a long way, baby."  The company plastered it on billboards nationwide and put it in TV ads that featured women of the early twentieth century being punished for smoking.  In all their advertising, smoking was equated with a set of traits meant to capture the essence of women in a new era of equality -- independence, slimness, glamour, and liberation.

As it happened, the only equality this campaign ended up supporting involved lung cancer. Today, women and men die at similar rates from that disease.

Still, women have come a long way since the mid-twentieth century, and it's worth considering just how far -- and just how far we have to go.

Once Upon a Time

These days it may be hard for some to believe, but before the women's movement burst on the scene in the late 1960s, newspapers published ads for jobs on different pages, segregated by gender. Employers legally paid women less than men for the same work.  Some bars refused to serve women and all banks denied married women credit or loans, a practice which didn't change until 1974. Some states even excluded women from jury duty.

Radio producers considered women's voices too abrasive to be on the air and television executives believed that women didn't have sufficient credibility to anchor the news. Few women ran big corporations or universities, or worked as firefighters and police officers.  None sat on the Supreme Court, installed electrical equipment, climbed telephone poles, or owned construction companies.  All hurricanes had female names, due to the widely held view that women brought chaos and destruction to society. 

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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