[Special Request and Offer for TomDispatch Readers: This is a big day for TD. We're releasing a spectacular new Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me. Believe me, it should be an instant classic of gender relations. In a rave prepublication review at the Canadian newspaper the National Post , Haley Mlotek hails Solnit's writing as "one of the most vital tools we, as readers, can use to understand the world we inhabit. I am glad to live in a place where Rebecca Solnit will explain things to me."
We're urging TomDispatch readers to lend us a hand in ensuring the book's success and that Dispatch Books -- for which we have big plans -- has a future by buying at least one copy (today!). If you're an Amazon customer, any book link in this piece will take you to that site, where, if you buy Men Explain Things to Me, you're promoting our future (and also sending a few extra cents our way at no cost to you). Otherwise tell your local bookstore to order copies. That's our fervent request. Now for the offer: for a donation of $100 (or more), money we desperately need to fund the kind of journalism we do, Solnit will sign a personalized copy of the book for you. Check out our donation page for more details, and please note that, because she will be on the road these next weeks, your signed copy will not be in the mail until early June. Tom]
Here are two figures, and given how anyone who has been sexually assaulted is likely to feel about the experience, they have to be low-end estimates: the latest Pentagon numbers indicate that about 26,000 men and women (but mainly women) in the U.S. military "were sexually assaulted in 2011, up from 19,000 in 2010"; and the figure regularly cited, even by President Obama and Vice President Biden, is that one in five college women either experience an attempted sexual assault or are raped in their years on campus.
While these numbers can be argued about, they are striking evidence that, so many decades after the modern feminist movement was launched, the gender wars (male version) continue at levels that should shock anyone. Or thought of another way: for a surprising percentage of women in the twenty-first century, every career path seems to end in the same grim place.
Fortunately, in Men Explain Things to Me, just published today, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit offers a striking and hopeful assessment of where the feminist movement is now, and of the ways of thinking it has made so antiquated that none of us can return to them, no matter the pressures. Her new book on the gender wars, from which today's post is taken, offers a fresh look at feminism a half-century later. She suggests that, whatever has yet to be won, by changing our assumptions feminists have already insured that the biggest battle of all is in the past. That women are equal to men and deserve equal rights as well, as Solnit points out, is no longer an earth-shattering idea, and that in itself is a great victory, even if getting institutions and individuals to abide by it is another matter. Featuring a famed essay which originally appeared at TomDispatch and gives the book its title, it ranges from a highly original inquiry into marriage equality to a terrifying survey of the scope of contemporary violence against women and a moving exploration of how novelist Virginia Woolf embraced the mystery of not knowing. Simply put, Men Explain Things to Me is a must-read masterpiece. Tom
Pandora's Box and the Volunteer Police Force
Feminism Has Just Started (and It's Not Stopping Now)
By Rebecca Solnit
The history of women's rights and feminism is often told as though it were a person who should already have gotten to the last milestone or has failed to make enough progress toward it. Around the millennium lots of people seemed to be saying that feminism had failed or was over. On the other hand, there was a wonderful feminist exhibition in the 1970s entitled "Your 5,000 Years Are Up." It was a parody of all those radical cries to dictators and abusive regimes that your [fill in the blank] years are up. It was also making an important point.
Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth -- and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has 999 miles to go and will never get anywhere.
It takes time. There are milestones, but so many people are traveling along that road at their own pace, and some come along later, and others are trying to stop everyone who's moving forward, and a few are marching backward or are confused about what direction they should go in. Even in our own lives we regress, fail, continue, try again, get lost, and sometimes make a great leap, find what we didn't know we were looking for, and yet continue to contain contradictions for generations.
The road is a neat image, easy to picture, but it misleads when it tells us that the history of change and transformation is a linear path, as though you could describe South Africa and Sweden and Pakistan and Brazil all marching along together in unison. There is another metaphor I like that expresses not progress but irrevocable change: it's Pandora's box, or, if you like, the genies (or djinnis) in bottles in the Arabian Nights. In the myth of Pandora, the usual emphasis is on the dangerous curiosity of the woman who opened the jar -- it was really a jar, not a box the gods gave her -- and thereby let all the ills out into the world.
Sometimes the emphasis is on what stayed in the jar: hope. But what's interesting to me right now is that, like the genies, or powerful spirits, in the Arabian stories, the forces Pandora lets out don't go back into the bottle. Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge and they are never ignorant again. (Some ancient cultures thanked Eve for making us fully human and conscious.) There's no going back. You can abolish the reproductive rights women gained in 1973, with Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion -- or rather ruled that women had a right to privacy over their own bodies that precluded the banning of abortion. But you can't so easily abolish the idea that women have certain inalienable rights.
Interestingly, to justify that right, the judges cited the Fourteenth Amendment, the constitutional amendment adopted in 1868, as part of the post-Civil War establishment of rights and freedoms for the formerly enslaved. So you can look at the antislavery movement -- with powerful female participation and feminist repercussions -- that eventually led to that Fourteenth Amendment, and see, more than a century later, how that amendment comes to serve women specifically. "The chickens come home to roost" is supposed to be a curse you bring on yourself, but sometimes the birds that return are gifts.
Thinking Out of the Box
What doesn't go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can't convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind. Sometimes legal, political, economic, environmental changes follow upon those changes, though not always, for where power rests matters. Thus, for example, most Americans polled would like to see economic arrangements very different from those we have, and most are more willing to see radical change to address climate change than the corporations that control those decisions and the people who make them.