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Whatever Happened to the Women's Movement?

By       Message Bob Burnett     Permalink
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Hillary Clinton will likely be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee and the odds-on favorite to become the 45 th President.  Nonetheless, while over the last sixty years there's been a lot of civil-rights progress in the US, women remain second-class citizens.  Whatever happened to the women's movement?

Historians say the American women's movement has gone through three stages.  The first focused on women's suffrage.  The second stage began in the sixties -- about the time Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique" -- and lasted into the eighties.  It focused on gender inequality.  The third stage arose in the nineties as a reaction to the perceived failures of the second stage, in particular the lack of inclusion of women of color.

On the one hand women have made progress in America.  There are more females as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 21, than there were 60 years ago.   More women go to college than do men.  And women live longer.

On the other hand more women live in poverty than do men.  And despite years of protest and countless lawsuits, women still earn less than men when they do comparable work: "Women on average make only 77 cents to every dollar earned by men."  And despite the accomplishments of women like Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi,  politics is still dominated by white men.  (Since 2010 the number of female elected officials has declined.)

From the perspective of a straight white guy perched on the left coast, there seem to be three reasons why the women's movement hasn't produced gender equity.

First, at the same time women were struggling to gain their rightful place in American society, there has been a horrendous class war.  Since the Reagan presidency conservatives have waged war on the middle class.  Inequality rose as middle-class income and wealth declined.

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Income inequality became the dominant social issue and drained energy and resources from the women's movement.  Many women who in the sixties might have gone to a university class or a consciousness-raising group were forced to take a second job.  Women's equity issues didn't go away but they were shoved into the background by deteriorating economic circumstances for the 99 percent. 

Second, in their drive to promote corporate capitalism and turn the US into a plutocracy, conservatives targeted the women's movement.  Modern conservative political strategy dates from the 1971 Lewis Powell memorandum that called upon the US Chamber of Commerce and corporations to become more involved in politics.  As a consequence, corporations and rich conservatives spent millions developing a conservative strategy to take over America.  They argued that a liberal attack on traditional values had caused most of America's problems.   Republicans became adept at mobilizing resentment and in campaign after campaign Republicans have fueled the anger of lower and middle-class white men and redirected it to fictional groups, such as promiscuous women who supposedly want abortion on demand.  Tom Frank described this process in "What's the Matter with Kansas": economic conservatives distracted social conservatives with inflammatory social issues in order to get their votes and keep them from noticing the life-threatening problems caused by conservative economic policies.  As University of California Professor George Lakoff explained: there is now an overriding "conservative moral logic" that is inherently patriarchal: "The idealized conservative family is structured around a strict father."  Conservatives promoted sexism both as a way of securing white male votes and keeping women as second-class citizens.

Third, the mainstream media continued to promote sexist images of women.  Powell argued that conservatives had to manipulate the media.  This led to the rise of Fox News, conservative radio commentators such as Rush Limbaugh, the neutering of much investigative journalism, and a steady increase in sexist images of women.  A recent study by the Television Council found: "An examination of 238 sitcoms and dramas airing during four weeks in 2011 and 2012 found a third of the episodes included content that 'rose to the level of sexual exploitation' of females."  This year's Academy Awards host, Seth MacFarlane, opened with the sexist ditty "We Saw Your Boobs."

Civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer famously observed, "Nobody's free until everybody's free."  There won't be true democracy in the United States until men and women are on equal footing. 

Progressives must acknowledge the reason the women's movement hasn't achieved all of its objectives is because the movement hasn't had the whole-hearted support of men.  Progressive males have to adopt women's issues as their issues.  For example, unfettered access to reproductive health services is not exclusively a women's issue; it's a human rights issue that impacts all of us. As another example, a giant step towards ending economic inequality is guaranteeing equal pay for women.

The presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton will be an opportunity for progressives to redefine their agenda so that so-called women's issues are given the attention and resources they deserve.

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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