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The Next Wave: Feminism in the 21st Century, Part I

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In July of 1848, a group of American women and men gathered at Seneca Falls, N.Y., to discuss the legal limitations imposed on American women at the time. They issued a statement known as the Declaration of Sentiments, which, like many other revolutionary documents in American history, draws directly on the Declaration of Independence. Their Declaration begins:

When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one portion of the family of man to assume among the people of the earth a position different from that which they have hitherto occupied, but one to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes that impel them to such a course. We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Today, the changes they made to the original Declaration of Independence may seem small and insignificant, but at this time in history, women could not vote, could not hold elected office, could not independently own or inherit property if married, had no protection against domestic violence, had no right to demand divorce or retain custody of children after the dissolution of a marriage, had to pay taxes without representation, were barred from attending a college or university, had few opportunities for gainful employment outside of the home, were required to be subordinate in the church as well as in the home and the public sphere, and were generally treated as chattel-no better than animals kept on a farm for breeding purposes.

From this, our society has certainly come far.

In 1920, as a result of decades of hard work by several generations of American women and men, American women finally won the right to take part in our electoral process through the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution. One year later, Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (which later evolved into Planned Parenthood, in 1942). At this point in US history, birth control was illegal.

While there is evidence that Sanger herself was sympathetic to some aspects of the extremely popular eugenics movement of the early-to-mid 20th century, it is also important to note that the science of the time was considerably limited when it came to hereditary illnesses and that Sanger was aggressively opposed to eugenics based on racial bias. In a letter to philanthropist Albert Lasker in 1942, Sanger wrote:

I think it is magnificent that we are in on the ground floor, helping Negroes to control their birth rate, to reduce their high infant and maternal death rate, to maintain better standards of health and living for those already born, and to create better opportunities for those who will be born.

Anti-abortion rights activists and commentators frequently point out Sanger's faults, while patently ignoring her contributions to the feminist movement in the United States. It is worth mentioning that several of Sanger's positions are considered out of line with Planned Parenthood's mission. These include incentives for the voluntary hospitalization and/or sterilization of people with untreatable, disabling, hereditary conditions, the adoption and enforcement of stringent regulations to prevent the immigration of the diseased and "feebleminded" into the United States, and the placing of so-called illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, and dope-fiends on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the strengthening of moral conduct (personally, I would argue that the United States penal system has realized this particular goal). PPFA offers the following statement on Sanger, to respond to allegations that its true mission includes some of Sanger's less savory positions:

Planned Parenthood Federation of America finds these views objectionable and outmoded. Nevertheless, anti-family planning activists continue to attack Sanger, who has been dead for nearly 40 years, because she is an easier target than the unassailable reputation of PPFA and the contemporary family planning movement. However, attempts to discredit the family planning movement because its early 20th-century founder was not a perfect model of early 21st-century values I like disavowing the Declaration of Independence because its author, Thomas Jefferson, bought and sold slaves.

Most of the negative information that has been circulated about Sanger has been debunked, and what remains is a reflection of the common thought-patterns of the age in which she lived. Her contributions to the betterment of American women's lives, on the other hand, are still very much alive. Thanks to the work of Sanger and her contemporaries, information about birth control became legally available in 1936 and the birth control pill was finally approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1960, freeing millions of American women from dangerous numbers of pregnancies and in some cases, pregnancy altogether.

The 1960s and 70s are the era of feminism that most women of my generation are most familiar with. But in reality, most of us are not well-educated about what women were fighting for during this period in our history, aside from the obvious desire to work outside the home and gain some measure of fulfillment in life beyond being a wife and a mother.

In 1961, then President John F. Kennedy established the President's Commission on the Status of Women. He appointed former first lady Eleanore Roosevelt as chairwoman. The Commission released its report in 1963, calling for improvement of the substantial workplace discrimination against women it had observed, including fair hiring practices, paid maternity leave, and affordable childcare. To date, these recommendations have not been fully realized.
1963 was also the year Betty Friedan's revolutionary book The Feminine Mystique hit the shelves. In it, she explored the dissatisfaction of middle-class housewives. Three years later, she helped found the National Organization for Women, which is still the largest and most influential women's rights groups in the country.

Over the remainder of the 1960s, the fight crawled slowly forward, making dents in gender discrimination in employment, continuing to fight for the right of American women to have legal access to birth control, striking down segregated help wanted ads in newspapers, winning the right to divorce by "mutual consent" in California which spread to every state in the nation by 1985, and getting the states to pass laws regarding the equal division of common property.

Ms. Magazine, an icon of the modern feminist movement, was launched in 1971. It remains a significant outlet of the feminist movement. However, one year later, the movement was dealt a stunning setback-the Equal Rights Amendment (originally drafted in 1923 by Alice Paul), which was finally passed (by a margin of 354-24 in the House and 84-8 in the Senate), after 49 years of consistent defeat in every session of Congress, was sent to the states for ratification. It remained in limbo for ten years, until in 1982 it was officially considered dead, as it had failed to achieve ratification by the minimum of 38 states. It has been reintroduced into every session of Congress since and has remained buried in committee.

The 1970s saw continued success in the fight against workplace discrimination, including discrimination against pregnant women, Congress passed Title IX barring discrimination on the basis of gender in schools, the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade established a woman's right to a safe and legal abortion, and the first marital rape law was enacted in Nebraska in 1976 making it illegal for a husband to rape his wife.

The "modern" feminist movement started to decline in the 1980s. The ERA died in the states, and few strides were made by women's rights advocates. Among those that were successful were the establishment of EMILY's List, a financial network for pro-choice Democratic women running for national political office, and the Supreme Court decision in the case Meritor Savings Bank v. Vinson which found that sexual harassment was a form of job discrimination.

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Katherine Brengle is a freelance writer and activist.
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