When white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered in Charlottesville earlier this month, disdain for women oozed out. Indeed, some have called misogyny the “gateway drug” to the “alt-right” agenda on full-out ugly display.
I’m not surprised.
Every year on Aug. 26, I write an article recognizing Women’s Equality Day, a holiday established in 1971 to commemorate the 1920 ratification of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. The message on Equality Day is always some version of “how far we’ve come yet how far we still have to go.”
But that line of thinking assumes the trajectory toward gender equality goes in a straight line, and if we just keep working hard, it will inevitably arrive. But in politics, economics and movement building, no course ever continues with perfect predictability. And in 2017 — from Charlottesville to Seattle — it’s blatantly clear there is no such thing as inevitable social progress.
The nation is at a moral crossroads — and women’s roles and rights, as usual, sit squarely in the middle of such inflection points. During times of conflict, women often see their rights pushed back, the canary in the coal mine on the arduous quest for parity. This year’s Women’s Equality Day is no different, arriving on two starkly divergent tracks hurling toward entirely different futures.
One one side? Optimism, which is well justified by an escalating flow of female firsts and wave of quantum change seemingly leading forward toward gender equality. When it comes to politics, Emily’s List — an influential organization that aims to elect pro-abortion rights women — announced that over 17,000 women have signed up with the organization to run for office. More women than ever are starting businesses and getting them funded. The number of women holding corporate board seats is steadily increasing (albeit with setbacks.) Women are now more likely to graduate from college than men. And many corporations are implementing pay parity policies and making a public effort to diversify their ranks.
But on the flipside is an abyss too awful to contemplate, where The Handmaid’s Tale turned real and the President of the United States frequently reduces women to their appearance. At worst, we’ve done away with generations of progress with new attacks on reproductive rights, a slew of sexual harassment allegations across industries and a persistent gender pay gap, especially for women of color. At best, we have to contend daily with the likes of James Damore, the former Google employee who wrote an anti-diversity manifesto that reeks of clueless privilege.
This moment in time may feel unprecedented, with white supremacists and neo-Nazis marching in broad daylight. But as a long-time social justice activist, I know these sentiments have always lingered and long threatened to come out from under their rock to devour core American values of liberty and justice for all in favor of anarchic freedom for just the few.
The cognitive dissonance is ear-splitting. It’s exhausting to those of us who have been fighting these battles for decades. It’s frightening to young women who were taught that gender issues were long resolved and who grew up hearing that they could do anything they set their mind to — only to discover they’ll have to face virulent and discouraging pushback on their way there.
But what we need to remember is time of great turmoil calls for bold moves. If the women’s movement does not change strategies, it is in the greatest danger of being slammed backward since World War II ended and Rosie the Riveter was sent home to become June Cleaver.
Self-righteous proclamations won’t bring change no matter how much money they raise from sympathetic supporters. Nor will buying charity t-shirts or hashtagging #resist or marching — no matter how many pink pussy hats appear. There is certainly a time to march. I have both organized and joined many for civil rights and women’s rights. They are important shows of the potential power of the people — but they are just that: potential.
Resistance alone is ultimately futile because it’s all defense. Progress requires a vibrant offense.
On this Women’s Equality Day, we should heed Sojourner Truth’s wise words from 150 years ago: “If women want any rights more than they got, why don’t they just take them, and not be talking about it.”
Truth’s story inspired me to action as a young woman. She famously said that she just walked away from slavery instead of running. She became a Methodist minister, a leading abolitionist and women’s rights advocate best known for her powerful “Ain’t I A Woman” speech on the strength and power of women. “If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again,” she proclaimed.
It’s time to take Truth’s words to heart and leverage the power of our gender. While we could alter the social climate if everyone who believes in an inclusive America would call out bigotry, it’s also true that the only sustainable social change comes from movements with a clear proactive agenda and a disciplined long-term strategy that defines the terms of the debate rather than reacting to it. And we need “woke” women in powerful leadership roles in business and politics.
But most important of all is that we must own the goal of full equality, assert the value we know we bring and take charge across all sectors. Though 80% of Americans think (mistakenly) that the Constitution grants women equal rights to men, we have yet to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment despite almost 100 years of trying. It’s about time we actually make that happen.
It’s time to stop pointing out studies and examples of women being treated unfairly without paying equal attention to the solutions. Again, I turn to Truth’s winning strategy: “I am for keeping the thing going while things are stirring. Because if we wait till it is still, it will take a great while to get it going again.”
That means no whining, no sniveling. We need to keep our eyes on the goal. We shouldn’t back away from controversy. In fact, let’s create some.
This Women’s Equality Day, we stand between two destinations in the heat of our country’s discontent. It’s time for women to lead courageously past injustice and torches and direct us toward the future where equality reigns for all.
Gloria Feldt is the co-founder and president of Take The Lead and a bestselling author of four books. She is also the former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
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