After the Rise and Stall of American Feminism
Taking Back a Revolution
Lynn S. Chancer

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1

Taking Stock

While it would be ridiculous to say that feminists in the United States have accomplished nothing, it would be similarly foolish to claim that nearly enough has changed. Neither statement is adequately nuanced to capture the complexities that still confront feminists since the “second wave” of feminism splashed onto the American social landscape in the 1960s and 1970s, spreading nationally and internationally, creating backlashes and so-called culture wars, touching just about everything in its path, and raising tantalizing if not yet realized expectations. In those first years, Betty Friedan diagnosed malaise among suburban housewives in The Feminine Mystique;1 the National Organization of Women (NOW) was founded in 1966, becoming the country’s largest and in time the longest-lasting women’s rights organization. Long ago (or not, depending on one’s vantage point), and all in 1968, Shirley Chisholm made history as the first African American woman to be elected to the House of Representatives; NOW formed a committee to launch the easily forgotten (because failed) Equal Rights Amendment (ERA); and protests were launched at the Miss America pageant against sexist objectification of women amid an outpouring of media hoopla.2 Fast-forwarding to the present, though, these events now provoke a crucial query: what exactly has been accomplished and what remains to be done? Stepping back, how has the U.S. movement fared a half century after the explosion of the second wave and in subsequent waves—the third, the fourth—through the practices of younger and older feminists?

The time seems right to take stock, to look with the benefit of hindsight at exactly where the American feminist movement has landed. This need to reevaluate came into cultural consciousness with a vengeance in the aftermath of the November 2016 election, when Hillary Rodham Clinton did not become—as many expected—the first “woman” president of the United States. Winning the popular vote by nearly three million,3 Clinton still lost the Electoral College with only 232 votes4 as the traditionally Democratic states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin voted “Trump” instead.5 Accused of sexist statements and actions himself, President Donald Trump inherited a deeply divided nation within which gendered divisions were stunningly manifest. Shocking to those anticipating a large gender gap were results showing that a slim majority of white women (53%) voted for Trump over Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.6 Hillary won women as a group but only narrowly (54% to Trump’s 42%).7 That narrow margin was thanks to 94 percent of African American women and 68 percent of Latinas swinging in her favor.8 “Intersectionality”—meaning the overlap of gender discrimination and other forms of social discrimination in people’s lives and perceptions—clearly affected the election’s outcome.

The upshot of the election attested to a profoundly divided U.S. electorate and revealed feminist issues as ongoing sources of contention as well as influence, although the word feminist remained vague as to what it meant to whom. Certainly fifty years “post” feminism, large numbers of people are proud to call themselves feminists. The shift was noticeable in popular culture, as for example Beyoncé declared herself a feminist in 2014.9 A few years later, on January 21, 2017, activists organized a major and phenomenally successful series of “women’s marches” in Washington, New York, and other cities (nationally and internationally) in multi-issue protest against Donald Trump’s November 2016 election. Marches were reorganized one year later, on January 20, 2018. Meanwhile, the #MeToo campaign against sexual harassment has become a spectacularly effective expression of feminist consciousness in its own right. Beginning with well-known men in the media world and on through entertainment moguls, actors, journalists, businessmen, political figures, and in protest against the nomination of now-Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, this campaign—against power dynamics that sexualize, objectify, and coerce women—can hardly be separated from the mushrooming of feminist awareness occurring in sometimes unexpected ways since the second wave’s beginnings in the 1960s and 1970s.

Thus no longer is it unusual for women (or men, or other persons) of any age, from the millennial generation through aging baby boomers, to be deeply affected by this movement and to find themselves worried whether hard-won progress on sexual assault, reproductive rights, workplace discrimination, and other feminist issues will be turned back given conservative shifts in 2016 and 2017.10 Complicating matters, though, is that many still remain unpersuaded or even antagonistic toward feminism, their primary affiliations having solidified along class, race, or ethnic more than gender lines. People have sometimes said, amid heated debates at school or work or when starting informal conversations, “I’m not a feminist but . . .” To those in this category ambivalence remains, and a split sense of attraction to and dissociation from the label has not evanesced. An April 2013 Huffington Post / YouGov poll found that only 23 percent of women and 16 percent of men would call themselves “feminist.” Yet 82 percent of respondents reacted affirmatively—women and men equally—when the word was more precisely defined to indicate agreement with the statement “Men and women should be social, political and economic equals.”11

For the millions who have been swayed by or committed to a world wherein options for women and men have expanded in all walks of life, from labor to religion to school and sex, the results of what feminist sociologist Kathleen Gerson terms a “gender revolution” appear mixed and extremely complicated. On the one hand, the feminist movement bequeathed immense transformations that have affected pretty much everyone; by now it is decidedly global, by no means simply local or U.S.-centric, in its scope and ramifications. As Gerson shows through interviews with 120 varied young women and men in The Unfinished Revolution,12 changes concerning ideas about equal pay, attitudes toward divorce, and sexual preferences have broadly taken hold in people’s everyday lives—whether or not the children of this “gender revolution” call themselves feminist per se. On the other hand, feminist issues like sexual harassment and sexual assault are strikingly persistent; for instance, rape remains a serious problem within the military, on college campuses, at schools, and within communities.13 On the issue of sexual harassment, signs of tremendous change are palpable: the #MeToo campaign grew in 2017 and 2018 vis-à-vis the use of media and social media into a powerful wave that reveals this ongoing problem for women to be of widespread, even mind-boggling proportions.

Indeed, women who had kept silent for years about their experiences came forward about men who had exerted physical, emotional, and sexual power over them in the entertainment industries and beyond. Regarding Harvey Weinstein alone, more than sixty women reported incidents of having been harassed or assaulted over a period of more than twenty years.14 In 2006 Los Angeles activist Tarana Burke began the Me Too movement; it was thereafter popularized by actress Alyssa Milano through the hashtag #MeToo, to which over half a million tweets and more than twelve million posts on Facebook responded across the world in twenty-four hours.15 Weeks after Weinstein’s accusers came forward, another woman charged that President George H. W. Bush had groped her from his wheelchair;16 shortly thereafter, Bill O’Reilly was fired from Fox News following multiple allegations of sexual harassment and assault and a settlement he agreed to for thirty-two million dollars (the largest of six such settlements that totaled close to forty-five million dollars).17 Previously, in 2016, Fox News chairman Roger Ailes had been fired for numerous claims of sexual assault.18

The list is growing, attesting to a new wave of feminist activism as well as feminists’ effective use of social media and new technologies. Not only #MeToo but a range of other current sites in the feminist blogosphere, such as Slutwalks and #yesallwomen, attest to activism and communication that are taking shape and gaining momentum in ways that reflect earlier feminist ideas and analyses as a new tool is being employed. These social media sites have been around through at least the 2010s; the well-known MeToo campaign has been building rather than simply bursting onto the scene. As Nisha Chittal notes on the MSNBC site, social media has “democratized feminist activism, opening up participation to anyone with a Twitter account and a desire to fight the patriarchy. By removing the barriers of distance and geography, sites like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram have made activism easier than ever, facilitating public dialogues and creating a platform for awareness and change.”19

Yet even as feminist activism within social media tries to address a range of ongoing sexist ills, stubborn complexities remain. Within and without the now influential Me Too movement, and as legal redresses have sometimes proved frustratingly insufficient (meriting political measures too), people are also debating how to respect simultaneously due process rights of men who have been accused. Returning to another issue that also bequeathed major sexist legacies even as generational changes occurred, most women and men do not yet experience a world wherein family and work have been restructured to avoid what another well-known feminist sociologist has dubbed the “second shift.”20 Here I refer to disproportionate “dual” labor that women still perform more often and for longer periods than men. Across social categories, women still often work full-time while bearing unequal responsibility for childcare and housework. As chronicled in an early but still relevant article by a former Princeton dean and public policy professor, it is still common for women to struggle to balance family and work and to combine new and older gendered roles.21 Consequently, feminist-inspired changes have bequeathed “push/pull,” “on the one hand / on the other” outcomes. They have been the cause for celebration of feminist successes in many instances, while handing down frustrations and disappointments in others.

Notes

1. Betty Friedan. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton.

2. See “1960s Feminism Timeline: Key Events of United States Feminism During the 1960s.” www.thoughtco.com/1960s-feminism-timeline-3528910.

3. Kenneth T. Walsh. 2016. “Clinton Wins Popular Vote by Nearly 3 Million Ballots.” U.S. News & World Report, December 21. www.usnews.com/news/ken-walshs-washington/articles/2016-12-21/hillary-clinton-wins-popular-vote-by-nearly-3-million-ballots.

4. New York Times. 2017. “Presidential Election Results: Donald J. Trump Wins.” January 4. www.nytimes.com/elections/results/president.

5. Gregory Krieg. 2016. “It’s Official: Clinton Swamps Trump in Popular Vote.” CNN, December 22. www.cnn.com/2016/12/21/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-popular-vote-final-count/.

6. Clare Malone. 2016. “Clinton Couldn’t Win Over White Women.” FiveThirtyEight, November 9. https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/clinton-couldnt-win-over-white-women/.

7. Alec Tyson and Shiva Maniam. 2016. “Behind Trump’s Victory: Divisions by Race, Gender, Education.” Pew Research Center, November 9. www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/11/09/behind-trumps-victory-divisions-by-race-gender-education/.

8. Alison Durkee. 2016. “Here’s a Breakdown of How African-Americans Voted in the 2016 Election.” News.Mic, November 14. https://mic.com/articles/159402/here-s-a-break-down-of-how-african-americans-voted-in-the-2016-election#.edLMTdG9m.

9. Omise’eke Natasha Tinsley. 2014. “Black Feminism Lite? More Like Beyonce Has Taught Us Black Feminism Light.” Huffington Post, November 7. www.huffingtonpost.com/omiseaeke-natasha-tinsley/beyonce-black-feminism_b_6123736.html.

10. Jill Filipovic. 2016. “What Does President Trump Mean for Feminists?” Washington Post, November 9. www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/11/09/what-does-president-trump-mean-for-feminists/?utm_term=.3249b45017eb.

11. Emily Swanson. 2013. “Poll: Few Identify as Feminists, but Most Believe in Equality of Sexes.” Huffington Post, April 16. www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/16/feminism-poll_n_3094917.html.

12. Kathleen Gerson. 2010. The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work, and Family. New York: Oxford University Press.

13. The White House Council on Women and Girls. 2014. “Rape and Sexual Assault: A Renewed Call to Action.” White House. www.knowyourix.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/sexual_assault_report_1–21-14.pdf (NGO archive; the White House did not maintain this report in archive).

14. Ronan Farrow. 2017. “From Aggressive Overtures to Sexual Assault: Harvey Weinstein’s Accusers Tell Their Stories.” New Yorker, October 23. www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/from-aggressive-overtures-to-sexual-assault-harvey-weinsteins-accusers-tell-their-stories; Paula Wachowiak. 2017. “The Weinstein Allegations.” Guardian, October 25. www.theguardian.com/film/ng-interactive/2017/oct/13/the-weinstein-allegations.

15. The Me Too movement started in 2006 with Tarana Burke, an African American woman activist in Los Angeles; Milano used it in a Twitter post after the Weinstein accusers went public. It spread from there. Natalie Jarvey. 2017. “Sexual Assault Movement #MeToo Reaches Nearly 500,000 Tweets,” Hollywood Reporter, October 16. www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/metoo-sexual-assault-movement-reaches-500000-tweets-1049235; Emily Shugerman. 2017. “Me Too: Why Are Women Sharing Stories of Sexual Assault and How Did It Start?” Independent, October 17. www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/me-too-facebook-hashtag-why-when-meaning-sexual-harassment-rape-stories-explained-a8005936.html; Andrea Park. “#MeToo Reaches 85 Countries with 1.7 Million Tweets.” CBS News, October 24. www.cbsnews.com/news/metoo-reaches-85-countries-with-1–7-million-tweets/.

16. Kate Feldman. 2017. “Actress Heather Lind Accuses Former President George H. W. Bush of Sexual Assault.” New York Daily News, October 25. www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/heather-lind-accuses-president-george-h-w-bush-sexual-assault-article-1.3586520.

17. Paul Farhi. 2017. “Report: Bill O’Reilly Settled Sexual Harassment Claim from Fox News Contributor for $32 Million.” Washington Post, October 21. www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/style/bill-oreilly-settled-sixth-sexual-harassment-claim-for-32-million/2017/10/21/ff34b24c-b68c-11e7–9e58-e6288544af98_story.html?utm_term=.17108a9d1199.

18. Jill Disis and Frank Paloota. 2017. “The Last Year of Roger Ailes’ Life Was Consumed by Scandal.” CNN, May 18. http://money.cnn.com/2017/05/18/media/timeline-roger-ailes-last-year/index.html.

19. See Nisha Chittal. 2015. “How Social Media Is Changing the Feminist Movement.” MSNBC, March 26. www.msnbc.com/msnbc/how-social-media-changing-the-feminist-movement.

20. Arlie Hochschild. 1989. The Second Shift. New York: Penguin Books.

21. Anne-Marie Slaughter. 2012. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” Atlantic, July/August. www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/; see also Gerson 2010.