For reasons it has taken me a long while to divine, this book was the hardest to write of anything I have published to date. First, I fretted about titles; as the research and writing moved along, names for the book morphed in point/counterpoint with events. In 2014 I envisioned calling the book I’m Not a Feminist but . . . : Re-igniting a Stalled Revolution. Many people, including feminist friends and my editor, appreciated the title since the phrase “I’m not a feminist but . . .” had become recognizable in and beyond the purview of college classes and professors. At that historical moment, it was just about commonplace to hear people begin statements by disavowing the label “feminist” before going on immediately to agree with a major tenet—say, equal pay for equal work—that was widely associated with feminism (and feminisms). In that year, too, it was not unusual to hear talk of “postfeminism,” a term frequently associated with earlier generations of women now in their sixties and seventies—in other words, with mothers and grandmothers whose daughters had realized major benefits of a supposedly no-longer-needed social movement.
However, as feminist issues, from violence against women to political and economic inequalities, appeared to be undeniably persistent (especially considering problems of all women across races and classes) and as the word feminist was used positively again—for example, in 2013, Beyonce calling herself a “modern-day feminist”—I decided the title needed recasting. What I settled on was The Rise and Stall of American Feminism: Taking Back the Gender Revolution since, as this book states, remarkable achievements and stubborn impediments are obvious from the second wave’s heyday in the late 1960s and 1970s through the present. For feminists of the second wave, sexism began to be defined in those decades in terms of discrimination women encountered in and outside the workplace, as well as sometimes coercive controls and objectification of women’s bodies that impeded or prevented women from living full, equal, and safe lives. Yet feminist goals like universal daycare and women’s equal participation in politics and the culture industries have still not fully come to pass.
But then I started thinking, and shifting, again. Did the title sound too negative? So much was happening in the United States—not only from 2014 onward but following the 2016 presidential election—as to augur a potential renaissance in the importance of calling oneself a feminist. The #MeToo movement that rose and spread spectacularly in 2017 and 2018 bespeaks a highly significant feminist appropriation of social media. It continues to bring major effects, at a pace that is hard to keep up with, in and beyond the world of the internet and mass culture. As a result, powerful men from Harvey Weinstein (in Hollywood) to Ron Porter (in the White House), to name but a few, have been “brought down” by people, by women, acting collectively in response to the sometimes frustrating insufficient impact of charges made at the level of individual legal cases. These effects may assist in redressing many of the sociological issues analyzed in this book that show “stalling” in some areas or by some criteria. At the same time, feminists’ concerns with nuanced thinking recommends applying #MeToo carefully so that due process issues for men and for everyone are respected, and so that unequal charges are not treated (incorrectly) as equal.
Overall, new or renewed movement is happening as women, men, people who identify as non-binary, feminists, and activists who are commonly concerned about “intersectionality” are taking on simmering problems while at the same time drawing on the many accomplishments of prior decades. But shared angers may be simmering below the surface, too, motivated in part by disappointment at the defeat of the most serious candidate for president in American history who has been a woman, and even more by shared reactions to sexist calls (themselves enraged) at mass rallies for Hillary Clinton to be “locked up.” Exemplifying such recent shifts: with the Golden Globe Awards ceremony in early 2018, I felt I was watching this book’s cultural analysis come alive—far from the academy, of which I inhabit a tiny corner—as Oprah Winfrey and others decried the paucity of women and people of color, and their lack of power and control, among directors nominated for major awards. At an anecdotal but still noteworthy level, I have heard of women working for well-known Hollywood companies who have been recently assigned to a higher-up (male) executive to be mentored by this person, a “reform” that acknowledges and reacts to the recent “calling out” of gender biases. Thus reactions are occurring that, as they spread and circulate, are not only virtual but material in their repercussions.
Toward all this, not only have I been inwardly (and to whoever will listen) cheering “bravo,” but I was also inspired to retweak the title one last time. After the Rise and Stall of American Feminism: Taking Back a Revolution underscores as clearly as possible that momentum may be building and that what has “stalled” may be starting to alter, to reboot, in the near future. Renewal may be taking place at a mass level, a renewal of beliefs and goals that many feminists and feminist groups have been working on stalwartly for the last fifty years. I truly hope this is so and have no pretentions of “objectivity” in this regard. Rather, my intention is for this book to partake in this dynamic process, however modestly: first and foremost, my purposes are constructively aimed and unabashedly feminist.
Why then was the book so difficult to write? Reflecting back on a book that is itself a looking back, I perceive a second, emotional difficulty in having found surveying the successes and problems of the American feminist movement to be surprisingly challenging. In retrospect, I often worried, not necessarily consciously, about whether I would offend this one or that one, one feminist group or another, if I said this or that. Would the goal of calling attention to feminist commonalities and differences be somehow attacked or criticized, and in a spirit that unwittingly partook of recurring divisions I was about to explore? Did I leave something or someone out? I have fretted that some will think the book does not stress stalling and impediments enough; others will think it overemphasizes them. Of course, on one level this is an academic professional hazard, but on another, I felt myself reliving (in anticipation) tendencies toward fragmentation that have been a troubling, potentially destructive aspect of American progressive social movements for more decades than this book mentions. Moreover, the issue may be distinctively salient for feminisms, as the very character of sexism has been to divide women from one another, a structural tendency that calls for special attention or, at the very least, reflection, self-awareness, and memory.
Here is where I came down eventually on all of this. There has to be value, I became convinced, in examining what happened before so as to prevent patterned tendencies from happening again. Maybe more than ever, it now feels crucially important not to reinvent the wheel. For example, early second wave feminism arose from many women—and not only white middle-class women but women of color too—experiencing sexism in left-wing and racial justice social movements. After decades, though, it could be easy to forget this, as feminists veered away from cross-class and cross-racial organizing, a problem that intersectionally oriented feminists and feminisms are in a process of remedying. It was somewhat daunting to put all this together—to insist on the (long feminist) brilliance of thinking, feeling, and acting, alone and together, on things that so often are questions not of either/or but of both/and—of more than one thing having social and individual validity. Scanning the past brings back this problem of forgetting-and-remembering, as does placing issues of divisiveness on a timeline that provides a long-term context.
Just as worth remembering is that in many ways assessing “stalling,” or its inverse, is often quite a different matter in “sociological” terms and perceptions from how it is perceived in the mass media. Politicians and journalists—and feminists too—can talk about making changes to parental leave policies even as, stepping back, this has not changed the “long view” that many or most women, men, and families who badly need all-day high-quality childcare do not yet have it. Cultural changes may be starting to happen in Hollywood, but overall the structure of the American culture industries remains overwhelmingly male- and white-dominated. Without nearly enough “actualizing equalities,” its problems are (yes!) nonetheless “talked about” more regularly in media reports, as reflected in popular cultural representations. Likewise, public attitudes toward reproductive choice do still remain in favor of Roe v. Wade, yet poor women and most women living in rural areas have been badly affected by closing clinics, which overall makes it hard if not impossible to procure abortions.
After the Rise and Stall of American Feminism proposes markers and a sense of perspective as to where a still very young movement has been and where it still seeks to go. Above all, I hope the book will be useful to women, men, and other people, to students but also to people working and those not working. The book is aimed as widely as possible, perhaps relevant to college classes where younger-to-older students may gain from reflecting on common and different purposes of the contemporary feminist movement, but also still readable by someone’s mother, sister, brother, or cousin for discussion. I definitely hope the book will interest those who may not be persuaded by feminist ideas and goals. At the same time, I apologize in advance for anything or anyone that has been left out, imperfectly, and hope the book is read in the constructive spirit I intended. If even a little of this happens, then overcoming small personal anxieties, which themselves are part of building and rebuilding the American feminist movement politically, has been well worth it to me and I hope to others as well. Let’s see what happens next. There is one point of which I am utterly persuaded: as the twenty-first century marches on, in and beyond America, this revolutionizing movement for human equality, too long denied to over half the population, will grow.