coming out of my shell

coming out of my shell

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sisterhood should have been a lot more powerful

After all these years, feminism still has a long way to go before it becomes acceptable to the masses. If you do not believe me, just wait until Hillary runs for President and the wingnuts start to criticize her outfits and hairdos instead of her political message.

Back in the late 1960s, when the so-called second wave of feminism was young and vital, I was young along with it. The "first wave" was in the early days of the 20th century when the suffragettes were fighting for women to get the right to vote.  Anyway, I remember going to hear Dr. Benjamin Spock speak at Notre Dame circa 1968. I am not referring to the Vulcan who was also a pop icon at the time, Dr. Benjamin Spock was the guy who published a book in 1946 originally called The Commonsense Book of Baby & Child Care.  This wildly popular child care book was subsequently blamed for permissive child rearing and the resulting radicalism of the baby boomer generation. Indeed, his book was quite radical and forward thinking in the 1940s and 1950s.

Of course he was a man of his time and the gender role stereotypes he pushed in early editions of his book were deemed sexist by the late 1960s. I was a high school student and I vividly remember how exciting it was to hear the college-aged activists in the hall shout him down and call him out on his sexism. Those women were fearless powerhouses like no women I had seen before that night. They were no ladies! They were superheros. You may remember their crazy radical feminist notions, like recognizing that fathers should help out with childcare, that at least half of the children might be female, and that women had the right to work outside the home.

Spock actually listened and
later changed his "message" in subsequent editions and even apologized to women for not thinking of us as fully realized human beings. In 1976 the newly enlightened Benjamin Spock divorced his old wife (the mother of his children, the one he married in 1927 and the person who helped research and write that famous book) and he married a woman 40 years younger than him. Concerning his second wife, he was quoted as saying "she gave me back my youth."  Gag me with a spoon. I guess no one told him about the sins of ageism.

I attended my share of consciousness raising groups and women's writing workshops back in the day.  I tried (and failed) to make my daughter play with trucks instead of dolls. I happily signed up to attend assertiveness training workshops.  I wish those still existed, they were quite useful in instructing us how to be women instead of ladies. In case you did not know, second wave feminists did not want to be called or thought of as ladies. "Ladies" tottered around aimlessly on high heels never thinking deep thoughts or challenging authority. Let me be perfectly clear: Ladies have cooties. Women kick ass.

By the mid-1970s I was discouraged by the movement's subsequent focus on the rights and privileges of upper middle class women.  It seemed to me that was all the women's movement came to care about in later years; enabling women of means to enter the professions alongside their equally privileged men. I am all for upper class women having the same opportunities as upper class men, of course. However, none of my friends or family members were going to become doctors, lawyers, or professors; not because they were not smart enough to become professionals, but because no one was paying for them to go to college. Let's be honest, working class people do not have parents who can buy them a future.

It would have been nice if the later women's movement had been interested in understanding and supporting the special struggles of working class women. Feminism might be more than just a tired joke in some circles today had the movement embraced all women and not just the elite few.  I was not alone in feeling undervalued and ignored. Class struggle was arguably the downfall of the second wave of feminism in the 60s/70s.  I would recommend an article written in 1977 by Marlene Dixon.  She was a bit of a firecracker and definitely too extreme in her politics, but it is still a good read if you are interested in stepping back in time and immersing yourself in the history of feminism.

In truth, the 1960s/70s women's movement was different at first.  Feminist ideology influenced and/or energized organizations that really made a difference in the lives of all women, like Planned Parenthood - an organization that was started by Margaret Sanger, a first wave feminist and onetime labor activist.  Some other efforts championed in the glory days of feminism were the creation of professionalized day care centers, job training programs, battered women's shelters. Affirmative Action has its problems; however, women and African Americans would not have been hired into traditionally white male jobs or professions without it.  Again, not because they were not capable of doing the jobs, but because they would never have gotten an interview without Affirmative Action stepping on the toes of the white guys in charge of Human Resources.

Second wave feminism WAS successful in altering the cultural landscape and making things a bit better for women. Don't let anyone tell you any different.  Why then is the concept of feminism seemingly still a hard sell for young women, women of color, rural women, and working class women?  In my opinion, the "second wave" of the women's movement
simply did not finish the job, instead becoming decadent, myopic, and self-serving. The leadership failed to stay interested in or establish meaningful dialogue with these disparate groups of women. When that happened, it stopped being relevant to the majority of women. It is all about perception, after all.


  1. I love when you share about your life during the 60s and 70s! Thank you for speaking on this particular issue! Women do kick ass!!!


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