Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Women's Equality Day: Much To Celebrate, Much Work Still To Do

Today marks the 89th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. After a long, hard fight, women were finally given the right to vote in this country on August 26, 1920. In 1971 (the year I was born), Bella Abzug, the first Jewish woman elected to Congress, was pivitol in getting a resolution passed through Congress that would designate August 26 national "Women's Equality Day."

21 years after that resolution passed, I voted for the first time in the 1992 presidential election. This was not only a significant rite of passage for me, a young, idealistic college student who believed anything was possible, it was a monumental moment for my mother, who also voted for the first time in her life that year. After falling victim to the devastating ultra-conservative, right wing policies of the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, she had finally had enough and decided to exercise the little bit of political power she as a poor black woman possessed: her right to vote. So together she and I went downtown to register and together we went to the polls in November to cast our ballots. She voted in every local and federal election from then until her death in 2002, and I, following the example she set, have done the same.

Because of that moment in my life, the 19th Amendment took on a special significance for me. When I reflect on the importance of Women’s Equality day, it is my mother, her life, and her determination to exercise her political power that gives me reason to rejoice at how far women have come. But amidst the many causes for celebration, I hope we do not lose sight of the very stark reality that women have still not achieved full inclusion. There is much to do. In disproportionate numbers, women continue to be the victims of violence and abuse. Fatherhood is still not held to the same level of significance and accountability as motherhood, so women continue to shoulder the burden of being the primary caretakers of children and families. Women are still underrepresented in fields requiring advanced degrees but overrepresented in skilled labor and service industry jobs, and are often the victims of wage discrimination. And women still have less political power than males, which is the greatest cause of feminine oppression since having economic and political power in this country is critical for creating true, lasting change.

When I reflect on the work and passion of women like Ida B. Wells, Bella Abzug, and many, many others who took up the cause of women's rights, I wonder where that passion for feminist equality has gone in this post modern age. What happened? Where is the energy and fire from women of my generation? And young women - where are they in the struggle? It seems that advancement has lulled women into a false sense of accomplishment, just as it did with blacks in the post-civil rights era. Like many African-Americans, women have been fooled into believing that the struggle is over. We believe the lie that consumerism is the answer to personal fulfillment. We've been side-tracked and distracted by the yummy candy and shiny trinkets those with real political power have dangled in front of us in order to deflect us from the real problems and issues that plague our society.

Yes, much has changed for women, and to say otherwise would be a tremendous insult to the folks who made possible the many opportunities now open to women of my generation. But the presence of certain rights and freedoms does not automatically equal the absence of inequality. The dark legacy of oppression created by male privilege and sexism is alive and well, thank you very much. It boggles my mind that there are women who, in this day and age - the 21st century of the new Millenium - are still so blinded and brainwashed by patriarchy that they fear even the mention of the word feminism. These are the women Germaine Greer referred to when she said, "the fear of freedom is strong in us." These are the women who will cuss you out if you even put their name in the same sentence with the word feminist, yet they are the first ones to take advantage of (and benefit from) the opportunities, rights, and freedoms that the rest of us who proudly proclaim ourselves feminists are struggling to maintain.

There is a sad irony in the words "Women's Equality Day." It is an irony that arises from the reality that women are not yet truly equal in American society. And yet there is also much hope in those words; hope for the present and the future of women's equality. Still, I worry that if women and our male allies continue to rest on our laurels, whatever remaining hope we have will diminish completely, and we will see a return to a time when women lacked options and lived like second class citizens; a time when the only expectations for a woman was to have babies, cook, clean, and be the people whose backs were the bridges that men trampled over in homes, churches, schools, and the workplace.

As I think about where we go from here in the struggle for women's equality, and how best to get there, I have no easy answers. But I challenge women and our male allies to look upon Women's Equality Day and everyday as a new and exciting opportunity to continue the work that so many brave women and men began many, many years ago. I challenge us to not stop until we reach a point in time where future generations of young women will have no idea what it once meant to be a woman in a male-dominated society, except through the stories they will read in dusty old history books.

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