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How Far We’ve Come, and Still Have to Go

June 3, 2011

I love Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.  I’m proud she represents me. 

But I have to say, I completely disagree with some remarks she made last week on Morning Joe.  In particular, the Senator says two things that really irk me: (a) we’re still fighting the same (feminist) battles we fought decades ago; and (b) women just aren’t involved, or interested, in politics. Her statements make me go, “Wait – is she for real?” 

The same battles?

This line is particularly annoying to me because it makes more than 150 years of hard-won women’s rights invisible.  It was in 1848 that women first came together formally to organize for certain rights.  At that convention in Seneca Falls, NY, women and men discussed serious issues that remain relevant today, like women being considered property of men.  Ultimately they decided that the focus for the time being had to be on the legal right to vote.  Yet it wasn’t until 1920 that women finally won that right in the U.S.  And if you’re a woman of color, it took another few decades before you could cast a vote without harassment.

The women’s rights movement throughout the 20th century won, oh, little things, like a legal definition of rape that doesn’t rely on witnesses, the creation of birth control and (decades later) the right to use birth control as birth control rather than as treatment for a medical disorder, not to mention the simple right to wear pants without being considered a total outcast.  When my mom first looked for a job after graduating from college in the late 1960s, she had to look for jobs listed under “Jobs for Women.”  So don’t tell me we’re fighting the same battles that women already won, decades ago.

Making all of these battles invisible is part of the reason so few younger women identify as feminists.  Maybe if the details of the women’s movement were a standard part of elementary, junior high, and high school history curricula, more younger women would choose to call themselves feminists – at least, out of respect for the people who fought in the past.

If some of the battles feel like we’ve been fighting them for decades – like, I don’t know, the right to access a safe and legal abortion, not to mention the right not to feel ashamed about it – that’s because they’re all connected.  Every one of these battles is connected to the fact that women can become pregnant, and are sexual beings, and have power because of that – power that both men and women seek to control and deny. 

Women aren’t involved in politics?

I can’t ignore the obvious: YOU’RE A U.S. SENATOR AND A WOMAN!  I am well aware that women are a minority of elected officials at all levels in this country.  However, really, you’re saying women don’t care and don’t want their voices heard, politically, and are not involved.  Yet you are the second female U.S. Senator from the State of New York, and have a wide network of women’s organizations and individual women who support you.  Many of us do that, at least in part, because you are also a woman, and we have an interest – perhaps some of us even feel it’s an obligation – to support you.  You cite the percentage of women who voted Republican in the last election – 51%.  It sounds to me like women DID make their voices heard through votes, and you just don’t like what they said.  (Exactly why that happened is another blog post entirely.) 

Being a U.S. Senator, you have an obligation to lead us.  Making public statements that publicize and support the women’s movement and its hardwon gains, and the ways in which women today are involved in politics as well as ways that the political system could change to allow more women in, would be true leadership.

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