“I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an’ pretend
‘Cause I’ve heard it all before
And I’ve been down there on the floor
No one’s ever gonna keep me down again
Oh yes, I am wise
But it’s wisdom born of pain
Yes, I’ve paid the price
But look how much I gained
If I have to, I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman…”
~ Excerpt from I Am Woman, words and music by Helen Reddy and Ray Burton, and performed by Ms. Reddy in 1972
Reminiscent of Helen Reddy’s mega hit in the early ’70s, last November women came roaring into the United States Congress in numbers too big to ignore. At the State of the Union address last month — on a date roared out by the first woman to be Speaker of the House twice — newly-elected women to the House of Representatives wore white in honor of women’s suffrage. And they applauded themselves at the moment the President stated that “No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the newly created jobs in the last year.” (Note: The President’s statement on women and jobs has been examined by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact.)
In light of the National Women’s History Month theme this year, which is Visionary Women: Champions of Peace & Nonviolence, I believe it’s possible to roar and shake things up in a nonviolent manner. Many of the women who were elected in the 2018 Mid-Terms ran because they were fed up and angry; and they channeled that anger into winning campaigns that catapulted them to powerful positions in government in order to change the things about which they were fed up and angry.
We’ve Come A Long, Long Way…
In the wake of the largest number of women elected to the House in a single election, it seems unbelievable now that prior to the tumultuous and game-changing decades of the 1960s and 1970s, American women faced barriers in applying on their own for credit, did not have a legal basis for fighting sexual harassment, could be summarily fired for being pregnant, did not have rights to control their own bodies through contraceptives or by terminating their pregnancies and were ineligible to serve on juries in some states or be admitted to most Ivy League colleges!
But the force of Second-Wave Feminism that began to rise in the 1960s caught the attention of legislators, prompting new laws. It also caused advertisers to sit up and take notice of changing demographics. In 1968, the Leo Burnett Agency launched one of the first and one of the most popular feminist ad campaigns during this era for Philip Morris — the famous (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) Virginia Slims cigarette commercials and print ads. The theme was, “You’ve come a long way, baby, to get where you got to today.”
And we women have come a long way from the ’60s and ’70s. We can look back on that seemingly endless road that has been paved with blood, sweat, tears, determination and patience and be proud of the progress we’ve made. That movement prompted laws, policies and practices that benefited all women.
But in some cases laws and policies were not passed or put in place for the benefit of women; that was just a by-product. For example, the admission to the Ivies was not to help women progress; it was to attract more talented male students, reminiscent of the singles bars of the era that offered complimentary drinks to women because they attracted men to the bars. And even President John F. Kennedy, who established the 1961 Commission on the Status of Women, in talking about it with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a television interview, ended a statement with, “I think in this great society of ours we want to be sure that women are used as effectively as they can to provide a better life for our people, in addition to meeting their primary responsibility which is in the home.” I wonder now if he really meant that women first and foremost belonged in the home, or if he said that merely to make it more palatable at the time to accept the idea of women’s equality in the workplace.
In any case, it appears that as a result of that kind of sexist thinking those momentous laws, policies and commissions were enacted with the goal of facilitating greater contributions from women for the benefit of men and society as a whole, not the other way around. Nevertheless, we women took those initiatives and ran with them. And look how much we gained.
…But We’ve Got A Long, Long Way To Go
Having participated in and contributed to that powerful Second Wave Feminism in the 1960s and 1970s, I was gratified that in the 1990s Generation-X women grasped the torch of female equality that was passed to them and put their own brand on it.
A relatively small generation in numbers, Gen-X was born and reared in a pocket of American history that enjoyed peace and prosperity. Young women of this era perceived that equality with men was a given; after all, their moms — and some of their dads — had taken care of that. And as the first generation of so-called “latch-key kids,” whose moms and dads being equal both worked full-time away from home, Gen-Xers were and continue to be fiercely self-sufficient and independent. Women could be themselves because in their view sexism had been eradicated from society. As such, they could move comfortably between being soft and feminine on the personal side and tough as nails on the academic and professional sides. They could be different from men while being equal with them. Bras and brains, boardrooms and boudoirs were not mutually exclusive. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But the lingering backlash against the women’s movement of the 1970s contributed to two major setbacks for Gen-Xers: the concept of feminism was driven into the closet, and it became more difficult for women in the ’90s to get a handle on dealing with a more subtle and insidious gender discrimination that emerged on campus and in the workplace. Less obvious than before laws and policies were put in place, discrimination and harassment took on more covert forms. Subtle sexism was practiced by making it seem normal and light-hearted instead of heavy-handed. Covert discrimination and harassment often made women feel uncertain and even guilty about possibly being too sensitive or defensive because sexist words and deeds were couched in apparent well-meaning comments and actions. Think wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Members of the Millennial generation — AKA Gen-Y — with their positive, inclusive, open-hearted and open-minded attitudes, tended to be closer to their parents than previous generations and generally had wider-ranging family discussions that helped to round out their social education. With the publication in 1994 of Myra Sadker’s and David Sadker’s ground-breaking book, Failing at Fairness: How America’s Schools Cheat Girls, many parents began having discussions with their Millennial middle-schoolers about gender discrimination in the classroom. While girls of that age might not have been conscious of such discrimination by well-meaning teachers or boys, they were alerted at a young age of the possibilities. (My Gen-Y daughter and I still have wide-ranging discussions and I am so grateful for the perspective they provide.)
As Gen-Y girls grew to adulthood, went off to college and experienced discrimination on campus, and learned upon graduation that equal pay with men still had not been achieved, Fourth-Wave Feminism was launched. But this Wave had a twist. Gen-Y’s mastery of Social Media facilitated a new way for women to communicate and organize a new movement. By 2012, Millennial women were connecting with millions globally to prompt new conversations about gender discrimination and harassment.
And there is an important hallmark of the Fourth Wave: intersectionality. This sets the Fourth Wave sharply apart from the Second Wave by its focus on the problems that African American and other women of color and backgrounds experience, and the fact that they do not enjoy a level of fairness that begins to approach that which white women enjoy.
In 2017, the New York Times broke the story about media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long sexual misconduct. The Fourth Wave was given laser focus when the floodgates opened and more Weinstein accusers came roaring out with scores of accusations of sexual abuse by not only Weinstein but also other well-known men, past and present. From this, two movements, #MeToo and Time’s Up, rose to prominence, prompting a renewed call to action and bringing together women — and many men — from multiple generations and backgrounds.
We Need to Keep on Roaring
A half-century ago, along with millions of other Boomer women and men, I started fighting for women’s equality and am thrilled and grateful today that my daughter and other daughters, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, granddaughters, aunts, nieces and cousins will be continuing the fight for gender equality, representation and fairness, shoulder to shoulder, not just for the moment but to build a more promising future for all.
So, yes, we’ve got a long way to go, but we will get there. To borrow again from the words and sentiments of Helen Reddy’s song — it cannot be stated enough — women are aspiring to and reaching influential positions in numbers too big to ignore. We can face anything. We are strong. In great numbers we are invincible. Hear us roar!