Feminist History, or the Lack Thereof

by Sidra M. S. Vitale

or, Young Women Who Don't Call Themselves Feminists, and the Older Women Who Are Pissed Off About It

I was watching Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher [actually, just a few minutes toward the end], and there was Erica Jong, Dylan McDermott and two other women whose names I didn't catch. One is my age, and she was obviously there to present 'my' viewpoint in contrast to stereotypically 'aging 60s feminists'. This is a position we here at The 3rd WWWave are often thrust into, as if the 6 of us could accurately represent the intellect and consideration of billions of women across the world. Hah.

Erica Jong brought up -- and, unfortunately, I missed all of the preceding context -- the ingratitude of women my age, who've internalized all the theory of feminism, say they want equal rights, equal partnership in marriage, equal pay, and consistently claim 'I'm not a feminist'.

Well, we are. There, I admit it. But it gets even better. Yes, we're feminists. And technically, we're ungrateful. I believe I understand why.

We Americans live in a world that was drastically shaped by the civil rights movements of the 60s and early 70s. This includes the women's civil rights movement, and the black civil rights movement.

We Americans also live in a world where the works of women do not yet go down in written history, and therein lies the problem.

Women my age were not taught about the women's movement, when we studied history in high school. In primary school, we all learn about the Pilgrims [oh, those Thanksgiving Day dress-ups, yippee], the Mayflower, the 'Shot Heard Round The World'. 1776 is the most important year, and by god, we know it. The defining moments of our country's history. The birth of our nation.

As we get older, and more able to understand the complexities of our society we learn about the Civil War and the Reconstruction. We learn about slavery.

Some adventurous instructors may even expose us to the War to End All Wars, except it didn't, but, in general, history that is still being rewritten is not the history to teach young minds in public schools today. History, apparently, isn't history at all until everyone involved is dead and buried. And that's a shame because it's certainly shafted the women's movement, so recent, and with such far reaching and fundamental repercussions.

The history of the women's civil rights movement is not taught in your average public school. Women my age are not taught in detail about the Equal Rights Amendment. We may get some glossed over paragraphs on the suffragettes, we know of Susan B. Anthony. We may have heard of 'Comstock laws' governing obscenity.

If we do hear or read of the civil rights movement, it is generally the black civil rights movement. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Malcom X. It is strong churches, strong communities, and men and women who would not back down in the face of extreme prejudice.

But women's history is still segregated.

If you want to read about Martin Luther King and marches on Washington, you take History 101 in college.

If you want to read about women's civil rights fights, from Margaret Sanger to Betty Friedan to N.O.W., you enroll in the Women's Studies Program.

I grew up in a world that women changed, yes I did, that women my mother's age made a difference in -- but the history of women is still getting relegated to the backseat. And I, innocent young woman I, grew up believing in my bones that I could do anything, be anything I wanted to be, not because it was Feminist Theory (tm) imposed on some pre-existing social structure (which it is), but because it was 'the truth'. It was simply the way I was raised.

So, on the one hand, the fact that women my age have been raised to be unknowing, 'unconscious', feminists makes us incredibly powerful. Because we see our rights -- those rights Second Wavers fought for -- as normal, human rights, our birthrights as American citizens. Not special in any way, but simply part of the tapestry of our society. Which was the goal of the women's rights movement.

On the other hand, the fact that women my age have been raised to be unconscious feminists is our Achilles heel. We do not know our full history, and even if we do come to understand it, we may still find ourselves repeating it. That's human nature for you.

So we should strive to know our history before it slips away, while the women who fought in the 60s are still around to give us the skinny, and we should strive to not let it slip away at all.

What is required, then, is that we integrate women's history into the rest of history as a whole.

Maybe this is happening right now, and I just don't know it. It's been a while since I cracked a high school history book.

So, leaders of N.O.W., Second Wave Feminists, 60s women's movement movers and shakers: don't tell us we're ungrateful, tell us your story. We didn't get to learn about you in school. Walk into classrooms and tell us what it was like. Revamp textbooks and teaching aids and curricula to reflect the New World.

We grew up in it. It was always there, to us.

And so, young women of today, Third Wave Feminists, Generation X slackers: study history, write down what you hear from these women who were there, right there in the thick of things, when an entire society tore at itself. Build websites. Expound ideas on Usenet. Talk to your peers. Talk to your mother. Build, live, think.

Because once these women are gone, all we'll have left is the history books.

Copyright © 1999 by Sidra M. S. Vitale

07/04/07 at 16:23