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Do women’s rights include the right to commit suicide? All of us concerned with the welfare of American women must answer no. We may hold different opinions on methods and ultimate goals, but we can all agree on one point: the movement must continue and it must flourish. However, if the fate of the Equal Rights Amendment in two Eastern states is any indication, the women’s movement is strangling itself with the rope of its own rhetoric. The November defeat of the amendment in New York and New Jersey will not be any more responsible for the death of the women’s rights than the smear tactics of its opponents were responsible for the negative votes. At most, these are contributing factors. If the women’s rights movement for equality dies, it will be a result of the leadership’s elitism and the consequent failure to concentrate on issues that are relevant to most women.
People like Betty Friedan touched a responsive chord in women in the early days of the women’s rights movement. That was when some real progress was being made; women who had suppressed their talents realized why they had been vaguely unhappy and began to explore alternatives. If feminist leaders think, as they seemingly do, that the women of this country are now at the point where they’ve acknowledged their dissatisfaction with the status quo and are eager for change, then they are surely out of touch with reality. As Elizabeth Forsling Harris, President of the Women’s Forum, commented in the wake of the New York and New Jersey ERA defeats, “We’ve argued as though all women were terribly depressed and suffering. We’ve ignored the fact that we have made many strides. And we haven’t sufficiently emphasized the word ‘choice.’ The woman who chooses to stay home feels threatened by us.”
We’ve argued as though all women were terribly depressed and suffering. We’ve ignored the fact that we have made many strides.
While I personally thrive on a twelve-hour workday, there are many women happy to stay at home and raise children. Their current protests are to the contrary; the leaders of the women’s rights movement have shown no respect for that alternative. I quote an erstwhile heroine of most feminists, Simone de Beauvoir: “No, we don’t believe that any woman should have this choice to be a non-working housewife. No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one.” Of course, sensitive statements like this make most women, housewives and working women alike, feel threatened.
Women in this country have been hearing for a long time that being a housewife is a result of a lack of understanding of their true position. When they go to vote on the ERA, they enter the polling booth with the valid impression that many leaders in the women’s rights movement would like to see the lives of American housewives radically changed. The ERA wouldn’t do that, of course, but by casting a vote against the amendment, they are rejecting change supported by many feminist leaders.
Another suicidal tendency of the women’s rights movement lies in the backstabbing prevalent among ‘sisters.’ Whether it has a biological or societal basis, one of woman’s most impressive strengths is her greater openness to emotions than man’s (I’m speaking in generalities, of course). I’m sure others have had experiences similar to a recent one of mine. At a screening of Jaws, two of the women in our group responded with gasps and even tears. The men, who later admitted to being just as frightened, held their emotions in check and sat quietly. I think we women got more out of the experience, and, naturally, openness to emotions is important for more than just movie going.
But this openness to emotions doesn’t mean that we have to fit the stereotype of women as catty and shrill and just oozing with feeling. Unfortunately, the present leaders of the women’s rights movement are themselves lending support to this view by concentrating most of their energies on name-calling and other divisive tactics, rather than on issues that could give them a broad base of support among American women.
We’re living in a time of unprecedented social pluralism. More and more people are choosing new lifestyles, and every choice deserves respect. When Robin Morgan, an early movement leader, recently called for support of all lifestyle choices, she proposed an “end to psychological torture which claims we made our choice only because of psychological torture.” It’s a point worth making, and leaders of the women’s rights movement should take notice.
Different but equal must be the rallying cry of women for women’s rights
So let’s not spend much more time fretting over the fate of the ERA. If the women’s rights movement can adequately answer the new challenge, then ratification will follow. It’s far more important just now to get back to the roots of the women’s rights movement, to the time when it held values relevant for most women, not just for extremists. Let’s focus again on equality; in pay, in job opportunities, in education, in credit, and in insurance. VIVA hopes to be able to tackle these issues.
“Separate but equal” is impossible for the two sexes; “different but equal” must be the rallying cry of women for women’s rights. There isn’t anything wrong, (everything is right!), with loving a man (or women), and men must be our partners in gaining equality under the law.