What feminism got right and wrong, in the 60’s and today

My aunt Rosemarie celebrated her 80th birthday recently, and dozens of family members spanning three generations gathered to celebrate and reminisce with her. Somewhere in the three days of stories about family antics, Rosmarie’s professional accomplishments, and her love for attractive gentlemen, I learned that she was also on the front lines of early feminist activism. There were interesting and quirky stories, like her fight to remove the fee that women had to pay to use public restrooms in Connecticut: no kidding, women but not men had to put coins in slots to use stalls in public restrooms at rest stops along the highways!

1976 News Story about what feminism got right and wrong in the 1960'sI also got to read an interview with her published in a newspaper in May 17, 1976, entitled: “The fight for women’s equality: What went right, and wrong, in the revolutionary 60’s”.

Back in 1976, these are the things that my Aunt Rose said feminism got wrong.

“One thing that went wrong about eight years ago, was to confuse the question of what women have a right to.” She pointed out that women’s arguments gave the impression that they felt they had a “right” to freedom, jobs, success or happiness. The arguments confused legal rights with human rights and aspirations. “Did we really try to make men understand what the movement was, or was it a forced understanding?”

Another “wrong” she identified was the failure to recognize that men are trapped by gender roles as well. “We learned that while we were conditioned to stay home and raise children, men were conditioned to earn a living and have heart attacks.”

A third thing that she said “went wrong about 10 years ago” (remember this interview was in 1976) was that feminists were too critical of women who did not support feminism. “Some women did not attend meetings. We did not give them enough credit for what they were doing on the home front.”

Finally, she said that the 1960’s painted an overly-glossy picture of what life in the working world was like, and gave the impression that “a job is the only way to happiness.” But she noted, “Everyone knows that the business world can be a real grind.”

She also identified several things that the feminism of the 1960’s got right: it generated greater awareness of human liberation in general, it gave women the space to stop blaming themselves for everything, and it taught women that they can be successful in the professional world while still being women, rather than being asexual or “acting like men”.

Greg Stevens with Aunt Rose on her 80th birthdayMy aunt Rosemarie is bright and chipper and as sharp as ever, and so at one point during her 80th birthday celebrations, I couldn’t help but corner her for a moment and ask her what she thought of feminism today. She admitted that she hadn’t really been keeping up with politics and social movements in the last decade or so, so I gave her a brief rundown of some of the “culture war” issues going on today: equality feminism versus “social justice” third-wave feminism, and the fact that some people have expressed concern over the ramping up of extremist rhetoric in “social justice warriors” style feminism.

She looked thoughtful for a moment, and this is what she said: “I’ll admit, I haven’t kept up with things, so I haven’t heard about this. But, when I hear you say that there is a problem, or a conflict, within feminism, the first question that I think you need to ask yourself is this: Who is telling you that? And what do they have to gain, by telling you that feminism is having a problem?”

Take that however you will.

It’s not the first time I’ve had that thought, either.

On the one hand, I’m against authoritarian censorship, and I think “safe spaces” are silly, and I think that people who say “all men are inherently misogynist” are not being particularly helpful with their rhetoric.

But when you hear people constantly beat the drums to harp only on those extremists…

And when you hear people make the small group of “extremists” out to be a bigger problem than they really are….

And when you hear people who want you to treat all of feminism as if it’s identical to the statements of a few loudmouths on Tumblr or Reddit…….

My aunt Rose’s question is one that is worth asking, at the very least: Who is telling you this? And what do they have to gain?

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  1. Karin says:

    I think I would very much enjoy conversation with your aunt Rosemarie! I completely agree with so much of her ideas on the hits and misses of feminism. I’ve been thinking about this more lately, as many women I know argue with me about voting for Hillary Clinton, simply because she is a woman. While they state numerous reseans she doesn’t fit their ideals, they say the “can’t” vote for a man if a woman is running. I see this as ridiculous and divisive thinking. True feminism, in my mind, would mean that as women we are confident and smart enough to see beyond gender, to be inclusive of all, while demanding equality – for all. When we see men as “other” we immediately create conflict, and change is much harder to create when there is an us and them.

    Regarding the term “safe space”, perhaps another term would be better chosen. Especially in reference to college campuses and women. I personally was attacked, physically, on four different occasions during my college years, including a date rape. There is no such thing as safety for women on college campuses. For sharing ideas, perhapes, but for their physical well being and emotional support, no.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Thanks for your comment, Karin! From what I can tell — and I don’t claim to be an expert by any means! — there has always been a more radical and divisive “branch” of feminism and a more moderate “equality-focused” branch, even though these each may have evolved in various ways over the decades. And in any movement, I do understand the value and function of more radical voices. That’s why I’m always very leery of outright condemning “radical feminists”, even though sometimes I think some of the rhetoric can be…. well, can be unhelpful. LOL

      And I completely understand what you mean about actual physical safe spaces. I always try to be sensitive to the fact that I have never known what it means to feel “unsafe” in the same sense that many women have to deal with every day. I try not to be presumptuous. Unfortunately, most of the “news” around the term “safe spaces” on campus these days seems to have lost track of the thread of physical safety. We seem to be living in a time when, in an effort to be taken seriously, activists often try to equal fear with trauma and insults with physical violence…. and I see the term “safe spaces” thrown around in conjunction with people needing “safe spaces” from hurtful ideas.

      To me, this entire tendency to try to say that words can equal “violence” is…. well, it’s not productive for the activist movements that try to employ such rhetoric. Most people see it as disingenuous, or even insulting to those who have suffered from actual physical violence. So that’s the complex and tangled context, I suppose, in which I find myself most critical of the way “safe spaces” often manifest in current college campus discussions.

  2. Betty Hamburg says:

    Safe spaces are only silly if you’ve never needed one.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Betty, thanks for your comment. And I’ll admit I was kind of “going fast” with that throw-away comment, and for the sake of precision I should be more clear: I don’t think the idea of “safe spaces” is universally silly. The times I’ve publicly been against the idea is specifically in the context of universities. Universities tend to be “cocoons” in a lot of ways anyway, but they are specifically designed to be a place where people are exposed to challenging thoughts, ideas, and even people: to push people out of comfort zones and explore the diversity of the world, even if they find that diversity scary or offensive or troubling. In a lot of ways, colleges and universities are an inherently “safe space” and the BEST place to hear speakers, or debate with peers, about things like racism or sexism or domestic violence…. because as a student you still have a managed lifestyle. You’re not getting into an argument about the validity of (for example) “date rape” with your BOSS, who could fire you… it’s just a professor, or a fellow student, or a guest speaker. In that sense, colleges are already as “safe space”…. and so when I hear stories about college students wanting to develop spaces where they don’t have to be around anyone who disagrees with their social or political views even though they are already ensconced in a college campus, I find that silly. The purpose of colleges is to challenge people.

      Moreover, there’s a level of hypocrisy to the college “safe space” argument, as well. Progressives look at the fact that an extreme religious person will go to college and be made to feel uncomfortable by meeting gay people or atheists, and so on, and they will say: “Oh look! What a growing experience! How wonderful!” But then they are asked to hear a guest speaker who thinks date rape in an exaggerated problem in today’s politics, and they demand to be protected from hearing that view. To me that seems…. very hypocritical.

      Anyway, I hope this has made my position a little more clear. You are right to point out that a quick throw-away line of “safe spaces are silly” wasn’t quite what I meant, and was an unfair gloss of the issue.