Though over 100 years old, the feminist revolution is still going strong and continuing to unleash its possibilities.
A century ago, an idea was about to sweep the world that would radically change society. Premised on the basic equality of human beings and rooted deeply in liberal conceptions of individuality and fair play, it challenged preconceived notions of how society should be ordered and set into motion a social revolution that is still happening today.
What was that idea? It wasn’t socialism or communism, nationalism or any other idea based upon some preexisting political or economic arrangement. No, the revolution that is still so important to us today concerns women and men and how the two halves of humanity view one another despite their biological differences. The revolution is feminism.
To be sure, the basic ideas of feminism — the notion women should enjoy the same rights and privileges as men — had been percolating in the background of Western society for some time. During the French Revolution, for instance, some of the most vehement revolutionaries were the women of working-class Paris, and in our own bid for independence, Molly Pitchers played an active role in America’s fight for freedom. Indeed, as historians of the movement are wont to tell us, women at every stage of Western public life played one crucial role or another for a long time.
Still, this active and accepted participation of women in public life was neither extensive nor anywhere near approaching real equality with men, and for another 200 years after feminine voices sang the Marseilles hymn while fighting on the barricades of revolutionary Paris, women were still largely relegated to a subservient role both at home and in public life. As the 19th century gave way to the 20th, however, something truly marvelous was about to occur: full female enfranchisement as equal members of Western society.
It began with women claiming the right to vote in country after country during the early part of the new century. Starting in New Zealand in 1893 and spreading from there, women’s votes were soon of equal worth as men. True, there were some important laggards — full voting rights for women didn’t arrive in the United States until the passage of the 19th amendment in 1920, and in Europe it took even longer — but the genie, so to speak, was out of the bottle. It became increasingly impossible in the modern West to argue that when it came to the franchise, women were somehow less capable of voting than men.
While women gaining the right to vote was an important step, the next way station in the process of women’s liberation took another half-century or so to develop due to the biological facts of sexual reproduction. That’s because no matter how equal men and women were in legal theory, that women disproportionately bore the costs of reproduction meant that women were denied full participation in the economy. Until that problem was solved, women would remain economically dependent upon, and thus subordinate to, men.
As the 20th century wore on, a series of events took place that removed this second important obstacle. Capitalism’s rapacious need for cheap labor and the national demands of total war during the century’s two great global conflicts brought women into the workplace as never before. Suddenly, jobs that had traditionally gone to men were being filled by women, both in the democratic West and the Communist Soviet Union. More traditional societies — like those in Germany and Japan — were ground under as a result and didn’t mobilize their women for war work until it was much too late. The lesson, of course, was that national survival depended upon both men and women working together toward a common goal — victory in war.
Further acknowledgement of the value of female labor came in the 1960s, when science and technology finally triumphed over biology with the development and introduction of the oral contraceptive pill. For the first time, women could easily and with complete confidence control their body’s reproductive process to avoid pregnancy. In turn, this meant that without much difficulty, women could pursue careers that had long been closed off to them due to the time required to master the skills necessary for success in these jobs.
Combined with safe and legal abortion, women began to put off childbirth to pursue full entry into the Western workforce, and with economic liberation came, slowly but surely, further legal and social liberation. When this second, post-war wave of female empowerment began, for instance, most women were still effectively second-class citizens and those who were married became, by the family laws of the day, almost completely legally subservient to their husbands. Many a married woman, for example, could not even hold credit or have a checking account in her own name. What’s more, the life of a single woman was highly regulated by a paternalistic culture that jealously enforced male control over female sexuality.
All that came crashing down as economic empowerment and the conquest of biology by the pill and abortion pitilessly destroyed every argument leveled against women’s liberation. Women not only showed that they were the equals of men in most every profession, but the very economy changed to make women’s entry into the workforce a requirement for most households. The culture has changed radically, and those in the West who still argue that women should hold their traditional place in society and no more are rightly seen as chauvinists and/or religious fanatics — kooks barely worth listening to.
That’s because the empowerment and liberation of women has been so profoundly a good thing that it is hard to believe how things were in the West just a few decades ago. That women could not become doctors, lawmakers or any other profession thought to be “male” is now rightly inconceivable. And as a society, we benefit greatly from the expertise and skills of women in these fields.
What’s more, female liberation and the conquest of sexual reproduction by technology has also inevitably led to an opening up of sexual freedom. This, too, is inherently good, in and of itself, as it further frees the individual from the deadening control of traditional authority. The gay rights revolution, for instance, is directly attributable to the long slog fought by women for equality with men. If they had not altered our conceptions of what family life meant by challenging traditional authority, then gays and lesbians would never have had the chance to stake their claims to equality, either. In hindsight, women — not red guards — were the vanguard of the world’s true cultural revolution.
Assisted by liberal political theory, science, technology, capitalism and war, women and their movement for full equality with men destroyed the authority upon which deeply conservative social actors, assisted everywhere by organized religion, enslaved and subordinated women and, through them, men. The real freedom from traditional authority we in the West enjoy today is in no small part due to the century-long struggle for female equality — a concept that both women and men have fought for. We owe them a deep debt.
What’s more, it’s increasingly clear that what has been a fantastically good thing for the West is also turning out to have profound impact elsewhere. We see the same process unfolding everywhere that women are being empowered through laws and the technology of birth control. Women’s freedom leads to smaller families, economic success, cultural liberalization and, ultimately, an end to the population boom that has filled up the developing world with its teeming millions and put tremendous stress on the Earth’s ecosystem. It also leads simultaneously to an end of religious tyranny and the despotic rule of insecure, abusive men over half the human race while also producing better leaders.
Women, then, would seem to be a solution to a long list of problems. Given all that, maybe it is high time men got out of the driver’s seat and gave women the chance to steer for a while. Having driven us all collectively into a ditch, it hardly seems possible that women could do worse than men. In fact, women are likely to do a far sight better. Men, after all, are notoriously reluctant to ask for directions, so maybe we should give over leadership to those of us that aren’t so weakened by testosterone that it keeps us from asking how to get ourselves out of the messes we’ve gotten ourselves into.