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Women's Equality: Each Victory Brings New Battles

August 22, 1993|ROBIN ABCARIAN

A pro-choice president occupies the White House. California's two senators are women. The Supreme Court--which just welcomed its second woman justice--has affirmed the right to abortion.

Victories for some. A call to battle for others.

Last week, a Roman Catholic priest was chastised by his archbishop for trying to run a newspaper ad in Alabama advocating that doctors who perform abortions be killed. "Justifiable homicide," said the ad, which showed a man pointing a gun at a doctor who holds a knife above a pregnant woman.

A week before that, the Vista school board, now dominated by a Christian fundamentalist majority, opened the door to allowing creationism to be taught in its classrooms.

One majority member, John Tyndall, was quoted by the Village Voice last spring as having posed this question during a Vista back-to-school night: "Why do you teach honors classes and physical education to 14-year-old girls who should be learning to take care of babies?"

These are things to keep in mind this week as most of America forgets to celebrate Women's Equality Day on Thursday.

On Aug. 26, 1920, American women won the right to vote. The 19th Amendment was finally ratified by the states. The idea had been batted around for most of the previous century. Hard to imagine those times, but it's even harder to imagine the courage of the women who started the suffrage movement in 1848 over tea at a table in Seneca Falls, N.Y.

They called a "women's convention," drew a crowd of 300 that included some men, and drafted a "Declaration of Sentiments" that included this wildly revolutionary line: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men and women are created equal . . . "

It is helpful, when thinking about issues such as political and reproductive freedom, to keep them in historical perspective. And to understand that no victory is irreversible. "We do tend to take a short view," says Gloria Steinem, who will be in town Thursday to host a Voters for Choice benefit concert at Santa Monica Civic Auditorium. (Coming out of retirement to join Ann and Nancy Wilson, Shawn Colvin and Melissa Etheridge for the event: Spinal Tap.) What should be remembered, says Steinem, is this: America has experienced two waves of revolution against the "caste systems of race and sex." The first wave earned women and minorities the status of human beings. Today, the struggle continues for equality. And it is constantly being undermined by those who believe--as Vista's Tyndall apparently does--that 14-year-old girls should be preparing in the classroom for lives of domesticity. (Wouldn't it be fascinating if he thought boys should be prepared for fatherhood?)

"The pro-choice forces won the White House this time," says Steinem, "and this has enraged the ultra-right wing, so we see more incidents of terror against (abortion) clinics, and the beginning of electoral terrorism--candidates who don't say what their aims are until after they are elected."

Indeed, one member of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition said about the Vista election: "It's like guerrilla warfare. It's better to move quietly, with stealth, under cover of night."


How does the long view serve us? It reminds us that liberation movements follow certain predictable paths.

First, there is, as Steinem calls it, "the consciousness-raising state." It takes years, but eventually people start to believe in new possibilities: Women as voters! Women as senators! Women as senators and mothers!

Then, the institutions start to change: flexible work schedules, employer-sponsored day-care centers, enactment of the Family Leave Act, etc.

After that, the backlash.

"The people dependent on the old hierarchy get upset," says Steinem. "The first response to change is to say it isn't necessary, that women don't want to be equal, that my maid doesn't support these Black Panthers, whatever. Then, the next phase of resistance is to say this is no longer necessary, this is over.

"One's enemies," she adds, "are always talking about post-feminism. It is a word invented by people who would like to do away with feminism. It is exactly like saying post-democracy, which is a ridiculous concept, unless, I suppose, one is a monarchist."

The long view reminds us that no gain is secure: The right to abortion that was taken for granted after the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision has been weakened and is under relentless attack, despite the fact that most Americans favor it. An active and committed minority can always undermine the rights of a sluggish, inattentive majority.

On Women's Equality Day and every other day, remember: The battle goes on.

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