Ten years ago I did extensive research on twelfth-century France, centering particularly on Eleanor of Aquitaine. There was a nascent proto-feminist movement at that time, with the great philosopher and writer Hildegard of Bingen influencing both church and secular leaders, and the indefatigable Eleanor using her enormous inheritance of the Aquitaine as well as her nimble wits to become Queen of France and then, surprising everyone, Queen of England. There were other notable ladies of that period as well, rising above a social structure which kept most females in thrall to their male relatives. It was a culture in which rape was a legitimate and common way of forcing a girl into marriage.
Two years ago I researched the American and British 1920s for a novel which will appear in 2013. Again, feminism was on the march. Women had finally acquired the right to vote in the United States, but the numbers of women professionals, particularly physicians, were dwindling. People like Margaret Sanger, working tirelessly to make contraception available to all women instead of just the wealthy ones, were hounded and harassed by church and state alike. In defiance, younger women bobbed their hair, threw away their corsets, and wore skirts that showed their knees. They were flappers, and their existence was blamed on a liberal movement that was destroying the moral fabric of society.
When I was a girl in the sixties, the great feminists of the mid-twentieth century dominated my consciousness. I read The Feminine Mystique and believed fully in second-wave feminism, also known as Women’s Liberation. In fact, I recall the use of “women’s lib” thrown at me—a young, idealistic female seeking my own identity—as an insult, especially when it was uttered by my first, briefly tolerated husband. The term was meant to convey that I was unfeminine, even threatening to the insularity of male privilege.
Even my father, who I’m sure loved me, believed in male privilege, and continued to expound upon it until the end of his life—this despite the clear evidence his four smart, educated, self-made daughters provided. My icons of the time—Gloria Steinem in particular—quite literally gave me the courage to leave that abusive early marriage and set out to live my life on my own. There was no one else to do it for me, and I still honor Steinem as a seminal influence in my life and that of other women struggling against a paternalistic society.
I’d like to point out, also, that I subsequently married a fine man who cares about and respects women. He became, young though he was, a substantial male influence in my family of women, and a guide for the sons we brought up. Nevertheless, he, too, had to struggle against the preconceived notions he grew up with, and as a married couple, we had to work out a new paradigm together.
I thought we were done fighting. In 1999 I wrote The Terrorists of Irustan, a science fiction novel about a woman rebelling against the veil, but I never thought the issues the book addresses would still be cogent fourteen years after it was published. Yet here we are again. The war on women of 2014 is not just a slogan—it’s being waged around the country.
A young woman said something profoundly perceptive to me not long ago. I was having dinner with two women friends, and she was our server. We were talking about some of the outrageous laws that have been passed recently, which are clearly meant to control women and their bodies. This beautiful girl paused, water pitcher in hand, and said, “I understand why these men are talking. But why is anyone listening?”
Why indeed. Why are we fighting this same battle again, the one Sanger fought nearly a hundred years ago? I didn’t have an answer for the young lady I’ve quoted, and I don’t have one in general. Sanger’s opponents are surely safely in their graves. Where did these new ones come from? Why do they not see how closely their efforts to control women resemble those of the Taliban who inspired my novel?
All I really know is that we need—still, and again—to talk and write and march. And vote from informed positions!
We’ve had proto-feminism, first- and second-wave feminism, even third-wave feminism, but we’re still not there. Complacency would mean reversal. We can’t risk it.