Why aren’t women winning? Part II

I wrote the other day about a question I’d received from a woman who was concerned about the lack of progress in the women’s rights movement:

Do u think part of the reason gay rights has moved forward while women’s rights backwards is b/c gay rights includes men’s rights?

The responses in the comments were fascinating, and really productive. One of the best discussions we’ve ever had.

I picked out some of the best feedback and posted it below.  But first, a quick summary of my main points (though not all of them):

1. It’s not just women, the left hasn’t done terribly well the last 12 years.

2. Democrats are bad at PR, gays less so.

3. Gays have the “advantage” of being further behind women, which makes our message clearer.

On this point I meant that the gay marriage debate, for example, is a clear-cut issue – akin to women’s suffrage. Whereas the debate over abortion, for example, gets into a lot of details about varying trimesters and varying religious right/GOP efforts to slowly whittle away at the right to choose. That makes the issue harder to explain, and I think harder to win.

4. Are women a victim of their own success?

By this I meant that men (and women) see Roe v Wade as the law of the land, they see women as CEOs, doctors, lawyers, and even serious presidential candidates (on the Democratic side, at least). So I could see how people might wonder, “what are these feminists talking about – women seem to have it pretty good!” I think it’s easier to argue more obvious discrimination – such as women not being permitted to be lawyers and doctors in the past, or abortions being outright banned – than more subtle discrimination, such as unequal wages, or whittling away at Roe for forty years in order to make it next to meaningless. It’s harder to explain – and get people to believe – the latter.

The article is much longer, but those are some of the main points. Oh, I also, in response to the actual question I was asked, about whether gay rights including men helped the gay movement. I noted that gay men were also a liability.  The religious right reveled in talking about our alleged promiscuity, and the fact that a number of us became infected with HIV.  Also, there’s the issue of straight men really not liking gay men, but being far more tolerant of lesbians and lesbianism.  I’m not really sure the answer to her question, but those were some of my initial thoughts.

Seated woman via Shutterstock

Seated woman via Shutterstock

Now for the feedback.  Some was controversial, all of it was interesting.  So here’s a sampling:

Today’s younger women don’t know the oppression the generation before them faced

TheOriginalLiz: I think it’s a memory issue. I was born in the 50s. I remember not being able to take a shop class because I was “just going to get married, anyway”. I remember not having control over my reproductive functions, or much of anything else. Younger women, and men, don’t remember those days, so they aren’t as keenly aware of fragile progress being chipped away.

Aren’t many gay people undermining gay rights, whereas women have to deal with the Phyllis Schlafly’s of the world

BeccaM: One thing did occur to me right off the bat: There aren’t very many gay people working to undermine gay rights, I mean, not as organized anti-gay advocacy groups.

There are, however, lots of women working very hard to undermine our rights as women. Some for religion or ideology, some out of pure self-interest.

To this day, I still remember Phyllis Schlafly and her betrayal with the ERA.

The role of men in the gay rights movement

Ellen Gaines made a similar point: John, you missed something crucial: Most gay people are very very pro gay rights. Many women are afraid, embarrassed and ashamed to loudly and clearly take a stand for their own rights. Gay people are unafraid and unabashed to take a stand for their rights. Many, many women do not do that for fear that someone will call them feminazis or man-hating harpies. It’s common place to attack feminist women as crazy, shrill people who hate men and want to emasculate them.

The fight for gay rights has largely been championed by white men who are highly skilled at verbal combat and strategy. The fight for women’s rights is largely championed by white women who believe in an imaginary sisterhood and common bond that supposedly exists among all women even as conservative pro-life women easily and volubly loathe them.

Progressives are fragmented on support for women’s rights

Lesley: I am exceedingly happy for the now more quick moving advancement of gay rights, but it does sting to see progressives and liberals so engaged and hyper focused on this issue, but so fragmented and disjointed on the very serious attack on women’s liberty and our very right to our own bodies. So thank you for putting this out there because it has needed to be addressed and no one is talking about. I think it’s because no one wants to take away from the much needed changes in equality for the LBGTQ community, but it’s hard to not feel like progressives are divided into too many camps.

Gay rights don’t require the population to “give” you anything, women’s right threatens some men

Kes: Equal marriage rights don’t require anything from the straight population. Those of us who are straight aren’t being asked to give up anything. But with women’s issues, most of the problems we face can be traced back to male entitlement and male violence. Every time a statistic goes up on a billboard about how many people (male and female) are subjected to sexual assault, it’s a demand/request that the male population do a bit of self-examination. Every time somebody brings up how, with all other factors controlled, women still make less than men based solely on gender, there is a population of men who feels threatened. After the marriage issue is won, when the primary issues become the violence against members of the LGBT communities, discrimination in hiring and housing, and the nasty snideness of everyday bigotry and homophobia, then expect to see the sudden whiplash and loss of ground that’s characterized the fight for women’s rights for the past 30 years.

Ms Rose: I think it’s down to the fact that the only group in the world who really wants to limit the rights of others is the heterosexual male. I think gay rights have moved on because straight guys aren’t affected by them at the end of the day. It’s a whole different story if ‘the little lady’ gets ideas above her station, eh? I mean, hubby might have to feed himself and do his own laundry if his female partner ever gets TRUE equal status in his world.

Women’s movement is largely made up of women, not women and men

KathyP: Another problem I see with whatever “women’s movement” remains is that it is considered the domain of women, not both women and men. Maybe I’m just lucky, but my sexual partners been as concerned as I about our ability to determine if and when we wanted children. I recall seeing nearly as many men as women at the March for Women’s Lives in DC in 2004. You can bet my husband was there!

Women’s movement hostile towards men

Ellen Gaines: I have personally observed enormous hostility directed against men in feminist gatherings. Time and time again. Your husband might be a Great Guy and what not. But who the f cares besides you? And okay so you saw a bunch of men at an abortion rights rally. Big whoop. Do you realize that men who are not religious support abortion rights mostly because they don’t want to end up paying for the upbringing of a kid they don’t want? Men support abortion rights because they have an enormous financial stake in it now that paternity testing has become fast and cheap and child support payments can hurt their finances. Get an anti-rape rally going. Then we’ll see how many men show up. Get an equal pay rally going. Then we’ll see how many men show up.

Women’s leaders are fighting the battles of the 1950s

Ellen Gaines: John, I would also argue that women’s rights leaders are stuck in the 50s and are excessively focused on fighting battles from the 50s. They’re not paying attention to new problems that urban women face as we work outside the home and take public transport and walk or run outdoors or on public streets. How many women have been sexually harassed on streets? How many women endure harassment, groping and sexual assault on public transport? You don’t hear a peep from Gloria Steinem or Hillary Clinton about the millions of women who are made to feel intimidated and afraid every day for doing nothing more than taking a public bus or subway to work and back. You don’t hear women’s studies majors going on candlelight vigils for women like me who are mocked, followed, groped, borderline sexually assaulted every day for years on public buses and subways. Why is this?

Women’s movement ignores sexual harassment in the military against women

Zorba: And I would add that another issue totally ignored by the feminist movement is rape and sexual assault in the military. Women who are raped in the military are very unlikely to report it. And when they do, their rapist is very unlikely to be court-martialed. And if he is, he is unlikely to be convicted. And even if he is convicted, a superior officer can void that conviction, as happened with the Wilkerson case. Not to mention the fact that the woman who comes forward with the accusation often has her career ruined. And her rapist remains unpunished. I sure haven’t heard word one from the feminist movement about these military women. I guess it’s in the same area of neglect as harassment of working women who walk or take public transportation, and the poor elderly women. These women are simply not on the radar screen of the feminist movement.

Hate crimes against women don’t get coverage

Eve Wartenberg Condon: Hate crimes against women abound, but they are so widespread, common, and often socially sanctioned (marital rape, etc.) that many men AND women don’t even recognize them as such. That’s why they don’t get as much press and notice. When a man rapes or beats a woman, he is expressing a hatred of her gender. It happens so often that it’s not even news.

Women’s groups unwilling to criticize Democrats

BeccaM: The mistake women have been making in hitching our equal rights bandwagon exclusively to the Democratic Party. There is no doubt that the Dems are far more ‘female-friendly’ in terms of official party policy. But the problem comes when the Dems fail to stand up — such as with the Stupak Amendment, co-sponsored by Democrat Bart Stupak and supported by quite a few Dems in Congress — and they aren’t challenged on it. Or the Blunt Amendment, supported and voted for by Nelson, Manchin, and Casey. None of them will face women’s group protests or primary challenges.

There’s this ingrained unwillingness to criticize women’s purported political allies when the betray us. Or to make much noise when the Dems fail to carry out their campaign promises. I mean, they’re unequivocal in the party platform about being 100% in favor of women’s reproductive freedom — including access to contraceptives and abortion, regardless of ability to afford them. True, the PPACA includes contraceptive coverage — but has conscience exemptions carved into it. And when’s the last time the Dems actively fought to advance access to abortion services, as opposed to quietly standing by while the misogynists and patriarchs erode that right? State after state has passed blatantly unconstitutional laws banning abortions and regulating clinics out of existence — so where are the DoJ lawsuits? Where are the federal injunctions and judicial stays?

How many pro-reproductive rights measures were passed by Congress when the Dems had majorities in both houses, from 2006 to 2010? None. Between 2006 and 2013 from the Dem majority Senate? None. The House GOPers attempt to pass a new ban every other week.

Women have more strikes against them than gays

Laurel Hardy: I think to some extent the word gay is perceived as referring to gay MEN. Gay men are still male, lesbians a gay and women, so TWO strikes against them. And the GOP just doesn’t seem to know how to operate without a group to demonize and they’re too scared to name black people even though it’s clear that is their beef against Obama. They have two wings: one that will throw fresh meat to the wolves, the other ARE the wolves. In this case, Evangelical Christians may hate faggots on God’s behalf, but nothing is more troubling, more challenging than an educated, independent woman (who might actually demand some sense and skill from a partner).

 Various good points

CapHillProf: 1) There is more cohesiveness among gay people on gay issues than there ever were among women on womens issues. I’ve always marveled that it was leftist women who fought the fight for equality and yet it was more often than not Republican women who received the benefits.

2) Most gay people support gay rights and very few gay people oppose gay rights. This is not true of women regarding womens rights. Phyllis Schlaffly defeated the Equal Rights Amendment and women never made a comeback.

3) Economics divides women more than it has divided the gay movement. Wealth did not insulate gay folk as much as it does women. Wealthy women have reproductive freedom and worldwide access to abortion. Not so the middle class, nor the poor. Yet there is no solidarity across the class lines in the womens movement.

4) I have known many, many gay men who in terms of family, jobs, career and wealth are natural, traditional Republican voters and yet for decades, because of the marked hostility of the GOP and its office holders have voted for Democrat, after Democrat, after Democrat at all election levels–local, state and national. I don’t see many women who are natural, traditional Republican voters based on family, jobs, career and wealth who vote against even the most mysognist of anti-women Republican candidates. (They may do so in the voting booth, but the bumper stickers on their cars show them as loyal Republicans.)

The womens movement has been remiss in not reaching out to women in their 20s, 30s and 40s. We got an Orange County woman to vote for Obama this past year after giving her an extensive history lesson on the fact the states used to prohibit contraceptives. She had no notion of this past and that some of this Republican tomfollery was actually not so impossible.

Women in liberal parts of the country don’t feel the “war on women”

Darwin Woodka: I grew up in the 70s, and I think most of us from that time assume these battles for women’s rights are already won. It’s just that the right keeps fighting them and trying to take them back piecemeal. We aren’t as affected by the restriction on abortion rights in liberal areas, so aren’t motivated to fight the battle in those places that are going backwards. Plus there is a general protective/permissive cycle in generations and keeping up with those swings through the years is its own battle.

The inherent different between abortion rights and discrimination

FLL: The question you’re posing really involves at least two very different issues: abortion rights and non-discrimination. Women’s rights have been chipped away primarily in the area of abortion rights, not in the area of non-discrimination. If anything, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 represents a further advance of non-discrimination legislation for women. The recent advances for gay rights have also been in the area of non-discrimination: equal access to the military, marriage equality, protection from hate crimes and state-level ENDAs.

I think there is a qualitative difference between support for abortion rights and support for non-discrimination. Many Americans who have always supported legal abortion will also qualify their support with any number of negative statements: “abortion should, ideally, be rare,” “contraception should be promoted to reduce the need for abortion” or “abortion is never the ideal solution.” If you take those same qualifications and plug them into a statement about non-discrimination, the resulting statement is absurd:

Equality and non-discrimination are never ideal, and other alternatives are always preferable.

Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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36 Responses to “Why aren’t women winning? Part II”

  1. Kayla Steves says:

    Personally, I don’t think women rights really moved backward. Perhaps, we are at the point where we already got what women fought for decades.

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  2. FYF says:

    You missed to point out on very important thing, though. There are many women who are gay. They aren’t separate movements in the very least.

  3. ohmary says:

    I agree. The Christian churches begin teaching little girls the way to behave as a good Christian women. When my niece married she had to promise to love, follow, and obey her husband. Her husband had to promise to love her. The preacher carried on and on on how the woman should FOLLOW the man. I was shocked. The Chistian schools forget to teach critical thinking. Cookies and Babies and everything will be ok.

  4. really? Ew.

  5. Indigo says:

    Why aren’t women winning? Because social conservatives want them at home baking cookies. Marginalized, in other words.

  6. BeccaM says:

    I know what you mean. They were absolutely vile.

    And then there’s the irony of having a clear and unambiguous federal law for anti-gay hate crimes — only to have the Feds virtually never use it to prosecute anybody.

    I’m aware it’s only supposed to kick in if state or local governments fail to act, but there is no shortage of cases where this has happened.

  7. karmanot says:

    Matthew Shephard—-I’ll never forget 20/20 trying to debunk that murder by insisting it was ‘just’ a robbery. To this day I loath the sight of Elizabeth Vargas and John Stossel—–right wing hate mongers posing as investigative journalists. These two are the kind of ‘reporters’ who might blame ‘provocatively ‘dressed women for sexual attacks.

  8. Naja pallida says:

    I would add to the complacency argument, that some people simply saw most of the issues with women’s rights as settled. They don’t want to think that there are forces in the country actively working to take them away. A basic ignorance and apathy about what is happening in politics. Those women in states that have seen something that more resembles equality simply have no concept of what is happening in states where the governor actively wants to shove probes into their bodies, by law.

  9. karmanot says:

    “gender equality,”–great term. I still prefer the power of Constitutionally Guaranteed Civil Rights, which must include the never ending struggle for gender equality at both the Federal and federally mandated state levels.

  10. karmanot says:

    We can never rest. The conservative enemies of social and political equality will always pit one group against another. It’s a classic tactic—- for example——the religious black /evangelical communities funded by Mormon outsiders defeated Prop8. Earlier, it was Anita Bryant… on and on it goes. The fact that Virgina’s Governor ‘ultra Sound’ is the least of the ‘State’s trend toward institutional myscogeny is appalling. Regressive State’s end run around Constitutionally guaranteed right to abortion barely meets with a comment form the Obozo administration or his DOJ.

  11. karmanot says:

    Yep, ‘follow the money mommas.’

  12. karmanot says:


  13. BeccaM says:

    Thank you for the shout-outs, John, I appreciate it. And this is a really great distillation of the comments from Monday’s post. So, in ultra-distilled summary, the reason women haven’t advanced much in our civil rights since the 1970s:

    – Complacency, especially among the young, including many who have no idea there really is a war on women’s rights
    – Women who work to undermine women’s rights
    – Inability to engage men to support our rights (unlike the way many gay groups have straight allies and advocates)
    – Lack of a cohesive strategy and effective advocacy groups for advancing our rights
    – Lack of social attention on the crimes against women, including sexual harassment, assaults and rape
    – The fact one of our basic rights — the right to choose whether or not to have children — is unique to us as women, and there are millions out there, including other women, who see no problem in forcing a woman to endure an unwanted or even unwilling (i.e., resulting from rape) pregnancy.
    – The male patriarchy being against the loss of something they want very much, which is submissive, docile women whose only real purpose in life is to serve them and bear their children.

    There’s more, but those were my takeaway moments from reading the post above. I guess the real question is, so what do we do now? We women are losing a civil right described as fundamental — the right to control our reproductive choices — and can’t even seem to hold the line on that.

    To this day, I still wonder why the hell a law like the Violence Against Women Act had an expiration date, whereas the Matthew Shephard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Law doesn’t.

  14. karmanot says:

    Why not marginalize our enemies? Tsu Tzu— The Art of War.

  15. I prefer the stated goal of “gender equality,” but in terms of trans rights even that doesn’t go far enough. It’s a slippery issue.

  16. karmanot says:

    Get into trouble John, you are at your best in the fray. let go your inner ‘anarchist ‘! ‘Women’s rights’ is too limiting. Feminism is a rich description with depth, nuances and considerable history which includes ‘women’s rights’ as one of its characteristics.

  17. karmanot says:

    “but I’m not a feminist fanatic about it…” I’ve been a feminist for over fifty years. I just don’t get this attitude. But then, when I use the term ‘Marxist’, or ‘liberal ‘people flee the room. I thank my fascist family for keeping my perspective clear and challenged.

  18. karmanot says:

    It’s like they walk blindly into the ‘Handmaiden’s Tale’.

  19. BeccaM says:

    Every time I see a younger woman hanging off the arm of a trollish old rich man — like Sheldon Adelson and his trophy wife, Miriam — I see a woman undermining the entire concept of the feminist equality movement.

  20. BeccaM says:

    Good point there. I’ve heard more than a few times a woman say something like, “I’m in favor of women’s rights and equality, but I’m not a feminist fanatic about it…”

    Many of them are young, and so I think we’re dealing with the complacency factor again, but some are older — my age — and should know better.

  21. Why what?

  22. That is true. There’s a perception, even on the left I’d argue, that the term “feminist” has come to mean, I’m not sure how to even say then and not get into trouble, but let’s just say “the extreme left” rather than “women’s rights” or “women’s equality.” It’s the same problem I have with the word “gay activist” – it tends to marginalize.

  23. Indigo says:

    Why? Because social conservatives want them to be at home baking cookies.

  24. another point: feminism has become a dirty word. I’ve had debates with women who vehemently declare that they are not feminist and that the point of feminism is hating men, but when I ask how they feel about equal rights for women, they agree with every individual point. I think the Right’s propaganda machine has done a fantastic job of defining today’s feminism as identical to the most radical stripe of the 1970’s and successfully demonized feminism to the point that women are loathe to identify with it.

  25. I hope it helps

  26. You’re welcome.

  27. As someone else said above, if you live in a liberal part of the country, things aren’t bad, so it’s easy not to worry

  28. That’s interesting, and true regarding gays – though, certainly vis-a-vis the Democratic party we’ve been told to “behave.” But it’s only when we don’t behave that get what we want, were promised.

  29. Drew2u says:

    The complacency of one generation is the ignorance of the next.

  30. Something else to think about…Depending on the outcome of the DOMA/Prop8 decisions at SCOTUS, I think the religious wrong will try to turn it into the ‘Roe v Wade’ of gay rights, and will use the same kind of tactics.

  31. TheOriginalLiz says:

    The comments about women undermining themselves are brilliant. All I can think is that women have been led to believe that if they “behave” they will be taken care of by the white men in power. That “promise” has never been implied to the LGBT community. In fact, just the opposite. That may be a determining factor in who ultimately wins their civil rights.

  32. TheOriginalLiz says:

    I’ve noticed that, too. It makes me crazy (ier?). The crap that goes on in Virginia alone should have every women in the country up in arms, but younger women just don’t seem to even notice. Complacency really is a deadly trap.

  33. Lauren says:

    Thank you for this.

  34. Constant Comment says:

    I think there’s one important lesson that the gay rights movement can take from the women’s movement: even if rights are finally achieved, you can never rest on your laurels, because there WILL be a backlash. I hope that’s not the case, but be ready for it. One of the most frustrating things about being a part of the early women’s movement is seeing that not only do younger women totally take for granted all the gains, but–with few exceptions–they’ve literally done nothing when states have obliterated all their healthcare and reproductive freedoms. Sad and frustrating.

  35. loona_c says:

    As a woman, thanks for this.

  36. Drew2u says:

    To your point #4, just see the Time article or O’Riely saying that “gays have already won” despite ENDA, UAFA, and stronger hate-crime protections. The gay movement is following the women’s movement pretty well, according to outsider voices.

    On that note, I just heard on NPR (the more liberal of the two stations I get), a quick news blurb describing Obama’s SS cuts as “savings”.

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