The Inside Story of the Women’s Movement and the Leaders Who Made It Happen

Foreword to this Edition
            Today everything seems possible for women. As I write this, in the year two thousand and nine, a brilliant, ambitious woman, having come within a hair’s breadth of winning the most powerful leadership position on our troubled planet, has refused appeasement with anything less than an international role of historic proportions. Hundreds of strong women have achieved more than any of us even dreamt of in the 1980s, when this book was first written. Today, women reign across the globe as doctors, lawyers, police chiefs, ministers, heads of our most prestigious educational institutions, CEOs of major corporations, chairs of important government agencies, highly regarded media pundits, powerful members of Presidential cabinets. Today, we can marry or not, reproduce as we choose, even switch genders if we so desire. We function on an equal plane with men in nearly every walk of life.
            How did this astonishing transformation happen to “the weaker sex”?
            Probably, the seeds of this change were sown by the much maligned Eve or the Biblical Deborah, then fed over the decades by the prescient writings of an Afra Behn, a Susan B. Anthony, the courageous suffragists, the feisty, beloved Eleanor Roosevelt, a few fair-minded men like John Stuart Mill plus plenty of grassroots, back-fence conspiring over eons of misanthropic oppression.
            Certainly, though, the most immediate and notable impetus was the explosive women’s revolution of the1960s and 70s, which is the subject of The Sisterhood.
            Most of us recognize the names of the major players in The Sisterhood—Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, etc.—but how many of today’s brilliantly successful women consciously credit these feminist icons on whose shoulders we all stand? Even some of us who were witness to the blazing fireworks of those neon-bright mid-twentieth century years barely remember—or pay homage to—the struggles and humiliations every one of those passionate revolutionaries endured.
            Does it matter?
            “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” That was George Santayana’s dire prediction, and if it holds true, we could be condemned to hear once again such directives from the pulpit as “God forbids the woman to teach . . . not to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence;” or such innocent maternal bromides as “Keep your ankles crossed and your skirt below your knees.”
            By the 1940s and 50s, to our detriment, we females were silently enduring:
      “We don’t hire women because men support families.”
      “You can’t play. Only boys’ sports teams can be funded.”
      “No trousers in this office: women should look like women.”
      “Here’s the form for your insurance (mortgage, savings account). Take it home and have your husband sign it.”
      As well as such intimidating threats as:
      “Day care will irreparably damage your child.”
      “There’s only one career for girls (this from my own college dean): to raise educated, cultured children.”
            And then, by the late 1950s, as early feminist ideas began to seep into public awareness:
      “Feminists are all lesbians; too ugly to get a man.”
      “Rape? She asked for it. Boys will be boys, y’know!”
            Proclamations of authoritative scientific misinformation filled our books and magazines:
      “Clitoral orgasm is a sign of penis envy and immaturity.”
      “Women aren’t suited for repetitive tasks.”
            Those were still the days of:
      “You’re so cute when you’re mad.”
      “Fly me. I’m Barbara.”
            Thus, the inevitable explosion, a sweeping rebellion that eventually spread to every part of the globe, if not fully succeeding in those distant societies where chadors and clitorectomies still ruled, at least making inroads in a few of these rigidly superstitious places, insinuating the messages of liberation, declarations of independence—the shocking notions of the F-word of the day: Feminism.
            In America, demonstrations were held, and against fierce resistance, perfectly crafted new laws against sex discrimination were passed. This wasn’t the first time the ideas of women’s rights had been raised, of course, but it was the first time such a supremely powerful vehicle as the 1960s media took notice and spread those revolutionary notions to every newspaper, magazine and television screen in the world.
            Media-power was a relatively new, barely understood force on the horizon then, but somehow, many of the super-smart, well-educated new feminists were media-savvy as well as dazzlingly dramatic. They became leaders because they believed so fervently that the time had come for women to raise their voices, and they became celebrated stars because they knew how to make themselves noticed and heard. Like so many women, they harbored years of suppressed, simmering anger, and they found their audience by fighting passionately against what they cleverly coined “sexism,” “male chauvinism,” and “sexual harassment.”
            Also, because they were distinct individuals with distinct opinions, they argued with each other.
            After all, this highly verbal women’s movement was the only social revolt in history to deal with every single component of human life—fair employment, money, spousal abuse, sexuality, marriage, law, health, medicine, art, literature, in fact, the preservation of the species—a perfect orgy of provocative issues.
            Given this incredible range, the women who fueled the explosion simply had to be intelligent and communicative, to say nothing of complicated and idiosyncratic. Each and every one of these charismatic rebels was a fascinating mixture of flaws and strengths, flamboyance and charm. They talked and wrote and wrote and talked and in this process of internecine intellectual turmoil, they raised many of the thorny issues that still plague us today, when too many of these heroic women are already in their graves. I do often picture them troubling deaf heaven, irascibly pummeling away at such deceptively simple axioms as:
      “Equal pay for equal work.”
      “The personal is the political.”
      “Anatomy is not destiny.”
      “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
            These were movement slogans, and some of them worked mainly for one segment or another of the overall movement, for single women, for instance, or ambitious careerists.
            And today, even in our highly developed countries, as blatantly unequal pay scales between men and women still enrage, we find women pooled in low paying segments of the economy, in non-profits, for instance, or teaching small children.
            Often, this is the choice of the women themselves, mothers, for the most part, a women’s movement conundrum never thoroughly studied or unraveled, including, as a corollary, the highly ambiguous differences between men and women, anatomical, biological, or psychological, a subject too threatening to examine back in those days when feminists and all feminist principles were under siege.
            In 2009, as the United States (and the globe) writhes in the grip of financial and climatic crisis, even when the United States was headed by a man who gives the lie to racial—and, by implication—all human prejudice, no observer can miss the fact that few, if any women are among the recipients of the obscene “golden parachutes,” the billions of dollars in salaries and bonuses that have accrued to men in the corrupt and corrupting financial world.
            Even women who have not retired to the supposedly safe role of “stay-at-home Moms” have usually opted for outside employment far beneath their abilities, jobs that are undemanding enough and close enough in proximity to their homes to allow them to attend to their children’s sudden injuries or offer much needed psychological support.
            The problem of full respect for those women (or men) who raise children, children with needs, special or not, children whose talents deserve and require careful nurturing, leads directly to the complex questions of equal—or, more to the point, “fair” pay. Top jobs in our competitive capitalistic world require top, i.e. full, undivided—attention. And from there, the sustenance money still flows.
            Indeed, like most revolutions, the women’s movement, raising ideas that were complex and difficult, left certain problems unsolved, such as, for example, whether feminists should vote for a woman because she is a woman or because she espouses the principles of feminism; i.e. which to support, the gratifying presence of a woman candidate or utterly essential issues themselves.
            And yet, so much has indeed changed for women, and for so many men who have finally been given permission to act on their “maternal” instincts.
            Perhaps the revolution has merely transmogrified into an evolution, which is the most hopeful sign of all, because far beneath the radar of the current popular media, in the far corners of the globe, strong, liberated women are helping less confident women become stronger. In such a poverty and conflict-stricken country as Nepal, for instance, a young American journalist is teaching intelligent but oppressed women how to become journalists themselves. These Nepalese women want to tell the stories that have been hidden in their restricted culture, and soon they will do so. When this miracle happens, their words will reach the eyes and ears of the world just as the heroes of the “Sisterhood” did. I believe that women will even reverse the threatening dangers to our painfully overpopulated, precipitously heating planet; a new, confident, empowered sisterhood will soon arise to rescue Mother Earth.
            So whether or not our heroic politicians attain the pinnacles they aim for, it seems time to take another look at how we happened to get here, even tangle with a few of the brutal and bizarre injustices—the stoning of women in undeveloped countries, the shameful rape of female soldiers in our own armed forces, the ideological disputes that still remain. There is good reason, after all, why thousands of women still pack auditoriums, grasping each others’ hands and cheering a great leader like Gloria Steinem, all of us aware that we must thank our lucky stars or—as The Sisterhood records—Betty, Gloria, Germaine, Kate, et al—that the whole women’s conflagration of words happened at all.
      —Marcia Cohen
      Santa Fe, New Mexico 2009