What’s next for the women’s movement, and why it’s important.
In one of Kurt Vonnegut’s books (and I’m not going to tell you which one, because that would be a spoiler), there’s a mural that depicts the human wreckage in the aftermath of World War II. The mural is eight feet high and sixty-four feet long, and shows thousands of human figures: soldiers, concentration-camp survivors, prisoners of war, and innocent civilians, all rendered in exquisite detail. Its artist wanted to depict what happens when you let men determine the course of history, and what a cock-up they’ve made of it. (And somehow, the term “cock-up” becomes doubly appropriate here.)
I was thinking of that mural yesterday as a participated in the Sacramento Women’s March last Saturday. I was able to hear every word of every speech, since I was a volunteer security guard stationed at the elevated platform, just in front of the Capitol steps, that was reserved for the press. Most of the speeches made reference, in one way or another, to the importance of voting in the upcoming mid-term elections. There was also general agreement that women were in a position to define their futures in a way that has been unprecedented in American history since women won the right to vote almost a hundred years ago.
Those were important things to say. But what struck me as even more important was the call for women to participate in elections not simply by voting, but by running for elected office. If you question the need for this, look no farther than any picture of any legislature, state or federal, anywhere in this country. You won’t see a lot of women there, although women constitute more than half the country’s population.
One speaker made a telling point when she said that there is no path to equality in this country, and that there never has been. A path only exists when the pathfinders make one, pushing against the obstacles that are placed before them. That was true of the suffragettes and labor activists who faced beatings, imprisonment, and death at the beginning of the last century, and of the marchers who faced fire-hoses and police dogs fifty years later. Nobody gave these activists any rights. They took them.
That situation will also be true for women in their current quest for political equality, although the weapons used by the people in power will be different now. When women put their names on ballots, they will find themselves opposed by the same white male power that has dominated politics since the birth of this country. They will be confronted by the power that comes from corporations, political action committees, and media outlets, which are controlled predominately by rich white males. It won’t be a pretty fight.
To win that battle, women will have to find ways to neutralize that power, and to leverage what power they themselves have. By and large, they won’t have the wealth to compete dollar for dollar. But if they can convince voters that they are better equipped to do the job, by virtue of the same skills at negotiation, compassion, compromise, and reconciliation that they have been honing for thousands of years in a male-dominated world, then they’ll have a chance. And as Vonnegut pointed out in his novel, we men have had a conspicuous lack of success in those things, which is why we have wars, and which is why our government has now been shut down by the very men we have elected to keep this sort of thing from happening.
I’m not saying that all women are better than all men at governing. There are too many women like Kellyanne Conway, Ann Coulter, and Sarah Palin to convince me that all women are immune from poison politics. And it amazes me still that so many women voted for Donald Trump, whose contempt for women and for women’s issues is plain to see.
But do you remember the white women who led the crowds who were spewing hatred at the black students trying to integrate the New Orleans school system back in 1960? It’s obvious to me that, just as the latest “alt-right” fringe is merely the most recent manifestation of old groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Fascists, the women I mentioned in the last paragraph are simply the old anti-progressives with more stylish clothes and an updated vocabulary of catch-phrases. Like their counterparts of yesterday, they are cheerleaders for a social structure that keeps rich white men in power, and everybody else out of it.
So how will women find ways to neutralize that power in the battles to come? They’ll do it by addressing issues that have been portrayed by the media as women’s issues, but that have really been human issues. Are women more moved to action by a starving child than a man would be? Or by a family facing bankruptcy due to a catastrophic illness? Or by young mothers dying because they cannot receive decent pre-natal care? I think that women are motivated by these issues, because the loudest voices on the issues have usually come from women. They’re the ones, as wives and mothers, who have to clean up most of the mess, and when the social safety net collapses, it usually affects them and their children first. They’re the best spokespersons for the issue, because they’ve seen the results first-hand.
So I repeat: these issues aren’t “women’s issues.” They’re “human issues” with a largely female face. And women’s path to electoral success lies in convincing men that these human issues cannot be ignored or turned into levers for political advantage.
For example, we now have a government shut-down because Democrats were, in effect, forced to choose between two causes: health care for children, or keeping families of undocumented workers intact and able to give their children the best possible chance of success. You can’t have both, the Republicans said. Choose one or the other, or we will shut the government down. And when you don’t make that choice, and the government closes, it will be the fault of the Democrats for not having made that choice.
But why can’t we have both? Why do we need to choose which one is more important? And why can’t we have a government that won’t force us to make that choice? Wouldn’t a government composed of equal numbers of men and women, with a genuine concern for its citizens, be more willing to find a solution that can keep that government functioning without the need to make such heartless choices?
Let’s find out. Let’s elect as many women as we can, as soon as we can. Let them be presidents and senators and congresswomen and governors and county commissioners. Let them be councilwomen and mayors and judges and school-board members. And above all, let them be accountable to their electors and not to the old, tired political structure that is failing us.
It’s their turn now.