More than thirty years after the ERA controversy, American women have gained the right to participate in occupations formerly closed to them and to more equal education opportunities—yet, we are judged by our faces and figures more than ever before. The need to be validated by male attention has preschool girls learning provocative dance steps, middle school girls displaying bare mid-drifts and any cleavage nature has provided, and high school girls opting for breast enhancement if nature was stingy.
While I appreciate the desire to have a nice guy around, I feel concern for the apathy women show toward the opportunities we have gained and for the push-back against further progress. I hate the fact that feminism is considered a dirty word conjuring visions of mannish women out to emasculate every male within knife range. A few years ago, I tried to get Herland, a 1915 novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, approved for use with my 9th grade English classes in suburban Salt Lake City. Parents accused me of being a feminist with the same tone Glenn Beck pronounces “communist” and “socialist.” It didn’t matter that Herland was written at a time when American women had few legal rights, and Gilman aimed to correct archaic practices such as restrictive clothing, lack of physical exercise, and limited educational opportunities for girls and women. It didn’t matter that the book was an imaginative creation of a world without disease, poverty and crime and would give students the opportunity to discuss relevant social problems. According to the parents on the approval committee, reading a book advocating equal opportunities for women would undermine their family values. Obviously, I, a married, active LDS woman with five children of my own, had a social agenda contrary to the values of this Utah community.
Boyd K. Packer made “feminism” equivalent to the other F word in a speech to the All-Church Coordinating Committee in 1993. In that speech he listed feminism as one of the three dangers to the LDS Church, along with homosexuals and intellectuals. Packer gave no details on how the feminist movement threatened the church. He did address the issue of working mothers and said while some were justified, the church should not provide “license to the many who are not.” Although few Mormons today recall that speech, the perception that the church is officially opposed to all feminist issues persists and makes Mormon women hesitant to support any women’s issues. Then, of course, Rush Limbaugh coined the phrase “Feminazi” to add a right-wing political dimension. Interesting that women let men define the issues for them.
Fear that we may lose a golden past that never existed also plays a part in women’s attitudes. It’s easy for younger women to believe that people were happier back in the 1950s when all the mothers stayed home and dads earned the living. Personally, I didn’t know too many families in the ‘50s with June Cleaver type mothers. My mother and aunt worked in our family grocery business as my grandmother had before them. Quite a few of my friends’ mothers worked outside the home at least part time. Yet, the dream of returning to the happier days of the past persists—accompanied by the notion that keeping women’s wages low and not providing decent child care and maternity leave somehow benefits families.
Why don’t women speak out for benefits for themselves and other women? Women who landed a great provider usually don’t see their stake in the struggle—unless a sister or daughter is less fortunate. Maybe it’s time to value all women as sisters and daughters.