Hanukkah, then Christmas next week, followed by the start of a new year—a time of hope and beginnings. Why doesn’t it feel that way? For the past several days I’ve been searching for the bright spots. The ones that can provide the energy we need in the midst of so much darkness. Not an easy task. Each day new horrors erupt: the second anniversary of the Sandy Hook massacre and still no reasonable national gun control legislation; free passes for racial biases and deadly police brutality; the sickening slaughter of school children in Pakistan; ongoing revelations of rape in the US military and on university campuses. Negative news can so easily obliterate positive signs in the struggles for equal rights.
But all around us there is tangible evidence of the many ways feminist work contributes to positive progress for everyone. The 2014 successes range from long overdue firsts ( the Fields Medal in Mathematics went to Maryam Mirzakhani) to innovative group actions led and powered by women (the National Coalition of Nuns support for women’s right to contraceptives; the creation of the hash tag #YesAllWomen and the responses of millions of women following the deadly rampage in Santa Barbara by a man angered when women turned down his advances). These examples are familiar to many, but countless other stories of women’s efforts are less well known:
- Women around the globe rose up in protest against those who blame the victim in cases of rape. Young US activists like Wagatwe Wanjuki worked with Congressional leaders to address how colleges handle sexual assault cases. Nana Queiroz in Brazil initiated a photo campaign on Facebook in response to a survey where sixty–five percent of the respondents agreed “…that if dressed provocatively, women deserve to be attacked and raped.” And in Kenya women took to the streets wearing mini skirts to protest the rape of a woman who was stripped and raped in public because she was wearing a short skirt. Conversations about rape are no longer hidden, ignored or silenced; they are public, viral and loud.
- President Obama selected Vanita Gupta to head of Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. She will be at the forefront of the Department’s investigation in Ferguson, Missouri and as well as the federal lawsuits in North Carolina and Texas on voter ID legislation. Women with law degrees were few and far between forty years ago. Today Gupta’s gender is a non-issue.
- Olive Bowers, a thirteen-year old surfing enthusiast in Australia took on Tracks magazine for their treatment of women. Her letter read in part: “I clicked on your web page titled “Girls” hoping I might find some women surfers and what they were up to, but it entered into pages and pages of semi-naked, non-surfing girls. These images create a culture in which boys, men and even girls reading your magazine will think that all girls are valued for is their appearance.” Her words may still illicit backlash, but they’re more common sense than radical in today’s world.
- And as an example of an innovative effort to ensure that women’s work is not lost, women across the US and Canada took part in the Art+Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a thon. The Edit-a thon addressed gender bias by bringing together volunteers to add more, and more accurate, information to Wikipedia. In 1980 women in California noted that only 3 percent of history textbook content included women. They founded the National Women’s History Project. Much has been accomplished, but the Edit-a thon is evidence of work still needed.
Each of these stories is about things only dreamed of by feminists who entered the US struggle for equality under the banner of women’s liberation back in the 1970’s. Most reasonable people now take for granted that women belong in schools of law, medicine and business; in every field of academic inquiry and artistic endeavor; and in every type of occupation and employment. There’s a long way to go but women understand persistence, know how to organize and innovate, and have no intention of withdrawing from the struggle for a better, safer, more just world.
Yes, there will be set backs. Some are frightened by expanding equality, challenging patriarchy and questioning traditional concepts of gender. But I am certain that a year from now old binaries will have loosened a bit more. There will be feminist progress to celebrate. That is, I am certain of this if we each take a deep breath and dig into the work ahead.