Tell me the backlash against feminism isn’t crackling up a storm. I try to keep my eye on the big picture and the bottom line: education, employment, autonomy, power. Surely, I tell myself, the fact that half of all new med students are female is more important than Paris Hilton’s omnipresent visage; that a woman has made the first viable run for the presidency says more about the United States than that media clowns like Matthews basically call her a crazy castrating bitch on a daily basis; or that Caitlin Flanagan, smarmy enemy of working mothers (and another big believer in compulsory sex for wives), won a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.
But sometimes I think we’re truly going backward, as Republican hegemony, conservative Christianity and anti- feminist media propaganda take their cumulative toll. All those judges, all that money, all that shock jockery, all those magazines obsessively following stars’ weight and baby bumps: it would be strange if they had no effect. As far as concrete setbacks go, look no further than the case of Lilly Ledbetter, whose right to sue for pay discrimination was denied by the Supreme Court last May. In a 5-to-4 decision, the Justices overturned the standard interpretation of existing law to declare that Ledbetter was twenty years too late: the victim of pay discrimination must sue within six months of the initial discriminatory act–never mind whether she knew about it (many employers, including Ledbetter’s, forbid workers from discussing their salaries; she found out she was paid less than any man at her level from an anonymous tip). Given the realities of life, the Court has given employers the nod to pay women less, as long as they can keep the women in the dark for 180 days. In April a bill to restore women’s right to sue failed in the Senate, 56-to-42, because for some reason everything now needs sixty votes to become law. John McCain said the bill would lead to too many lawsuits (hello? all it would have done was restore the law we’d lived with for forty-four years); what women needed was more "education and training." Because right now, women are just too dumb to merit equal pay. As Dahlia Lithwick wrote in a coruscating piece in Slate, if women take this sitting down, maybe they really are dumb.
The suspicion that women are dim would explain why Oklahoma has just passed a law requiring not only that women seeking abortions be forced to view sonograms of their fetuses but that the picture be taken in the way most likely to reveal the clearest picture–often up their vaginas. In other antichoice news, an abortion ban will be on the ballot again in
Yes, women are still making gains in education and– slowly–in politics and other areas. But longstanding feminist gains are eroding: battered women’s shelters, for example, are closing for lack of funds. And the advances haven’t made the difference once hoped for. There are more powerful female Hollywood executives than ever, but as Manohla Dargis pointed out in a splendid rant (her word) in the New York Times, the movies are relentlessly male-focused: the conventional
About Katha Pollitt
Pollitt’s writing has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, Ms. and the New York Times. Her most recent collection of Nation columns is "Virginity or Death!." Her volume of personal essays, Learning to Drive and Other Life Stories, has just come out from Random House. For more, visit her web site at www.kathapollitt.com.