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A R T I C L E S* &* S P E E C H E S

Notes of a Feminist Long Distance Runner
by Eleanor Holmes Norton

Excerpted with permission from SISTERHOOD IS FOREVER: THE WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM, compiled, edited, and with an Introduction by Robin Morgan (Washington Square Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, March 2003).

I am not Everywoman, especially considering that I am a black woman. I am, however, many women of every background and color who crossed into forbidden territory to begin the modern feminist movement in the 1960s. Nearly 40 years later, women are not what they were. Even the bit parts I have played tell much about how the great feminist awakening opened a new world for women: law student, activist in the then-new Civil Rights and Feminist Movements, constitutional lawyer, professor of law, local public official, chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, member of Congress. At the same time, of course, most of us also were intent on playing the irresistible roles in which women had always been cast. Like most, I was a wife. I am a mother. Very little of the rest of what we have done with our lives was possible for our mothers. Young and daring, we were the first women in any numbers who insisted that we were entitled to try for it all. We did it, running all the way, sometimes stumbling or falling down, yet running still.

No one can doubt that we have shaken to its foundation the great wall that the ages have built around women. This wall, the oldest in human time, had been impenetrable for most women, and invisible to many. For all its different manifestations, the wall has had similar effects on women living in vastly different societies throughout the world. The origins are elusive. In the beginning, men everywhere probably used their physical strength to claim and enforce dominance when physicality was what mattered most for survival. Once male dominance was achieved physically, the rest was not difficult to maintain--until now.

We were not the first women who sought to be as free as men. We were the first who brought a combination of insistence and tactics fit for a wall that stood on the firmest foundation. Our insistence, of course, was aided and abetted by forces larger than our will. Our society had finally achieved control over certain forces that had controlled people all societies, especially women--ranging from the consequences of fertility, childbirth, and children to changes in the economy and in the nature of work.

My generation's insight was that finally the proverbial wall that divided the sexes, enforcing male superiority in human endeavors, could be taken down. Like all great insights, this one drew its power from the refusal to allow distraction from a potent idea. We demurred to the argument that the wall sometimes had the appearance--and for some women, even the characteristics--of a protective shield. Our goal was to make a revolution, and revolutions are not made by yielding to distractions. A generation later, as we carry forward a revolution that cannot be contained, the complexity of the feminist quest is more easily acknowledged. Today we confront the consequences of the extraordinary changes we have made. Inevitably, the progress that has transformed the lives of millions of American women also has been accompanied by its share of confusion and opposition. Moreover, as it developed, feminism itself helped foster new challenges. New insights are necessary to help meet new issues facing a new generation of women.

The kaleidoscopic quality of the wall that both denied and protected women helps to explain why we were the first generation to insist that the wall, all of it, should come down--and also explains why we are still going at it, and why the generations after us sometimes appear less intense about the feminist mission. Not surprisingly, there are efforts to fortify the wall in the name of marriage, children, and family. Such attempts have some currency because unlike other "inferior" beings, women have always had a uniquely intimate relationship with the men who claimed superiority and dominion over them. This bond remains one of the great mysteries of life. Happily, love and sex always survive revolutions. We wanted women to have more of both. It is no accident that the sexual revolution and the feminist revolution began at the same time or that such profound departures would draw strong reactions. The inevitable questions have been raised. Foremost among them, of course, is how much can the wall be challenged without endangering one of the closest and most important relationships in human existence? Feminists of my generation believe this was a false challenge, then as now. In the process of bringing down the wall, however, such questions cannot simply be shunted aside. They help explain much about the difference between the era of those who made the revolution and the period of those who have inherited it.

The relationship between men and women also casts light on why the subordination of women in the relationship was not systematically challenged earlier. The complicated bond between men and women--one of the permanent wonders of the world--always asserts itself and often obscures the structural defects in the wall. Patriarchy gets confused with fatherhood, manliness with male supremacy. But it is male bias we are after, not males. Without feminist consciousness, this confusion can overwhelm the separation between sex and sexism that my generation finally exposed.

The Women's Movement is not the first to be threatened by the resurgence of an old order. The difference is in the difficulty that comes from banishing part of the unique relationship between the sexes, clinging to the rest, and distinguishing between the two. Should the goal now be to plow ahead against the mountain of remaining gender bias or to concentrate on family, marriage, love, and sex? Have we come this far only to have our choices come down to these?

My generation walked up to the wall and saw unadulterated, unconquered gender bias for what it was. The new generation in the United States sees less of it because we have eliminated much of it. The difference between our generation and our daughters is less important than it may seem, because the daughters grew up in a world where feminist aspirations were accepted as the way the world operates. That some women have not embraced what we call feminism or do not use the feminist label has had no effect on the pace of feminist change. We were catalytic feminists. Younger women are functional feminists. The new generation has taken up our issues, changing the world more than we dared, opening many more doors for women, and making demands that did not cross our minds. Their remarkable pluralism defies one language, even the explicit language of feminism. Like every revolutionary vanguard, we were a smaller, more cohesive and homogeneous group. We needed to speak the language of feminism to be understood and to spread the revolution. The new generation says it in many ways, and moves still more women to feminist ideas and feminist modes.

The proof lies not in what they say but in how they act. Today's women think nothing of working on factory floors, driving buses, or building things. They believe it is their prerogative to walk into law firms, corporate boardrooms, surgical operating rooms, congressional hearing rooms and presidential cabinet rooms. They thrill crowds who have never seen women as players in major sports until now. They have raised the quality of recruits in the armed services, who then rise through the ranks and serve in posts formerly reserved for men only. They do not hesitate to vote their issues as women. They are forging new personal and equal relationships with men.

Even traditional women and families act on a revised view of who a woman is. The average American may not call herself a feminist, yet the substance of the feminist revolution is a potent guide to the way she lives her life. The housewife lifestyle that defined a norm for many women when Betty Friedan wrote The Feminist Mystique is no more. The average woman is in the labor force. There is mass approval for work, even for women with young children, and even without universal, educational childcare--an urgent necessity that the new generation must win. Contraception, forbidden to be discussed or supported by government until feminists won that vital victory, is no longer controversial; abortion, one of the most important and controversial feminist goals, has the support of an American majority. Segregated education and sports, among the most entrenched of gender traditions, have met their match in federal law. These monumental barriers that helped solidify the wall throughout human history have fallen away in our country--but it's not over yet. The feminist revolution grows and spreads as women here, and in every corner of the earth, pursue their own versions of feminist progress.

In spite of manifest changes, there are some who look past the enlargement of rights, the personal egalitarianism emerging between men and women, and the relaxation of resistance to feminist goals. Despite a new, assertive generation of our descendants, some skeptics fail to recognize their feminism because the daughters are not carbon copies of their mothers. In the reaction to feminism, many see the "end of feminism."

I do not underestimate the reactionaries, or the pressure on young women to revert to old traditions. There is much to learn, from the fight for women's suffrage in particular. That struggle took longer and was more laborious than ours has been in achieving far more for women. Suffrage released feminist ideas and changes beyond the vote, but that single-minded quest did not bequeath wholesale societal changes similar to those we see today. The reasons are complicated. However, it is clear that the sustained focus that proved necessary to achieve the vote ceased germinating other issues once that great victory was finally achieved. In contrast, the modern feminist agenda was crowded from the outset, and new issues have only multiplied. The work of feminism goes on, with countless women and men, consciously and not, moving it forward. Beyond our own country, the global spread of feminism and the changes pressed by the transformation of women have become an irreversible force that is changing the entire world.

As my generation continues to struggle in our way, the new generation is finding its own way. Our "vanguard generation," of course, could become so intoxicated by the certainty that we have made history that it would be too easy to regard those who follow as insufficiently attentive to the revolution. But the descendants do not need to make the revolution; they are its first beneficiaries. The work of a new generation is both the same and different. It is the same to the extent that our revolution is unfinished. Yet it also is as different as today is from yesterday. To live, a revolution must build on the past, not relive it.

My generation cannot afford to become infatuated with the progress of the last 40 years. We need only be confident that women cannot be turned back. Still, it is one thing to believe that our progress will continue; it is another to think that feminist advances are inevitable. To ask men to move over is to ask them to give up a monopoly on everything--power, jobs, athletics, and primacy in the family. Even so, the pace we set yesterday has only quickened.

There are two possible courses for great movements. They fire up, blaze, bring change, glow down into embers, and die--or they mature and keep growing.

Look around. Women are on course.

Eleanor Holmes Norton is, as of 2002, in her sixth term as the U.S. Congresswoman from the District of Columbia. Named by President Jimmy Carter as the first woman to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, she came to Congress as a national figure who had been a Civil Rights Movement leader and a feminist leader, a tenured professor of law (at Georgetown University), and board member of three Fortune 500 companies. She has been named one of the 100 most important American women in one survey and one of the most powerful women in Washington in another. Her work for full congressional voting representation for the people of the District of Columbia continues her life-long struggle for universal human rights. She has served in the Democratic House leadership group and as the Democratic chair of the Women's Caucus, and her success in writing bills and getting them enacted has made her one of the most effective legislative leaders in the House, where she serves on the Government Reform Committee and the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Her accomplishments for her district include historic breakthroughs (the first vote on D.C. Statehood), and major economic and development initiatives and bills. After receiving her bachelors degree from Antioch College, Norton simultaneously earned her law degree and a masters degree in American Studies from Yale. A fourth-generation Washingtonian, she is the mother of John Holmes Norton and Katherine Felicia Norton.

Suggested Further Reading:
Baxendall, Rosalyn and Linda Gordon, eds. Dear Sisters: Dispatches from the Women's Liberation Movement. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

Guy-Sheftall, Beverly, ed., with Johnnetta Cole. Words of Fire: An Anthology of African American Feminist Thought. New York: New Press, 1995.

Morgan, Robin, ed. Sisterhood Is Global: The International Women's Movement Anthology. New York: Doubleday and Anchor Books, 1984; new edition, The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1996.

Schneir, Miriam, ed. Feminism: The Essential Historical Writings. New York: Vintage Books, 1972.

Schneir, Miriam, ed. Feminism in Our Time: The Essential Writings, World War II to the Present. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Copyright © 2003 by Eleanor Holmes Norton

Excerpted with permission from SISTERHOOD IS FOREVER: THE WOMEN'S ANTHOLOGY FOR A NEW MILLENNIUM, compiled, edited, and with an Introduction by Robin Morgan (Washington Square Press, a division of Simon and Schuster, March 2003).

 

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