Women: the 51% Minority

08generation_500 This picture from the 1970s, reprinted in a March 8, 2009 story in the New York Times, is heartbreaking. It is heartbreaking  because even though such a picture today would, I fervently hope, show women more diverse in age and rage, it would be easy enough to find women – millions of them – who came out of the 2008 Presidential election cycle realizing that women are the forgotten majority in this country.

Women are the people who can be called anything for supporting another women’s bid for higher office; indeed a woman governor who runs for vice-president can publicly be called a c*nt and absolutely no member of the punditry nor any politician in high office of either party denounces this. Imagine if photos of young people wearing shirts that called our current President a n*gger had circulated widely during the last election. The media and politicians would have been absolutely up in arms. They would have been right to have been, too. But what many women are only realizing now, after surviving the dashed hopes of seeing Hillary Rodham Clinton given a fair shot at the nomination in Denver (instead the Democratic Party held a rigged process where pledged delegates were pressured to change their votes for the first ballot and superdelegates were pressured, starting in June, to act as if they had already voted for a candidate to lead the Democratic ticket) is that the entire political and cultural situation in this country not is stacked against them, but that almost no progress in the fight for political and economic equality has been made since the “Women’s Liberation” movement of the early 1970s. The wretched and persistent wage gap persists; no Equal Rights Amendment has been added to our constitution; and despite the de jure legality of abortion, women’s reproductive rights generally cannot be vindicated by actual individual women, at least not without hardship.

Our current President had his inauguration blessed by a pastor who believes in “wifely submission” and has retained as his chief speechwriter a man who blithely posed for a picture depicting himself metaphorically groping the most powerful person in the president’s own Senate – a person who happens to be a woman, Secretary of State Clinton. This same President has ignored calls for a Presidential Commission on Women modeled on John F. Kennedy’s 1961 – 1961! – Commission on Women; and has displayed zero interest in creating an even stronger institution, one that would be on par with the President’s Advisory Boards on Intelligence (spying) and Economic Recovery.

The other day I was reading and listening to Mario Cuomo’s address to the 1984 Democratic Convention. Well into a classic speech, Cuomo delivers this message:

We speak for women who are indignant that this nation refuses to etch into its governmental commandments the simple rule “thou shalt not sin against equality,” a rule so simple — I was going to say, and I perhaps dare not but I will. It’s a commandment so simple it can be spelled in three letters: E.R.A.

In 1984, the Democratic hall went wild when Cuomo added this apparent ad lib. The crowd chanted over and over E – R – A.

Thou shalt not sin aginst equality, thou shall pass and ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. Can you imagine a keynote speaker from either major political party today uttering these words at its presidential nominating convention?

The closest we came in 2008 was Hillary Rodham Clinton’s convention speech, which included this declaration:

And I know what that can mean for every man, woman, and child in America. I’m a United States Senator because in 1848 a group of courageous women and a few brave men gathered in Seneca Falls, New York, many traveling for days and nights, to participate in the first convention on women’s rights in our history.

And so dawned a struggle for the right to vote that would last 72 years, handed down by mother to daughter to granddaughter – and a few sons and grandsons along the way.

These women and men looked in-to their daughters’ eyes, imagined a fairer and freer world, and found the strength to fight. To rally and picket. To endure ridicule and harassment. To brave violence and jail.

And after so many decades – 88 years ago on this very day – the 19th amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote would be forever enshrined in our Constitution.

My mother was born before women could vote. But in this election my daughter got to vote for her mother for President.

This is the story of America. Of women and men who defy the odds and never give up.

How do we give this country back to them?

By following the example of a brave New Yorker , a woman who risked her life to shepherd slaves along the Underground Railroad.

And on that path to freedom, Harriett Tubman had one piece of advice.

If you hear the dogs, keep going.

If you see the torches in the woods, keep going.

If they’re shouting after you, keep going.

Don’t ever stop. Keep going. (emphasis added)

Although the convention applauded wildly it should be noted that in 20 years the Democratic Party went from demanding the Equal Rights Amendment to reminding women that when they hear the dogs, they must keep going.

Many women and women understand that women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights. They demonstrate this knowledge in this country and around the world as they keep going. Some make small contributions, financial and otherwise, to new organizations like 51 percent (disclosure: the author of this post is the president of 51 percent), WomenCount, and The New Agenda – organizations formed in direct response to the unresponsiveness of the Democratic Party to American women’s dreams and hopes for their emancipation and autonomy. In other countries, too, women take action on the local level. A friend from Europe decided that she would mark International Women’s Day (a holiday not recognized in the U.S.) by protesting a local piece of artwork that, however unwittingly, depicts a woman in a subordinate and demeaned posture compared to her male coworkers (the art is meant to celebrate rice harvesting). Here is the artwork as it looks on an ordinary day:

rice_harvest_img_4152 But on International Women’s Day, the woman sweeping wore a placard that, translated, read:

“I feel enslaved in this humiliating posture
next to the two strapping men standing up.
I demand equality”
Dones endavant! (Translation: Put women forward!)

I believe that 2008 will be remembered not as a year of defeat for women, but as year of galvanization. Despite the wretched economic uncertainty that plagues men and women today, those who want to see the majority-minority – women of the world – put forward, are banding together and one placard or one donation or one blog post at a time these men and women realize that we must renew the fight against oppression and for emancipation of women everywhere.

You can read Secretary of State Clinton’s statement on the multiple significances of advancing the interests of the world’s majority-minority here, in her statement issued in honor of  2009 International Women’s Day, Sunday, March 8.


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