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Anne Taylor Fleming’s Essay: The Push for Equality

December 28, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: This has often been called The American Century. But maybe it should be seen as The Century of the American Woman. That’s because what has happened to women in this country, in this century–their long, tumultuous, exhilarating push for equality in voting booths and bedrooms and boardrooms–is the great adventure story of the century for its explosive redefinition of all of our public and private lives, changing the contours, the very marrow of those lives.

That’s not to say that this story didn’t happen in other countries, that heroines and agitants didn’t abound elsewhere. It did and they do. But it happened here in a bigger, noisier, mass-push way, ultimately changing everything and everyone in its wake.

There are still days when I am exhilarated because I’ve gone to a female obstetrician or talked to a female lawyer or seen footage of some woman trudging up Mt. Everest or watched one of those searing backhands from one of the strong, handsome Williams sisters, a resounding wallop from the Brave New World.

From Madonna to Mia Hamm, from Madeleine Albright to Mariah Carey, we now expect women to be full-tilt participants, saving the world or strutting their stuff with all the self-possession and chutzpah–and, yes, sometimes vulgarity–they can muster. And, as a perverse dividend of equality, women can now be killed right along with men–be it on a battlefield or in an electric chair.

It was hardly a straight line through the century to this point. Women fought for and finally got the vote in 1920. Then came the ’30s, a mixed bag. The depression hit the theme that what jobs there were belonged to men, but there was also the luminous, larger-than-life public presence of Eleanor Roosevelt.

In the 40s, with their men gone to war, wives moved into the workforce. But the 50s reaccented domesticity–Donna Reed and Father Knows Best. In the early 60s, the introduction of the birth control pill blew apart forever the Old World order, helping prompt the explosion of the women’s movement in the late 60s-early 70s.

The 80s saw a retrenchment, women bumping into glass ceilings at work and fighting with men who didn’t want to share power-or chores. In the 90s more women got into law schools and medical schools and space shuttles. But there were also men behaving badly in night clubs, some military schools, and high schools.

But the truth is along the way, a lot of men did try to change–and have. They are partners in this great adventure, their own lives ultimately as dramatically altered as those of women. I routinely see men do things my World War II-era father and his friends could never do. Hug, hold, kiss — each other, their wives, their children.

At their celebration, Yankee manager Joe Torre didn’t give Daryl Strawberry a manly bearhug; he stroked his face and gave him a tender kiss. For all the talk of the crisis of masculinity, I see so much of the opposite, a quiet, daily demonstration of the new kind of maleness, men nursing their wives through breast cancer or huffing and puffing with them through labor, fathers toting babies on their backs or nurturing their daughters’ careers. Even old retro-lech Huge Hefner put his daughter Christie at the Playboy helm.

In many of our lifetimes, we have witnessed the taking hold of a simple and yet profoundly revolutionary idea: that men and women are more alike than not, made of essentially the same stuff, and entitled to a full and equal range of experiences and emotions, jobs and opportunities, privileges and protections.

One need only look at the re-restricted women of Afghanistan, the rape victims in the Balkans, the genitally mutilated girls in Africa to register how deeply disturbing this idea of equality is–and how tenuous. And, of course, in this country there are still too many women being hurt, hit, harassed, too many women below the poverty line, too many older women stigmatized for their wrinkles, too many younger ones driven into anorexia by new beauty ideals of thinness.

No, it’s far from perfect and far from over, our great adventure. But what an adventure it has been.

I’m Anne Taylor Fleming.