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Pundits smear the women's movement
Fashionable caricature

By Sharon Smith | April 27, 2001 | Page 6

THREE DECADES have passed since the heyday of the women's liberation movement, yet media pundits continue to use any excuse to deride it. The passage of time, it seems, makes it that much easier to caricature the movement that won legal and social rights which millions of women now take for granted.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently made the following sweeping denunciation of all things feminist: "After the women's movement exhausted all of us with the idea that women should be mini-me's of men, dressing and behaving like them, it was refreshing when the pendulum swung back to ruffles." She justified this diatribe with a discussion of the new film Bridget Jones' Diary, the latest heroine to follow in the footsteps of Ally McBeal--a career woman in her 30s who obsesses about finding the "Mr. Right" who will make her feel complete.

After reducing the women's movement to a fashion statement, Dowd apparently doesn't feel the need to back it up with facts. A quote from the film's star, Renée Zellweger, will do: "I do...understand when you're trying to put on the right pair of heels on your way out the door. That's the exciting part of being a girl."

Dowd might well need to be reminded of a few historical facts about the status of women before the women's movement fought to change it--even regarding the issue of fashion. Before the women's movement, it was customary for schools and employers alike to enforce dress codes that required females to wear dresses in all weather and working conditions. Ask, for example, flight attendants whether they would prefer to go back to the "good old days" before the women's movement fought for their right to wear trousers on the job--a right that men have always enjoyed.

To be clear, the women's movement never aimed to take away women's "right" to wear ruffles or high heels. It merely introduced the idea that women are three-dimensional human beings who should be allowed to dress for comfort. This notion flew in the face of the prevailing ideal of women as dehumanized sex objects who existed solely for the viewing pleasure of men (a viewing of Barbarella might refresh Dowd's memory on this question).

The women's movement was fundamentally about fighting women's oppression and winning equality with men. The slogan "equal pay for equal work" drew national attention to the fact that women are systematically paid less than men in the same jobs--and to struggles to win wage parity with men through union organizing.

The demand for government-subsidized child care addressed the fact that women with young children routinely pay half or more of their salaries for their children's day care while they're at work. And the call for "free abortion on demand" raised the issue of women's right to control their own bodies and their own reproductive lives in a society in which women are relegated the primary responsibility for bearing and raising children.

Women's liberation groups were organized across the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s. On August 26, 1970, more than 50,000 people took part in the "Women's Strike for Equality," a day of action for women's rights. In 1973, the women's movement won its greatest victory when the Supreme Court made abortion legal with its Roe v. Wade decision.

And the women's movement won the support of millions of women across the U.S. A Gallup poll in 1976 showed that 65 percent of women supported its "efforts to strengthen and change women's status in society." They didn't seem to think the women's movement was fighting for the right to be "mini-men."

It is doubly disturbing that "respectable" journalists like Maureen Dowd are dismissing the women's movement now--when a new fight for women's rights is so urgently needed. George W. Bush has launched an attack against abortion rights, child care now costs working parents the same amount as an average state university tuition, and women continue to earn less than 75 percent of men's wages.

Meanwhile, female images in the mass media lurch between Bridget Jones neurotics and scantily-clad sex objects (films like Tomcats or Charlie's Angels represent little advance since Barbarella in this department). Dowd should also remember that, in all likelihood, she would not be currently employed as a female columnist at a major newspaper were it not for the efforts of the women's movement to open up formerly all male occupations to women.

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