Our seemingly significant improvements in the social contract in the past 25 years are put into perfect perspective by this piece written in 1999 on the overall progress (and more specifically the changing attitudes) of American society in the previous 25 years.
The Promises Feminism Made…
When I walk out the door of my old tenement building, I step into a world of incredible affluence, a world that is straight and gay, hip and stylish, and increasingly all white and well-to-do. There are no signs that read White Only. Yet when I go to the deli, I am asked whose girl am I or who I work for. Or, when I ask a black woman for a bit of washing powder in the corner laundry, she tells me the lay she works for measures each cup. Her apology is laced with shame. These days, no one in the US wants to talk about class.
Long ago, anybody who wanted to make t as a writer dreamed of coming to New York City, of inhabiting spaces where great writers lived and worked. That dream was a difficult one for women to fulfill – the struggle to come to voice, to find the room of one’s own, to produce, to publish. I live in Greenwich Village, where Margaret Mead, Audre Lorde, Dorothy Parker and a host of others once made their homes.
It was as a young poet struggling to find her voice that I entered the feminist movement and was swept away by the glorious revolution that promised to change our lives forever. Living here, I daily face the triumphs of feminism (one being my own presence here as a successful writer) and see its harshest failures.
The feminist movement we dreamed would change the lives of all women for the better has had little impact on the lives of masses of women. It has most positively changed the lives of well-educated women with varying degrees of class privilege. Thirty years ago, most of those women were white; today they come in varying shades. But as their class power has increased, and with it their acceptance into mainstream, male-doinated worlds, they have abandoned all concern for women who are working-class and poor.
Sometimes when I am on these streets, I feel I am in the old South, in the affluent world around me, dark-skinned nannies tend the children of the mostly white women who are ‘liberated’ – free to have careers, to stay out all night, to pay someone else to do the dirty work of childcare and housework.
The professional women feminism liberated are, for the most part, not interested in the disenfranchised females who must remain subordinated if they are to be free. They do not want to be reminded that we did not end patriarchy, that feminism has become more cool lifestyle than real politics. They see no connection between their fate and the lot of masses of women who daily enter the ranks of the unemployed, the poor and the disenfranchised.
We live in the country that proclaims it has given the world ‘the’ vision of women’s liberation, yet when the white supremacist patriarchal capitalist government attacks single working-class mothers and daily dismantles welfare, the voice of feminism is barely heard. No feminist activists called for us all to take to the streets to defend the rights of working-class and poor women who are one pay cheque or welfare payment away from dire poverty and homelessness. No one wants to talk about poor women giving birth to babies they do not want and cannot support because abortions are fast becoming a luxury. Yet the state will sterilize a poor woman any time, at no cost to her. Feminism has not been looking out for these women or looking at them. Like all the poor in the United States, they are invisible.
There are more than 30 million citizens living in poverty in this nation. A vast majority are female. Yet the ‘power feminism’ of today ignores their plight. There is no door-to-door education that takes feminist thinking out of elite colleges and off the theory page to tell folks, especially women, what it’s all about, how and where they an join, learn and transform their lives.
Most women work outside the home and inside, are paid less, do the childcare and housework, have little sexual satisfaction and stay in their place because they do not see any place else to go. Feminism promised to show them the way. That promise has not been fulfilled.