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Ruth Rosen on the Historical Arc of Feminism

[ 185 ] February 23, 2013 |

Check out the historian Ruth Rosen’s essay on the historical arc of feminism. She sees the project at its halfway point, particularly noting the very difficult struggles to fight against domestic violence, as highlighted by House Republicans refusal to renew the Violence Against Women Act. An excerpt:

As an activist and historian, I’m still shocked that women activists (myself included) didn’t add violence against women to those three demands back in 1970. Fear of male violence was such a normal part of our lives that it didn’t occur to us to highlight it — not until feminists began, during the 1970s, to publicize the wife-beating that took place behind closed doors and to reveal how many women were raped by strangers, the men they dated, or even their husbands.

Nor did we see how any laws could end it. As Rebecca Solnit wrote in a powerful essay recently, one in five women will be raped during her lifetime and gang rape is pandemic around the world. There are now laws against rape and violence toward women. There is even a U.N. international resolution on the subject. In 1993, the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna declared that violence against girls and women violated their human rights. After much debate, member nations ratified the resolution and dared to begin calling supposedly time-honored “customs” — wife beating, honor killings, dowry deaths, genital mutilation — what they really are: brutal and gruesome crimes. Now, the nations of the world had a new moral compass for judging one another’s cultures. In this instance, the demands made by global feminists trumped cultural relativism, at least when it involved violence against women.

Still, little enough has changed. Such violence continues to keep women from walking in public spaces. Rape, as feminists have always argued, is a form of social control, meant to make women invisible and shut them in their homes, out of public sight. That’s why activists created “take back the night” protests in the late 1970s. They sought to reclaim the right to public space without fear of rape.

Incidentally, The Lost Sisterhood is one of my very favorite history books to teach.


Comments (185)

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  1. Curmudgeon says:

    Meanwhile, the historical arc of feminist argumentation on the Internet has reached its bimodal zenith with the arguments that any male who disagrees with the rationale for school uniforms is a pedophile, and the argument that any woman who believes that being spoken to by a man seeking consensual sex is not an objectifying act is pro rape.

    It’s hard for any movement to be take seriously when its members act like lunatics.

    It’s also very hard for any movement to win battles when the rank and file are more interested in putting the heads of their potential coalition members on sticks than to put their efforts into things that are actually important.

    • Malaclypse says:

      You do realize that the StrawFeminists of Rush’s fevered imaginings are not actually real, right?

      • Curmudgeon says:

        You do realize that the first example was taken specifically from this comment thread here on LGM, right?

        And, you do realize that the second example was taken from Rebecca Watson’s infamous “elevatorgate” scandal, right?

        Far too many contemporary feminists are an abject embarrassment to feminism as a project to secure equal rights for women.

        • thebewilderness says:

          You do realize that your mendacity is easily checked and it will affect your grade?

          • Curmudgeon says:

            Do you deny that a poster in the linked comment thread was accused of having an unhealthy interest in young girls’ clothing because he argued for the value of school uniforms?

            If you deny what is visible in plain English, then the mendacity is yours.

            • Origami Isopod says:

              You completely distort what went on in that thread by claiming that JfL was attacked because he was arguing for school uniforms.

              You also completely misrepresent “Elevatorgate.” The true scandal was that a brief “Guys, don’t do that” unleashed howling hordes of misogynists who continue to harass her to this day.

              This feminist is really not interested in the opinions of liars on how the feminist movement should conduct itself.

              • Curmudgeon says:

                I’m not going to dignify any of your posts with rebuttals because, frankly, your conduct here is a perfect example of the problem I’m talking about.

                There’s no scope for a movement to gain traction when the poster children of its adherents’ behavior are people who casually hurl utterly baseless abuse at others and respond with disingenuous argumentation (often complemented by even more abuse) when called on it.

                Your opinions, while clearly strongly held, are not so indisputably true that anyone and everyone who fails to agree with you immediately must be arguing in bad faith.

                The approach of assuming that everyone who disagrees must be arguing in bad faith will not convince anyone who doesn’t already agree with you. No amount of invective or rhetorical flourish will change that.

                If you want your personal brand of feminism to be taken seriously as an adult ideological platform, then it needs to grow up and learn that coalition building is both necessary and does not involve knifing your own allies.

                • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

                  If you’re arguing in good faith, you did a horrible job of understanding both the LGM thread on school uniforms and “Elevatorgate,” because you completely misrepresent them. The content of others’ arguments is a matter of fact, not opinion. You’re welcome to your own opinions…but not your own facts.

                • Jordan says:

                  Anyone and everyone is not automatically arguing in bad faith. Individuals can indeed be arguing in bad faith. Like, well, you.

                • Origami Isopod says:

                  Yawn. Another tone argument from a dude who thinks that he gets to lie about his pet peeves and the laydeez have to be ultra-polite and ultra-accommodating to him because otherwise UR BEIN DIVISIVE AND ABUSIVE.

            • Shakezula says:

              Jesus fuck. We get to judge entire groups of people based on blog comments, do we? In that case I declare all white men criminally insane.

    • McAllen says:

      and the argument that any woman who believes that being spoken to by a man seeking consensual sex is not an objectifying act is pro rape.

      I’m assuming this is referring to Rebecca Watson and the dumb Elevatorgate thing. If so, this is a complete misrepresentation of what actually happened, obviously.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:


      • Origami Isopod says:

        He’s probably also referring to “Schroedinger’s Rapist,” which claims not that any man approaching a woman in search of consensual sex is a rapist, but that the woman cannot tell how dangerous the guy might be.

        It’s amazing, isn’t it, how these same schmucks will then turn around and lecture us on how we have to be “more careful” in order to “prevent rape.”

    • Murc says:

      the argument that any woman who believes that being spoken to by a man seeking consensual sex is not an objectifying act is pro rape.


      I’m pretty sure Amanda Marcotte, friend of the blog, is totally in favor of people (including men!) speaking to each other in order to seek consensual sex. It would be curious indeed if she were to believe her own positions was pro-rape.

      It’s hard for any movement to be take seriously when its members act like lunatics.

      Name a single movement large enough to warrant the name that didn’t have at least some people in it who acted like lunatics.

      Any movement. I’ll wait.

      • Curmudgeon says:

        Name a single movement large enough to warrant the name that didn’t have at least some people in it who acted like lunatics.

        Don’t be ridiculous. Every movement has its nuts but the successful movements (excluding the Republican party, which is a special case due to its elite support) keep them far from the public eye rather than making them front and center.

        Modern feminism has stalled because it has few sane voices compared to voices that have completely lost the plot.

        If feminism is to regain its relevance it needs to spend more time talking about reproductive rights, violence in the home, gender-based income inequality, childcare, and so on, and much less time running for the oppression olympics by giving self-absorbed nitwits a platform to blame the world for their own pathologies.

    • CD says:

      sorry for ourselves much?

    • Shakezula says:

      Gosh, it makes me really hot when you whimper like that.

    • Sparkle says:

      It’s hard to take The ‘mudge seriously, when he starts calling people names.

    • Ah yes, the claim that feminism itself must be abandoned because the Sacred Right to Creep Women Out has been strongly disapproved of.

      As for the claim that feminists have abandoned all other issues in order to spend all our time disapproving of sexual harassment, here is my archive at The American Prospect:

      The topics are:

      Rape & gun control
      Science (Hey, feminists have layers!)
      Gun control
      Domestic violence
      Single motherhood
      Reproductive rights and childcare
      Reproductive rights and elections
      Taxes and the social safety net
      Reproductive rights
      Halloween costumes and how perhaps we shouldn’t police women’s clothing choices
      Todd Akin
      Jen Rubin’s weirdness
      Twitter memes about feminists
      Todd Akin

      I could go on, but you get the picture.

      Another interpretation, therefore, of recent events: Feminists say that sexual harassment sucks and that it makes women not want to be in spaces where harassers run free. Apparently, men who like sexual harassment will quite literally give up oxygen before they tolerate even a whiff of criticism of their preferred method of interacting with women: cornering them creepily while pretending it’s flirting as a pre-emptive punishment for the inevitable rejection that you are already mad about because bitches-be-shallow. So they go on what now is a multi-year ragefest of dumping all their bile and anger at women for not looking past their creepiness, infrequent bathing, rancid personalities, barely concealed misogyny and unfortunate choice in headwear, and offer them blow jobs at random moments for the hell of it. It all leaves feminists to wonder if perhaps all that energy wouldn’t be better directed towards bathing, learning to act right, and getting haircuts, which would be a more efficient way to get laid than raving endlessly about how unfair it is that women don’t like it when you corner them in enclosed spaces and offer sex without the preliminaries of introducing yourself.

      But wondering that takes up about .001% of our time (because the answer is yes, not being a dick is a more efficient path to sexing up ladies than being a dick). The rest of our time is spent on the issues Ruth Rosen lays out, and our downtime involves a variety of activities, including oodles of consensual flirting engaged in with people of our preferred sex who understand that there’s a huge difference between back-and-forth playful sexy banter and harassment.

  2. Winchester says:

    Yes! In order to prevent rape and promote freedom, allow women to conceal-carry guns, and ban islam.

  3. Ronan says:

    I never realised there was such a divide in US feminsism (and I stress the US) between classes, races etc until quite recently..I don’t think I have a point really, but anyone is free ro riff of this and educate me..also US racial politics are very difficult to ‘get’ as an outsider..once again no point, but interesting topics none the less

    • Curmudgeon says:


      Contemporary American feminism is very heavily a creature of the upper middle class and it reacts very badly when it comes in contact with people from lower social strata.

      Rich white women telling others about how numerical sizing on womens’ clothing is an instrument of patriarchal oppression (I am not making this example up.) isn’t going to go down well among women who work 18 hours a day scrubbing hotel bathrooms.

      • Shakezula says:

        Maybe the poor bathroom scrubbers can get you to be their ambassador to the rich women. Since you seem to have a direct feed into what they’re thinking and do and don’t like.

      • Ronan says:

        I’m kind of torn here..because this is my first *this*..but also I’m not actually hostile towards feminism..but also because I like an underdog (which you seem to be at the minute Curmudgeon)..also I’m pretty sure there is a lot of division between generations, classes races etc on this topic (which of course there would be)..either way I’m all for extending personal freedom etc..I just find US politics..overwrought?

      • McAllen says:

        I will concede that mainstream feminism has a problem with race (as do many other progressive movements like labor, LGBTQ rights, etc.) I will not concede that talking about the small problems alongside the big ones makes feminism worthless.

        • Curmudgeon says:

          Feminism isn’t worthless as a concept–it’s the current obsession over utter trivialities that’s cost the movement its relevance.

          For feminism to regain its relevance, rather than reach the end of its arc in a slow decline, the first thing that comes to mind when the word ‘feminist’ is used should not be fanatics who hate the transgendered and ignore large problems in order to make time to launch crusades over anthills and smear everyone who disagrees with their priorities as being a misogynist.

          • McAllen says:

            Hating transgender people is only the explicit doctrine of radical feminists, not feminism as a whole. Even then, not all radical feminists hate transgender people.

            I mean, yes, just like mainstream feminism has a problem with race, it also has a problem with transgender people. But society has a problem with transgender people, and (speaking as a transgender woman, by the way) I have found feminism and feminists to be far more welcoming than most other groups.

            • asdfsdf says:

              Explicit doctrine or not, I’ve got the impression that many feminists and homosexuals are prejudiced against transexuals and bisexuals. See: the number of feminists who are arguing against the prejudice against trans and bi people by feminists and homosexuals.

              Cue inception soundtrack.

          • Jordan says:

            If that is the first thing that comes to mind when you heard the word “feminist,” that says a lot about you and virtually nothing about actual feminism.

          • Origami Isopod says:

            And, of course, dudes get to come in and dictate what constitutes “anthills.” Which usually means “anything that gets in the way of getting my dick wet, no matter the circumstances.”

            Incidentally, thanks for validating my impression of the self-descriptor “curmudgeon” as not being much different from the self-descriptor “politically incorrect,” except with greater delusions of old-fashioned charm.

        • Anonymous says:

          You’re erasing feminists of color here. Stop it.

      • Origami Isopod says:

        There are many feminists from “lower social strata” who write about class and labor issues. They aren’t running NOW, but they’re on the internet and they blog. I doubt you’ve bothered to look for any of them because that would get in the way of your pretense to be the savior of women who scrub bathrooms for a living.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks says:

        Well, from what I’ve read so far in this thread, Curmudgeon is now definitely my go-to guy for explaining American feminism, as he’s so knowledgable about–and sympathetic to–it!

      • UserGoogol says:

        The problem with “feminism on the Internet” (insofar as what you’re describing is a thing, and you’ve been misrepresenting some things, but there’s something to what you’re saying) isn’t feminists, it’s the Internet. Feminists on the Internet do often spend a lot of time talking about trivial matters of culture. (Especially if you expand your consideration to include random people on Tumblr.) Just like everyone else on the Internet.

        • Dave says:

          Definitely this. Though the apparent belief on all sides that having arguments on the internet is not a complete waste of time and energy does also reflect a problem for campaigning groups. The black hole of infinite disagreement is always ready to suck the meaning, purpose and spirit out of you…

          • Origami Isopod says:

            Quite honestly, I’ve seen a lot of people’s minds changed by the so-called “Elevatorgate” incident…. for the better. Including a lot of men, who didn’t really grasp how pervasive and vicious misogyny is in society until they saw Rebecca Watson and her colleagues at the receiving end of an apparently endless attack coordinated by a core group of several dozen truly obsessed individuals (mostly men but some women too).

            Yes, online arguments can be useless, but they can also be educational, because arguments in general can be educational and “online” isn’t some vaporous realm completely separate from “real life.”

        • Origami Isopod says:

          Well, you’re not wrong in that feminists talk about all sorts of things, because people talk about all sorts of things.

          What you have to consider is that “trivial” matters of culture aren’t necessarily trivial. Consider all the discussion of pop culture on feminist blogs. “Moff’s Law” came about because movies, television, advertising, and the rest all reinforce cultural tropes that can be beneficial or can be harmful.

          Are these issues, in a very basic sense, less important than fighting for equal wages or against domestic violence? Sure. But they shape people’s thinking in ways that leads them to certain conclusions on the bigger issues. So they’re worth discussing.

  4. Shakezula says:

    Such violence continues to keep women from walking in public spaces. Rape, as feminists have always argued, is a form of social control, meant to make women invisible and shut them in their homes, out of public sight.

    Shouldn’t that be the myth of stranger rape? Because my understanding (and I admit it has been a while since I checked the stats), but it is my understanding that the majority of victims of sexual assault know their attacker. However, the myth of the man leaping out of the bushes is so persistent we have to put up with cack-handed terms like “date rape.” As if the victim at least got a nice meal before the trauma.

    • DocAmazing says:

      As if the victim at least got a nice meal before the trauma.

      Careful with that. We’ll be getting some attempted comedy about “favorite date rape movies” and the like.

    • Curmudgeon says:

      Shouldn’t that be the myth of stranger rape? Because my understanding (and I admit it has been a while since I checked the stats), but it is my understanding that the majority of victims of sexual assault know their attacker.

      American crime statistics do indeed show that women are at much greater risk of being raped by acquaintances, friends and lovers than by strangers. The fear that there’s a rapist in every dark corner, just like in the movies, is vastly disproportionate to the risk of there being a rapist in any dark corner.

      The overstatement of the risk of public space rape is a greater threat to women’s autonomy than the actual risk of public space rape. Rapists who aren’t, in general, there pose no threat to anyone. Ingrained fear that it’s unsafe to be in public without a (male) escort is harmful because it deprives women of their autonomy to move freely.

      (The risks of public space rape are obviously different in countries experiencing high levels of social disorder or civil war.)

      • Origami Isopod says:

        Yes, it’s totes feminists who push the idea that women are in constant danger when we go out. Not, you know, a society that constantly tells us how to avoid “getting raped” but doesn’t likewise instruct men on how not to be rapey douchebags and, in fact, encourages them on account of violating women’s boundaries being manly ‘n all. Us silly li’l hysterical chicklets, eh?

      • Jordan says:

        “The overstatement of the risk of public space rape is a greater threat to women’s autonomy than the actual risk of public space rape.”


      • Translation: Women are required to avoid complaining about it when I creep on them in public and/or pretend I don’t seem the looking for an exit when I corner them. It’s not like I’m going to rape them right here in front of everyone, so I don’t know why they’re bitching.

  5. Sly says:

    I like Rosen’s work, too, but merging the roles of activist and historian can tend toward some serious teleological thinking, like the notion that the factors of gender equality today serve as some kind of “halfway point” between the factors of the past and the factors of the future. Which leads to sentences like this:

    I always knew this was the longest revolution, one that would take a century or more to unfold. It’s upended most of our lives, and significantly improved so many of them. Nothing will ever be the same. Yet there’s still such a long way to go. I doubt I’ll see full gender equality in my lifetime.

    It may be true that she’ll never see “full gender equality” in her lifetime, however she defines that. It may also be true that she will. It may even be true that the movement for gender equality suffers some severe setbacks and the rights of women actually deteriorate in her lifetime. But whatever does occur is not inexorable. Historical scholarship doesn’t tell you where you’re going, only how you got to where you are. If the present represents any kind of “halfway point” it is the one between the status of gender equality of the past and the goals of feminists contemporary to that period.

    Rosen rightly notes that many feminists of the past didn’t have a full accounting of the state of gender equality in their own time, but it is just as plausible that future feminists might think the same of feminists contemporary to us, and that those future feminists will imagine themselves “at the halfway point,” Which means there isn’t really any objective “halfway point” at all.

  6. Erik Loomis says:

    It is empirically impossible to have a blog post about feminism without sexists taking it over.

    • Winchester says:

      To get rid of sexism, get rid of islam and feminism.

      To get rid of feminism, abolish the nineteenth amendment.

    • Sly says:

      Isn’t there some classification for people with unjustifiable privilege who consider it the worst possible double-standard that they undergo any kind of inconvenience when that privilege comes under scrutiny?

      Oh, yeah. There called Men’s Rights Activists.

    • Winchester says:

      Women are made with a healthy and innate desire to be provided for and protected.

      Satan has used this healthy and innate feminine dynamic, perverted by suffrage, to systematically replace men with the State government as THE providers in society.

      With the socialist State apparatus, a woman no longer has any need of a man. Marriage no longer serves any practical purpose, and thus can be profanated by homosexualists. A woman can whore around and have as many fatherless children as she pleases, and Pimp Daddy State Government will always be there to provide.

      Men have learned well from this, too, since they can also slut it up, fornicate with multiple partners, knowing that the government will take care of their “women” and raise their children for them.

      That objectifies women, trivializes sex and destroys the family.

    • STH says:

      Sigh. Yes, this is true. When you look at the pattern of every single fucking post anywhere on the internet that deals with any sort of women’s issue being instantly swarmed by sexists claiming they’re oppressed, and the fact that women writers are endlessly and viciously harassed even if they don’t write about feminism in particular, well, it does become difficult to escape the conclusion that they just want us to sit down and shut up. The fear of rape is supposed to keep us hiding at home and the fear of harassment is supposed to keep us quiet.

      Good thing that will never happen.

      • Shakezula says:

        I think the fact that it is so pervasive and easy to trigger that it is becoming the equivalent of a certain political party that rhymes with Republican shrieking “Waah! Terrorists gonna kill us in our baids!”

        There’s only so much of that crap a body pay attention to before it become sheer noise.

        Once upon a time you had to at least exert yourself to get the assholes to crash the party and you had to be a woman. Now it looks like there’s some sort of feed that alerts the Angry Penii Brigade when someone uses the word feminist in a post.

      • efgoldman says:

        …the fact that women writers are endlessly and viciously harassed even if they don’t write about feminism in particular…

        Yup. My daughter writes about video games from a feminist perspective. I stopped reading comments very early on, because as her father, i just wanted to go out and slap some people around. She has learned mostly to ignore it, but it was hard.

        • jim, some guy in iowa says:

          one of the lousiest things about the internet is how easily it allows guys who just plain don’t like women to let their freak flag fly and get away with it

    • Murc says:

      It is empirically impossible to have a blog post about feminism without sexists taking it over.

      I dunno. Pandagon usually manages. At least, it did at the old digs. I don’t know about how it’s been since they moved.

      • gmack says:

        For a while at least, I recall that they had registration for commenting.

        • They have Disqus, which requires a working e-mail address for commenting, but now she gets grammar trolls that show up on every thread, which is a relatively recent development. Their opinions are about as valid as a 15-year old heavy metal fan who can find 4 chords on their electric guitar opining about The Edge or Jimmy Page.

    • Witt says:

      It’s disturbing to me to hear you say that. I like LGM and have been a reader for a long time. But when threads start to derail quickly and the front-page poster doesn’t reel them in, the atmosphere starts to feel pretty unwelcoming.

      You don’t have any control over the fact that trolls want to derail. You DO have control over how it gets handled. Not all blog cultures respond to bigots in the same way, and some ways are more effective than others.

      It’s not just the bloggers, though. I’d really appreciate some more commenters in these gender/sex/feminism threads actually *talking about the post*, or at least the issues raised in it.

      I’ll start: If we accept Rosen’s contention that “Fear of male violence was such a normal part of our lives that it didn’t occur to us to highlight it,” then what about people’s CURRENT lives is so normal that we aren’t thinking to highlight it?

      I nominate problematic framing of news stories. My local (big city) newspaper recently headlined stories about someone “posting porn”. Turns out he had secretly recorded women undressing and then uploaded the videos without their knowlege or consent. Yet the newspaper chose to frame his crime as “posting porn.” Consent was completely erased.

    • David Nieporent says:

      It is empirically impossible to have a blog post disagree with Loomis about feminism without

      being called

      sexists taking it over.


  7. Winchester says:

    Feminism creates the condition for more rapes and DISenfranchizes more people than it enfranchizes.

    With women voting, many married couples quickly found themselves voting against one another. The man would tend to vote for the more conservative platform, and the woman would vote for the more socialist platform — resulting was the nullification of BOTH individuals’ votes. What this did was reduce the voting influence of the married household, and magnify the voting influence of the unmarried — and the unmarried tend to be younger (and thus more stupid) or homosexual or irresponsible, and thus vote for more socialist government.

    To restore marriage, family and sane, responsible sexuality to our culture, we need to get rid of feminism.

  8. Ronan says:

    If they hated me, they will hate you..worth bearing in mind

  9. Erik the Parrot says:

    We’ll meet again,
    Don’t know where,don’t know when.
    But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.

  10. thebewilderness says:

    Alice Duer Miller

    Why We Oppose Votes for Men

    1. Because man’s place is the armory.

    2. Because no really manly man wants to settle any question otherwise than by fighting about it.

    3. Because if men should adopt peaceable methods women will no longer look up to them.

    4. Because men will lose their charm if they step out of their natural sphere and interest themselves in other matters than feats of arms, uniforms and drums.

    5. Because men are too emotional to vote. Their conduct at baseball games and political conventions shows this, while their innate tendency to appeal to force renders them peculiarly unfit for the task of government.

  11. […] Lawyers, Guns and Money, Erik Loomis links to an essay by feminist and historian Ruth Rosen wherein she states–basically–that […]

  12. Christie says:

    The other day, while I was at work, my cousin stole my iphone and tested to see if
    it can survive a twenty five foot drop, just so she can be
    a youtube sensation. My iPad is now destroyed and she
    has 83 views. I know this is completely off topic but
    I had to share it with someone!

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