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Ruth Rosen on the Historical Arc of Feminism

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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.

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