Publication Date

November 1, 2012


Public History

Shortly after Elena Kagan was nominated for a seat on the Supreme Court, law professor and public intellectual Patricia Williams reminded us that, Sonia Sotomayor, who had already been appointed to the court, "had to refute allegations that she was too strident and bossy." Kagan, Williams noted, was "facing speculation that she's a lesbian." Actually, she added, the talk was more about whether she exhibited masculine traits. She likes poker. She swings a softball bat. Kagan has what it takes—"she is amply endowed with a Midas touch of testosterone." Lost in this transaction was the fact that these were path breaking nominations. Instead, as Williams concluded, "success itself [was] masculinized."

Today, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan constitute a third of the Court's members. What does this unprecedented number tell us about womens' progress in fulfilling the claims to equality voiced during the Second Wave of Feminism? Was the gender-inflected response to the nominations a momentary lapse into a benighted past, or did it suggest the persistence of an embedded sexism? Let us take a journey through the last five decades to find some answers, slipping into our baggage some newspaper and magazine articles and two recently published books that together take stock of women's status—past and present.

Published in the fall of 2009, Gail Collins's When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women begins in 1960, when women were routinely paid less than men in the same positions; when newspapers divided classified ads into “Men: help wanted” and “Women: help wanted”; when women needed their husband’s permission to apply for a credit card; when medical and law schools either banned female students or severely limited their numbers. Little wonder that in 1961 women constituted only 6 percent of the nation’s doctors and 3 per cent of its lawyers. Collins describes a national consensus wherein women could not be airplane pilots, television news anchors, fire fighters, movie directors, combat soldiers, or heads of corporations. Then, too, there was the issue of reproductive choice: abortion was illegal everywhere.

And 50 years later? We all witnessed Hillary Rodham Clinton's historic campaign for the presidency. She did not take the White House. She did become secretary of state—an office in which she was immediately preceded by Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright. In sectors other than electoral politics, women held 51.4 percent of managerial and professional positions in 2010. They earned 57 percent of the nation's college and university degrees. They took 43 percent of the MBAs awarded in the United States. Close to half of all law and medical degrees went to women, an increase from 10 percent only four decades before. Thirty-two percent of the nation's lawyers and 28 percent of its physicians were women. Thirty years ago, women constituted only 14 percent of the faculty in history departments. Surveys of four-year college and university faculty in 2007 showed that the proportion had increased to 35 percent. That year women received 41 percent of the PhDs in history. It is worth noting as well that five of the last six presidents of the American Historical Association have been women.

Each of us has participated in what Gail Collins calls the "amazing journey" women have taken over the last five decades. Those of us who have taught and been taught women's history have documented this revolution. As individuals, we have been its witnesses, and as historians we have contributed to scholarship that has made women's and more recently gender history one of our discipline's prominent fields. With thousands of courses at colleges and universities throughout the nation, it is difficult to recall that once there were none. At the University of Michigan, 2,750 undergraduates enrolled in women's studies courses during the academic year 2009–10. Michigan's women's studies department has joint PhD programs in English, history, psychology, and sociology. Eleven other PhD programs have been founded nationwide. In describing the impact of the Second Wave, Gail Collins concludes by declaring: "It happened so fast that the revolution seemed to be over before either side could really find its way to the barricades." And that it did. In its October 26, 2009, issue, Time magazine’s editors revisited a 1972 special issue devoted to investigating the status of women. We were then in the midst of the Second Wave, but it was still too early for it to have taken hold.Time found that women’s average wages had actually fallen relative to men’s. They noted also that no woman had served in the cabinet since the Eisenhower administration. The Museum of Modern Art in New York had held 1,000 solo-artist shows in the previous 40 years; only five of those were by women. A mere 7 percent of students playing high school sports were girls. “In terms of real power—economic and political—we are still just beginning,” Gloria Steinem observed at the time. But, she added, “the consciousness, the awareness—that will never be the same.”

In terms of women's economic and political power, the changes since the early 1970s have been enormous. There has been a "revolution," as Collins says. But in the wake of raised "consciousness" and challenges mounted to the inequalities Time documented, did cultural attitudes change too? Or was sexism simply re-packaged? In a recent column in the New York Times, newspaper and magazine editor Joanne Lipman suggested that, “We’ve focused primarily on numbers at the expense of attitudes.” The latter are crucial, she added: “We’ve got to include popular perceptions in the equation as well. Progress in one area without the other is no progress at all.” In terms of attitudes toward feminism, we may be experiencing a counterrevolution. Susan Douglas’s Enlightened Sexism, published in spring 2010, documents the messages sent by today’s media: that feminism has met its objectives and is now nothing more than an albatross, and that real sources of power are highly sexualized beauty and unrelenting consumerism—not economic independence or professional achievement. “The seductive message that Feminism’s work is done,” as Douglas subtitles her volume, whispers that women who still dare call themselves feminists are “man-hating, child-loathing, hairy, shrill, humorless, [and, of course] deliberately unattractive.” Dismiss them, such messages suggest: the battle for equality has been won.

But it has not. Disparities remain. A New York Times article from April 12, 2010, reported that academic salaries had risen only 1.2 percent in 2009—the smallest increase in 50 years—and that “at every type of institution in almost every class of faculty, men were paid substantially more, on average, than women.” The percentages of women teaching history at four-year colleges and universities continues to lag behind men. The 35 percent they constituted in 2007 is strikingly less than the fifty-one percent of the faculty in the Humanities. There are also disturbing obstacles to further growth, beginning with the relatively small proportions of female undergraduates who have been drawn to history in the last two decades. History is well below all of the humanities in this regard. In contrast to the increasing percentages of female faculty in history departments, these numbers have remained relatively stable. In 1987, women earned 37 percent of the undergraduate history degrees. In the ensuing two decades that figure increased only four percentage points. And although the current percentage of new PhDs is certainly higher than in 1960, the representation of women has hovered steadily at 40 percent during the past decade.

The successful nominations of Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court may reflect and portend progress; but sexism—a cultural artifact as demeaning to those who identify with feminism as it is damaging to all women—persists, requiring those of us who teach women's and gender history to explore, with our students, the longue durée of its complicated history.

is the Ruth Bordin Collegiate Professor of History, American Culture, and Women's Studies at the University of Michigan. The most recent of her books isLearning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic.

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