Sometimes, when you are facing setbacks, it’s important to take a step back and look at the long view. I have found myself doing that frequently in the past two years as we have all watched numerous achievements in civil rights being limited or rolled back entirely.
Recently, I spoke at the Women’s Economic Opportunity Conference at Vermont Technical College in Randolph. This conference, hosted each year by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, was in its 22nd year and I was asked to speak on the progress, pushback and next challenges facing the #MeToo movement one year after it had emerged.
The conference fell just one week after the heated Supreme Court nomination battle had concluded and Justice Kavanaugh was sworn it. The outcome of those hearings felt like a tremendous blow to many in the cause at that moment. Because I needed to regain some perspective, I assumed many of the women attending the conference would benefit from that, as well. When any movement encounters what feels like a devastating blow, it’s easy to fall into the trap of a myopic view, but it’s essential that we see the full picture.
Because the conference is for women, I focused the “big picture” portion of my presentation on two aspects of the women’s movement since 1900: The achievements are remarkable, and all occurred with the vast majority of the seats of power being occupied by men — and often by men who were not supportive of progress.
Yes, some of these milestones occurred at the Supreme Court level, but all of the real progress, the progress that leads to local regulation and state and federal legislation, begins at the grassroots level. It begins with changes in our culture that transform ideas from the unimaginable to the inevitable.
That change doesn’t start or end with any one party in power or the constitution of any particular Supreme Court. It happens in coffee shops and supermarkets. It happens in businesses and at barbecues. It happens in our places of worship and in how we raise our children. It happens because small, seemingly insignificant acts of expanding and protecting civil rights happen millions of times over every day.
The 2008 Barack Obama who opposed “gay marriage” and supported only civil unions is the same Barack Obama who hailed the Supreme Court ruling granting marriage equality for same-sex couples in 2015. Did Obama really oppose marriage equality in 2008? I imagine he and a handful of people know the answer to that, but it’s not what’s important. What matters is that what would have been politically damaging for Obama to support in 2008 was a political plus for him to support in 2015.
It was the change in our nation’s culture, not in the president’s position, that made all the difference.
The struggle for women’s rights is no different. Progress is a painstaking series of trials and triumphs, of two steps forward and one step back, but the net result is movement ever forward. It’s just hard to see when focusing on the moment and not the movement.
So, I give you a representative sampling, though certainly not the totality, of what has been achieved in the movement toward equality since 1900:
• 1900: Final holdout states grant women some control over their property and earnings.
• 1920: The 19th Amendment is passed, ensuring women’s suffrage.
• 1925: Native American suffrage becomes law.
• 1947: The U.S. Supreme Court rules women are equally qualified to serve on juries.
• 1963: Equal Pay Act is enacted.
• 1964: Title VII passes, which includes prohibition against employment discrimination based upon gender.
• 1972: Title IX prohibits sex discrimination in any education program or acdtivity that received federal money.
• 1973: Roe v. Wade — the Supreme Court rules women have a constitutional right to abortion.
• 1981: The Supreme Court overturns state laws designating a husband “head and master” with unilateral control of property owned jointly with his wife.
• 1986: Meritor v. Vinson — The Supreme Court rules a hostile or abusive work environment can prove discrimination based on sex (sexual harassment).
• 1993: Marital rape becomes a crime in all 50 states.
• 1994: The Violence Against Women Act passes.
• 2005: The Supreme Court rules that Title IX prohibits retaliation in response to complaints about sex-based discrimination.
• 2013: The ban against women in military combat positions is removed.
The 19th Amendment didn’t happen because one day men woke up and thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we gave the ladies the right to vote?” Women weren’t “given” the right to vote in 1920. We weren’t “given” the legal right to sit on juries or serve in military combat positions.
Civil rights for women are where they are today because women and their allies had both the desire and the willingness to fight, get knocked down, get back up and keep on pressing forward.
So, my fellow women and our millions of allies, take heart. The progress of the past 118 years hasn’t stopped because neither have we.
Lisa Senecal is co-founder of The Maren Group, a writer, and member of the Vermont Commission on Women. She lives in Stowe and is a Vermont native.