LIVING FOR CHANGE
March is Women’s History Month
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, Mar. 7, 2009
Over the years I have witnessed and experienced huge changes in the status of women and in my understanding of feminism.
In 1915 I was born female to a mother who couldn’t read or write because there were no schools for females in her little Chinese village. This told me, even as a toddler, that changes were overdue in our world,
In 1930, when I was 15, I became a feminist after reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman ‘s Women and Economics A Study of the Economic Relation Between Men and Women as a Factor in Social Evolution. In this 1898 classic Gilman describes how female children are socialized to get new dolls and new clothes by sitting on their father’s laps and tickling him under the chin. That image made such a profound impression on me that I vowed I would never become dependent on a man for support.
In the mid-1940s, I joined the tiny Trotskyite Workers Party, expecting to experience male-female equality because it was a Marxist organization. Instead I observed young male shamelessly using the rhetorical skills they had honed by debating Stalinists and other radicals to bed young females, who came from similar backgrounds but were not so verbally dexterous because they had gone to work rather than college after high school. Girl in Movement, a 2002 memoir by Eva Kollish, is a fascinating account of these dynamics.
A few years later, in the Socialist Workers Party, whose members were older, I found that male-female relationships were also far from equal. Many of the wives worked at conventional jobs so that their male partners could spend a lot of time doing the political work of writing, speaking and organizing, The women also did most of the typing. So did I.
Things only began to change after millions of women, including members of the white middle class, went to work in shipyards and factories to replace the men fighting overseas in World War II. For a few years following the war, these women accepted being forced back into the home. But by the 1950s they began to chafe at their domestication, and in suburbs all over the country small groups of women raised their consciousness simply by sharing their stories of growing up female. This led to huge mass demonstrations, dozens of pamphlets, magazines and books, and the mainly white but extremely influential Women’s Liberation Movement.
By the 1960s, when the civil rights and anti-war movements exploded, white women were well on their way to establishing their right to give leadership outside the home.
Thus what was unimaginable when I was growing up is now no big deal. The number of women graduating from university-level programs is equal to or exceeds that of men. Major universities like Harvard and the University of Michigan are headed by women. Madeleine Albright was Clinton’s Secretary of State, Condolezza Rice Bush’s and Hillary Clinton Obama’s.
However, this elevation of middle class women to positions in the power structure has not transformed the daily lives of millions of working class women of color, just as Obama’s elevation to the Oval Office has not meant the liberation of African and Hispanic Americans, millions of whom are incarcerated because a de-industrialized America has no jobs for them.
In the past decade the number of women living in poverty has increased disproportionately to the number of men. Women still make only 78 cents for every dollar earned by men — and for women of color, the numbers are even worse.
While poverty affects households as a whole, women bear a disproportionate burden because they have the main responsibility for raising children and struggling to manage household consumption and production.
To change this situation will take a radical revolution in our values or how we think not only about race and about male-female relationships but about how all human beings will make their livings and care for each other and for the Earth in these increasingly perilous times.
Next week I’ll write about the steps that women I know are taking towards this radical revolution in values.