This is a book about women’s use of politics and the political system in pursuit of gender equality. At its core, this book explores the complexity, tension, and controversy created by an overarching paradox in the unique nature of women’s claims to equality. A paradox occurs when two apparently contradictory positions coexist. In this case, the paradox is this: How can demands for gender equality be reconciled with sex differences? Because “equal” often means “the same,” how can men and women be the same if they are different?
The story of women’s relationship to politics is therefore complex because the most direct path to gender equality is not clearly marked. In fact, this book argues that there are two well-worn paths women have traveled in pursuit of equality. On one hand, women have argued that equality is possible only when the differences between men and women are erased by laws that require men and women to be treated equally. We will refer to this path as the legal equality doctrine. The other path, what we will call the fairness doctrine, consciously recognizes the differences between men and women and argues that women will always be disadvantaged if they are not somehow compensated for the social, economic, and political consequences of those differences. What matters most to advocates of this second approach is that women are treated fairly—and fairness may require laws, policies, and practices that treat women differently from men.
The tension is evident in the disagreement among women themselves over which is the right path to take to improve women’s status. Just because women share sex-linked biological characteristics with one another does not mean that they embrace a single understanding of gender equality, nor does it mean that they possess a group identity or group consciousness as women in a way that easily translates into political action. In this regard, feminism only adds to the tension. As an ideology, feminism has been ineffective as an organizing philosophy for women’s movements because feminism itself incorporates the equality paradox. Feminism promotes unity among women while recognizing diversity, and it pursues equality even while recognizing differences.
Visit any town in America and you are likely to find a war memorial honoring those who fought for our nation. While there are more than two million living female veterans in the United States, there are very few memorials honoring women’s military service. As new memorials are built, how should female veterans be represented?
The West Virginia Division of Veterans Affairs commissioned a statue honoring female veterans in 1999. When sculptor P. Joseph Mullins unveiled the design three years later, critics complained that it was not “feminine enough.” The statue depicts a muscular woman wearing a casual uniform of pants and a T-shirt. “It would have been nice if we could have had a statue that looked more like a woman,” said State Senator Anita Caldwell, vice chairwoman of the Senate Military Committee. State Senator Jon Blair Hunter, the committee’s chairman, said the statue should “depict a woman in a skirt.” The sculptor, himself a Vietnam veteran, said that depicting a woman in a skirt would have been inappropriate. The statue is “not a runway model and not a Playboy bunny,” but rather a “nice, big, strong girl who’s been through military training.” After more than a decade of debate, the statue was finally installed at the state capitol in 2011.1
Meanwhile in New York, a statue erected in honor of female veterans located next to the State Museum generated the opposite reaction. The statue, intended by its creator to invoke “Lady Liberty,” appears in a clingy, flowing gown.2
A sash is draped over her left arm and a crown lies at her sandaled feet. State Senator Nancy Larraine Hoffman asked the governor to move the statue to another location and to replace it with “something more representative of the sacrifices women veterans have made.” Margaret Bandy, one of the first women from New York to enlist in the Marines, said, “I think the statue misrepresents women in the military, especially today. I think the veterans deserve something less ethereal.” Bandy enlisted in 1942 and served for three years as a drill instructor and company commander. “When you go to look at statues honoring men, they look like warriors. That’s what we were too. I was fully willing to give up my life to defend my country.”3
In Del City, Oklahoma, city officials erected a monument that includes five women in dress uniform—one from each branch of the service—holding hands while surrounding the American flag.4
Nearby, another statue depicts a female National Guard soldier talking to her daughter, who is wearing her mom’s uniform cap.5
The Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery does not include a depiction of a soldier.6
Source: “West Virginia’s Female Veteran Memorial Statue Unveiling” by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin, (http://flickr.com/governortomblin
) is licensed copyright © 2011 under CC BY-ND 2.0.
What do you think?
How is this controversy related to women’s pursuit of equality and the paradox of gender? In deciding how military women should be represented, communities encounter the collision of women’s real roles with the idealized image of women grounded firmly in the private sphere. What is the appropriate visual representation of women in today’s military? What does each memorial representation tell us about women and men and the paradox of gender equality? Should future memorials be built to honor women in particular, or should we assume that any military memorial built today honors women as well as men?
Controversy is inevitable anytime one group makes demands that require another group to relinquish power, resources, control, or the privileges they currently enjoy. Patriarchy literally means “rule of” (arch) “fathers” (patri). More generally, patriarchy characterizes the pervasive control men exercise over social, economic, and political power and resources. Feminism and women’s movements directly challenge the privileged position of men and demand that women be viewed as individuals rather than simply as derivatives of their relationships to men. The long-standing and persistent belief that men and women naturally occupy separate spheres strengthens the power of patriarchy. The separate spheres ideology promotes the belief that because of women’s role in reproduction, they are best suited to occupy the private sphere of home and family, whereas men are designed to occupy the public sphere of work and politics. Throughout the book, controversies about gender equality are most evident when women demand autonomy and work toward acquiring the rights and privileges that flow from eliminating the distinction between the public and private spheres.
This text employs the equality-difference paradox to examine women’s historic and contemporary participation in politics. In doing so, it is important to state two caveats. First, accepting the equality-difference paradox as a framework for examining women’s political integration in the United States does not mean that the legal equality doctrine and the fairness doctrine are the only two positions one might adopt. Dichotomies can sometimes be limiting in that they accentuate, or exaggerate, the positions at either end of a spectrum, while giving little attention to the space in between. History suggests that neither polar position provides an entirely satisfactory approach to the pursuit of gender equality. Similarly, neither position will provide a full explanation of women’s successes and failures in working toward gender equality. Rather, it is the tension produced by the coexistence of the legal equality doctrine and the fairness doctrine that provides the most fertile ground on which to examine gendered society, women and politics, and the continuing controversies of equality. Second, equality is not the only goal of women’s movements, nor is the equality-difference framework the only way to understand women’s pursuit of gender equality. This framework, however, does provide a very effective way to explore the multitude of controversies associated with the pursuit of gender equality and to examine the diverse perspectives among women, as well as differences between women and men. Many of the most interesting debates explored in this text find women working in opposition to other women in defining and pursuing social, economic, and political goals. Finally, this is a book about women’s engagement with politics in the United States, although insights drawn from women’s experience in other political systems around the world can be found throughout the chapters.
Why has it taken women so long to be recognized as important political actors? Why, in 2016, do women earn, on average, seventy-nine cents to a man’s dollar, despite passage of the Equal Pay Act in 1963 and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act in 2009? Why do many women, young and old alike, shy away from identifying as feminists yet express support for feminist positions? Why was allowing women to vote seen as the most radical demand expressed in the Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions, adopted in 1848 at the first organized women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York? Is the gender gap in contemporary electoral politics real, and if so, what does it mean? Why are women still petitioning government to address issues such as child care, work, and family leave; pay equity; control over reproduction; funding for women’s health concerns; and rape and domestic violence
when these very same issues were on the agenda at the Seneca Falls Convention? Answers to these questions lie in the controversies of gender equality created by the equality-difference paradox. Although women have been citizens of the United States since its founding, they have never shared equally with men in the rights or obligations of democratic citizenship.1
Instead, women have struggled for admission to full and equal citizenship even while many argued that their particular brand of citizenship would be distinctively different from that of men.
The paradox of women’s equality suggests that two paths toward the same end can coexist. Advocates of both legal equality and fairness have seen politics and the political system as a means to their preferred ends. The result has been a long history of disagreement among women about the surest path to full integration into public life and even about whether full public participation itself is desirable. Because women themselves hold different attitudes and opinions about their appropriate roles, their ability to effectively practice interest-group politics has been greatly diminished. If women could present a united front, their numbers alone would demand considerable respect and attention within the economy and from politicians at all levels of government. Women make up more than 53 percent of eligible voters in the United States. Unable to agree on unique sex and gender interests as women, or to disentangle gender interests from the powerful cross-pressures of race, ethnicity, class, motherhood, and sexuality, women’s interests are allied with multiple groups and a reliable voting bloc has not materialized. Women’s ability to speak with a single voice or act as a unified force on a single agenda is severely limited as a result. Thus women’s relationship to politics and, more broadly, the development of women’s movements have largely proceeded down two paths toward equality: one group advocating the legal equality doctrine and the other the fairness doctrine.
Feminists and nonfeminists alike find this division frustrating when a unified women’s bloc would suit their needs. In 1920, both political parties worked feverishly to attract the female vote, and activists in the suffrage and women’s rights movements worked diligently to turn out the women’s vote in an effort to place their issues on the national policy agenda. When a coherent women’s voice and vote failed to materialize, the parties eventually turned elsewhere, and activists were forced once again into an “outsider” strategy. Contemporary journalists, trying to discover pivotal voting groups in the national electorate, have variously labeled female voters as “soccer moms,” “waitress moms,” and “security moms.” Obviously, these characterizations do not describe even the barest majority of women in the electorate, but the desire to understand women’s political behavior and contribution to the nation by reducing their entire identity to a variation on motherhood is nothing new. Motherhood and women’s unique role in nurturing future generations of citizens have exercised a powerful defining (and limiting) influence on women’s relationship to politics.2
In 1914, Congress passed a unanimous resolution
establishing Mother’s Day. The resolution’s language emphasized mothers’ contribution to the nation:
Whereas the service rendered the United States by the American mother is the greatest source of the country’s strength and inspiration … Whereas the American mother is doing so much for the home, for moral spirits and religion, hence so much for good government and humanity … Therefore, be it resolved that the second Sunday in May will be celebrated as Mother’s Day.3
Women’s role in good government in 1914, expressed by Congress in this resolution, was not one of direct action or participation but rather was limited to their functions in the private sphere of the home and in their socially defined roles as mothers and nurturers. While the constitutional right to vote in 1920 gave women a powerful form of direct participation, they were not newcomers to politics even then.
Defining politics beyond the traditional scope of electoral, party, or institutional behavior allows a more complete examination of women’s political behavior. Until at least 1920, women had been legally excluded from many conventional forms of participation. As a result, an insider’s definition of politics, focusing exclusively on political party activity, voting, campaigning, seeking office, or making direct contact with public officials, does not prove very useful in examining women’s activism prior to suffrage or in understanding the complexity of women’s politics today. Defining “politics” is in itself a political exercise, since any definition necessarily expresses some judgment about which participants, actions, and issues are legitimate. The pervasiveness of the separate spheres ideology and the power of patriarchy limited women...