Humanism and the Second Wave of Feminism

Gloria Steinem accepts the Humanist of the Year award at the 2012 AHA Annual Conference.

A four-point plan to carry humanism and feminism into the next century

Editor’s note: This article first ran in the May/June 1987 issue of The Humanist.

I was first called a humanist back in 1973 or 1974 when I went to speak in Texas—Houston, I think—and arrived at this large amphitheater and saw many people holding signs outside the gate which said that Gloria Steinem was a humanist. How nice, I thought; these must be my friends. Wrong. This was the right wing, and this was my initiation into the fact that, to them, a humanist is pretty much the worst thing one can be—right up there with feminists and communists. I think it is quite true that, by and large, feminists and humanists have a great deal in common. I would go so far as to say that feminists would be humanists—if humanists were feminists.

If we consider the very distant past, we understand that God was thought to be present in all things in nature—animals, birds, plants. God was present in female as well as male. God was present in men and all living things. For instance, during a trip down the Nile, from the Nubian portions of Egypt to Cairo, one can see very literally, in the temples along the bank, the progress of a more exclusive religion. The older, Nubian areas depict God as nature, God as women, God as animals, and God as all things. But then one begins the consort gets taller and the woman gets smaller. If one keeps moving down a son. Gradually, the son gets taller and he becomes her consort, and then the consort gets taller and the women gets smaller. If one keeps moving down the Nile, the woman gets smaller and smaller, the representations of nature gradually disappear, and finally you get to the Moslem mosques of Cairo, in which no pictures of nature, no female representations, no female persons are allowed. Such a trip offers a three-thousand-year visual depiction of history.

It is the opinion of many anthropologists and historians that the withdrawal of God from nature and from women—indeed, from many races of men as well—was a necessary accompaniment to the conquering of nature and women. As Henry Breasted brilliantly said, “Monotheism is but materialism in religion.” I think we are trying to restore a sense of possibility, sacredness, equality, and spirituality to all people and to unleash spirituality (which is the very democratic and therefore unruly emotion, as opposed to organized religion, which seems to be a far more hierarchical one) so that we can begin to see the human possibilities in each of us. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary human possibilities or human qualities is the way in which and the reason why we invent God.

Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple and many wonderful poems, novels, and short stories, gave a lecture on why and how it is that people invent God. She drew a very interesting distinction between the religion of the powerful and the religion of the powerless. She points out that, when we are under duress, when we are oppressed, when we are weak, when we are suffering, when we have no strong friend, then we invent a strong friend and hold this image out before us so that it will draw out of us those similarly strong and admirable qualities that we need. Such invention and hope has been, historically, the religion of the powerless. On the other hand, when we are powerful and wish to unjustly maintain that power, then we create a God who is in the image of the ruling class and has a political purpose: convincing others that God is more present in one group than in another. Haven’t you always wondered why God looks like the ruling class? Even as a child, I wondered why Jesus had long, blond curls even though he lived in the Middle East. We are discovering, with the very helpful tutelage of the religious right, the ways in which organized religion is very often politics made sacred. Religion decrees the proper structure here on Earth by placing it in heaven, so to speak, and sanctifying it. We are encouraged to behave against what is frequently our own enlightened self-interest in order to receive a reward after death. This is quite an extraordinary job of persuasion when you stop to think about it: to persuade humans to behave in self-denigrating ways in order to get a reward after death. Even the corporations only do it for life after retirement! But we are beginning to look at the politics of religion and to restore the sense of the fullness of human capabilities, including our spirituality or our yearning for and exploration of the unknown. That is a very democratic instinct, a very subversive instinct, a very revolutionary instinct, and certainly a very necessary one.

We have traveled a long distance in this country in breaking down hierarchies that call men more important, more godly, than women, and perhaps it useful to place ourselves in history for a moment. The primary way in which change is dealt with is, first, to say that it is not necessary. The second way is to say that it used to be but is no longer necessary. Therefore, perhaps we should remind ourselves that even in this very young country there was a first wave of revolt against the caste systems of sex and race, which are the deepest ways human beings are categorized and falsely divided. And this first wave, of course, was the suffragist and abolitionist waves. Over more than a century and with great courage, those two waves of change succeeded in gaining a legal identity as human beings for women of all races and for black men-both of whom had previously, with varying degrees of cruelty, been regarded as chattel, as objects to be owned.

steinem_pg1Having gained a legal identity, we are now in the second wave—the feminist and civil rights wave. We are seeking legal and social equality. Yes, we have an identity; we are now human beings and citizens. But we don’t yet have equality. We are only at the beginning, by all historical precedent, of this wave. In the case of women, we are only about fifteen or twenty years into this century of change; in the case of racial justice movements, a few years more. But still we are just at the beginning of the second wave.

What we have done thus far is, first of all and most important, to challenge the idea that divisions by sex and race are natural. I think that we have come a fair distance when it comes to race; we no longer attribute human differences by race. And we have come less far, but still a considerable distance, when it comes to sex. The majority in this country have ceased to believe that women’s place is natural because of God or because of Freud, who came along to replace God when God was no longer effective in justifying the social order. We needed a pseudoscientific rationale for women’s inferiority. Hence, the popularity of Freud and biological arguments.

Now, if you look at the public opinion polls in this country, you’ll see that most Americans—both women and men of all major ethnicities, age groups, and major religions—suport the idea of equality. This is new. This has never happened before in the history of this country. Until about a decade ago, it was okay for there to be unequal pay for women because it was thought that we didn’t need the money as much. There is also support, both public and political, for reproductive freedom, including safe and legal abortion for women. For all the basic issues of equality, we now have majority support. That is an enormous victory, an enormous change in our hopes and 1 our dreams. But this first stage, which one might call the consciousness-raising stage, is still only the first one.

There are two logical next steps. The first step is institutional change that will make these new ideas practical realities and real choices for most people. For example, we have the idea of equal pay, but we don’t have equal pay; we have the idea of shared parenthood, but we don’t have parental leave so that fathers can, if they wish, be home when new babies arrive. These are two obvious examples. But in each place you look, our hopes and dreams have gone ahead, and we are just beginning to make the real institutional changes that will make these new ideas practical realities.

The second inevitable result of a majority change of consciousness is that we have a backlash. Those who used to be the majority become a minority and feel endangered. All those who fell psychologically and economically dependent upon the old caste system, which was based upon sex and race, and, indeed, on class as well, are now feeling endangered, and they are in revolt. Precisely because all these social justice movements have been so successful at changing minds and hearts, those whose privilege depends upon sex or race feel themselves to be endangered. And just because pro-equality Americans are in the majority doesn’t mean that we’re going to win. Nowhere is it written that the majority wins. It rarely happens in other countries, and it doesn’t always happen in this one either.

For example, we have Ronald Reagan, who in terms of issues is the most anti-equality president this nation has ever seen. We’ve had presidents before who didn’t know or care about equality, but Reagan is the first one who has tried to turn the clock backward. It is very painful to see this kind of view coming from the White House and to hear all these groups symbolized by the Moral Majority which may be made up by the people our European ancestors came here to escape. I think that the Moral Majority is, in fact, our ayatollah. In almost every religion, one will find a streak of fundamentalism. These minority constituencies are all part of the backlash against equality between women and men and often between races as well.

As we look in countries around the world at all the social justice movements—at the anti-colonial movement, at the racial justice movement, at the sexual justice movements—we are beginning to see shared fundamental issues. For all of our cherished and real differences of ethnicities, lifestyles, values, and practices, nonetheless we are all focusing, especially when it comes to women of all races and groups, upon very clear and comparable ideas. Arbitrarily, I have numbered four.

The first one, for women of all groups, is and must be reproductive freedom. It is as basic a human right as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Reproductive freedom hasn’t been included among human rights because women have not been included as citizens. Reproductive freedom, as you know, means what it says: the right to have children as well as the right not to have children. The individual makes that choice, not the state.

Historically, men’s role in conception has not been understood. (There are even now societies on Earth in which the process of conception and birth is not really accepted. There are still societies in which it is thought that women bear fruit, like trees, when they are ripe.) In that stage, women are the gods. But with an understanding of man’s role in conception came recognition of a relationship between that particular man and that particular child. If a man wanted to make sure of his paternity and possession of a particular child, he had to restrict the freedom of the mother—at least long enough to determine paternity. This is the origin of marriage demystified: restricting the freedom of women long enough to make sure who the father of the child is. Gradually, women’s bodies became controlled, as economists would say, as the most basic means of production—the means of reproduction—in order to determine ownership of children. Therefore, women became a supportive or second-class group, often to a cruel and extreme degree.

When we say this very simple thing—that reproductive freedom is a basic right—it’s a pretty radical thing to do. We are seizing control of the means of reproduction. For instance, it undermines nationalism because a nation state has two pillars: one is territory and the other is population. So if the nation is weakened in its ability to decide how many workers and how many soldiers it wants, it undermines nationalism. It also undermines the racial caste system. Women of the so-called powerful or superior caste—that is, white women—were restricted in their freedom. The most historically punished crime in this country is not arson or murder or theft. It is miscegenation: the taking over of the body of a white woman of the ruling class by a man of color who has children with this woman. Obviously, miscegenation was a misnomer, since there was very little, if any, punishment for the reverse—for a white man to have children with a woman of color. Reverse miscegenation was permissible because white men owned everyone anyway and such activity produced more children who were then marked by their color, by their skins, as being workers of the lower caste. If you take away the ability to restrict upper caste women and, therefore, to perpetuate racial purity, in the very long term you take away the racial caste system itself. We are beginning to understand why reproductive freedom had such opposition and why it is such a focus of the right wing. When the state can no longer decide how many workers and soldiers should be born and enforce racial purity, then both nationalism and the racial caste system are weakened.

steinem_pg3The second important theme upon which women, in many areas of the world, seem to be focusing is the redefinition and revaluing of work. I say redefinition because much of what women do is not called work. In industrial societies, women who are homemakers are called women who “don’t work.” This is semantic slavery. In actuality, homemakers work longer, harder, and for less money than any other class of worker in this nation. There’s hardly even a concept of pay. Homemakers have the highest incidence of depression, illness, tension-related diseases, alcoholism, drug addiction, and violence. Statistically speaking, the most dangerous place for an American woman is in her own home—not out on the street. She is more likely to be beaten up by someone she knows, a man within her own family circle, than by a stranger. And, of course, a homemaker has the most likelihood of being replaced by a younger worker. We’re trying to explain that raising baby humans and doing all the work of human maintenance is important, valuable, dignified work and must be rewarded economically, honored, rewarded by society, and shared equally.

Women in many African or Latin American countries are the major agricultural workers. They produce in gardens and around their homes most of the food that their families eat. Men produce cash crops for sale or export. But, it’s only the men who are counted as workers, and only their product is quantified in the gross national product. So women in Third World countries are trying to redefine work—to value what has been devalued only because women do it. They want to end this semantic slavery.

While we are redefining work, we are also trying to revalue it. Right now in this country and most others, work is valued according to who does it rather than by what it is. Once an occupation includes about one-third the “wrong” group either by race or sex—it is devalued. Look at the history of professions in this country. Secretaries used to be men, and it was a fairly well-paid profession. But then “too many” women became secretaries. When the ratio gets to be about one-third, it starts to tilt like a neighborhood and the whole profession is devalued. Bookkeepers used to be men in what was a pretty well-paid profession until “too many” women entered the field; so men invented “certified public accountants” in order to move economically upward and keep women and minorities out. Certification procedures have often been exclusionary. But this isn’t just an American problem. The Soviet Union is always saying how proud it is that 90 percent of its general practitioners are women. But, for that very reason, being a general practitioner in the Soviet Union is a lot like being a nurse here. The thing to be is a specialist, which is more honored and better paid. That’s what the men are. We are trying to gain honor for a particular work’s intrinsic value to the community—regardless of who does it. This will require not just equal pay for people in the same job but comparable pay between, say, nurses, who are mostly female, and pharmacists, who are mostly male.

A third major theme is the democratization of the family. Right now the laws, the economic realities of our lives, and our culture work against democracy in families. Do you remember all the political science professors who always said that the family was the basic unit of the state? They were right. And why they never figured out that you can’t have a democracy until you have democratic families is a really good question. They made a false division between public and private and, thus, relegated women and children to inequity in the guise of privacy. Feminists are trying to make democratic families in which there is a concept of rights for everybody-–for children, for women, and for men.

But democratizing families goes much deeper than simple politics. It addresses the whole point of our ability to develop our full circle of human qualities—whether we are women or men.

Most of us probably were raised by women when we were babies and little children. We saw women as loving, nurturing, powerful, visceral, and emotional because that’s the stage of life we were in. We probably saw men a little later in life in jobs outside the home. Therefore, we saw men as more appropriate to authority outside the home, less nurturing, less loving, but more rational. All this, incidentally, is a libel on men; men are just as loving and nurturing as women, but we had ingrained in our earliest upbringing this idea that women and men were different. We were taught that women were loving and nurturing and that their power was appropriate to childhood and the home, while men were rational and authoritative and their power was appropriate outside the home. We were encouraged to divide ourselves up; if we were men, we thought we couldn’t be as nurturing and as loving as women, and, if we were women, we couldn’t be honored in authority outside the home as were men.

In a very deep way, as adults, we fear the authority of women. When we see a strong woman, we feel regressed to childhood. And when we see a woman in politics who has forcefulness and power or is in any position of authority outside the home, we also may be afraid and recoil from her. So for humanists to develop the full circle of human qualities in both women and men, we need families that are democratic, with children raised as much by men as by women and with women honored in authority outside the home as much as men are.

The fourth theme I used to call culture, but one day it dawned on me that culture was really just successful politics it’s what has become so deeply ingrained that one doesn’t even question it. Nonetheless, what I mean by culture are all those areas we live in every day.

Take television, for instance. We wonder why there are four times more men than women on television and why the newswomen, for instance, are on the average fifteen years younger than the men. Why do women comprise 85 percent of the victims of violence and 95 percent of the victims of sadistic violence on television? And look at the shows about black families. Today there are some, and that’s a step up from invisibility, yet they are all comedies and they are all about the middle class or poor. The shows about white families are melodramas about the very rich, like “Dallas” and “Dynasty.” What’s the political message here? What are we being told? That it’s too hard to be rich and we wouldn’t want to try it? That it’s a lot of laughs to live in the ghetto? What is the political message here?

We’re beginning to see the politics in our daily lives. Suppose we notice that in the very high-tip restaurants in Manhattan, for instance, one is served by white men, and only as one descends to the lower, more poorly paid restaurants is one served by women of any race or black men? If in a department store one sees women selling men’s underwear and men selling kitchen ranges and refrigerators, is this expertise? No, this is commission. We look at our families and see that, although both parents work outside the home, the women are still responsibly for preparing dinner and looking after the children. This means that the women have two jobs and the men have one. Is this equity? No. This is politics. And although perhaps 30 percent of the people now shopping in supermarkets are men, one survey showed that 100 percent of them were still shopping with lists prepared by their wives.

steinem_pg4We’ve begun to think about our naming system. Why do children and women have men’s names? It makes very little sense in a computer age to have this kind of group naming. First of all, there can be four women named Mrs. John Jones. Second, all kinds of people end up saying, “This is my child by my first marriage, and this is my child by my second marriage.” It becomes very confusing. If both adults kept their own names and children had both parents’ names, you would know who their parents were. On reaching the age of sixteen or eighteen, they could take one or the other name or choose a completely different name. We ought to be able to name ourselves.

We’re just beginning to see how politics works in our daily lives and to make these kinds of changes. But perhaps most important in all these cultural areas are two: religion and violence. Certainly the right wing has instructed us on the political uses of religion. We thank them for the lesson, as painful as it has been to learn. Some people who have remained inside those religions are rewriting the ceremonies to be more inclusive and democratic.

But the origins of our current religions are still patriarchal. For instance, a historian of religious architecture pointed out that most religious buildings, whether they were Hindu temples or Episcopalian churches, were built to resemble the body of a woman, because the ceremony of rebirth-that is, birth through men-is the central and most important ceremony that they house. Thus, most religious structures have an outer entrance and an inner entrance–labia majora, labia minora—a vaginal aisle down the center, two curved ovarian structures on either side, and an altar which is the womb where the miracle takes place. The altar is where men give birth, where men say, in one form or another, you were born of woman, so you were born unclean or in sin. It is where men say, “If you obey our rules and all that this patriarchal religion entails, you can have rebirth through men, and we will give you another name and we will sprinkle imitation birth fluid over your head and you will be reborn through men.” Having restricted women as a means of production, a means of reproduction, is not enough. The power to give birth is still an awesome power.

The object of patriarchal religion is to mythically and symbolically take over that power and tell women that they are not somehow real persons until they are reborn through men. No wonder men don’t want women at these altars—men are trying to take away women’s birth-giving cartel. Now, many women and men are looking more deeply at the patriarchal and the racist symbolism of organized religion and trying to universalize the sense of human possibilities and spirituality that lie in each of us.

When it comes to the question of violence I think in all the areas of our culture we are just beginning to realize that sex roles are perhaps the deepest source of violence. For instance, the only shared characteristic of the few societies in the world which don’t have institutionalized violence—that don’t go to war for territory and don’t have armies—is that sex roles are not polarize. Little boys are not told that they have to be aggressive to be masculine, and little girls are not told that they have to be passive to be feminine.

Violence and sex roles are linked. Violence in the home is linked to violence internationally. Violence in sexuality comes from the false division of half the human race into the “inferior” group and the other half into the “superior.” It’s a lie, of course, that one gender is superior to the other. And the only way that one can maintain a lie is through violence or the threat of violence. Therefore, when men and women come together intimately and are in danger of realizing each other’s humanity, their union becomes suffused with aggression. We have spent years trying to explain that rape is not sex—it is violence. Now we are trying to explain that pornography is about violence against women and is different from erotica. It is present in the very word forms: porne means female slavery, so pornography means writing about female slavery; and erotica, which comes from eros, means love, means free choice.

Psychologists and sociologists and others will sometimes get on this slippery slope by insisting that men are “naturally” aggressive and women are “naturally” passive. Suddenly, one is on a slippery slope to differentiation and even to sadomasochism. It’s interesting that the few successful programs established to help battering men are not only non-Freudian but are anti-Freudian. In listening to battering men talk, their experiences sounded like an addiction. In these rap groups, which developed as companions to programs at battered women’s shelters, battering is treated like an addiction. Instead of saying, a la Freudian theory, that men are naturally more aggressive than women but must learn to control it (which is, in fact, like saying to a drug addict, “You can have a little heroin, but you have to control it”), they say, “Look, it’s not your fault that society told you that men are naturally aggressive, that you have to be aggressive to be a man, but, unfortunately, you got hooked on it. What you have to do is go cold turkey.” Men are not more aggressive than women.

We are beginning to trace the line of violence all the way from domestic situations through international ones. The late, much-revered Olaf Palme said that it was the deepest responsibility of government to humanize the sex roles, because they are, in his opinion, the root of violence. We now find ourselves, you and I, in an age when fundamentalism coexists with nuclear weapons-perhaps the most dangerous combination ever. If one comes to believe that there is a more glorious life after death, this, in combination with a nuclear age, is enormously dangerous. When there is a will to live, there is a motive to settle conflict without violence. When death is glorified, there is not. In trying to realize our full humanity, we are not only finding women’s full humanity but men’s too; men have been denied the human qualities known as “feminine” and women have been denied those qualities known as “masculine.” In trying to complete the full circle of ourselves, we have our whole selves to gain. We may have found the key to diminishing the violence on this fragile spaceship Earth.

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