The Women of Revolution
by Gino Dykstra
I must confess something here. As a guy, I wasn’t at all sure of how to proceed with this discussion, as it’s all too easy to fall into “mansplaining” when dealing with issues of feminism. As if I know better about these issues than you do. Trust me—I don’t. However, that being said, I’d like to think I’ve got a little to contribute simply from my perspective of being (as people have described me) a “rabid” male feminist—a term I have heard used both positively and negatively.
Like most feminists (at least among us menfolk) my guiding light was a strong-willed and independent woman in my own life—my mother, who was vastly ahead of her time in terms of feminist values. She taught me the most basic principle of human dignity—respect everyone as you respect yourself, and you can’t go wrong.
As a Baby Boomer I have watched the hard won advances of feminism, beginning with women resisting leaving the workplace at the end of the Second World War, which fomented an ugly backlash that extended well into the 1950s. After that we were dealing with issues of bodily autonomy as well as equity in the workplace, legal protections and more. Now, women such as my wife are having to re-fight the same tired battles they believed we won 40 years ago. Even so, the insights and experiences shared by generations of women continue to speak eloquently to the generations growing up today who are facing, in many cases, the very same challenges that faced their mothers and grandmothers.
And on that note, let’s talk history for a bit. Specifically, revolutionary movements.
Throughout time, women have played an integral part in revolutionary movements. To this day, a woman storming the barricades still serves as the primary image evoked from the French Revolution of 1789.
Women also served the American Revolution in a wide variety of capacities—everything from home-spinning blankets and clothing for the troops to serving alongside their male counterparts (Molly McCauley) or even disguising themselves as men (Sally St. Clare, Deborah Samson, Hannah Snell) in order to take their places on the front lines. As early as 1859, the Taiping rebellion in China saw entire military units composed of women, as did the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and the Russian Revolution in 1917.
Women actively served in the Red Army during World War II and in the Maoist Revolution in the 1950s and even today women are battling against ISIS in the Middle East. However, despite all this bravery, courage, hope and sacrifice over the generations the situation for women worldwide has changed slowly or sometimes not at all. Why is that?
I believe that one fundamental reason is that revolutions are typically political upheavals, not social—and the two are definitely not synonymous. In almost every instance once the fighting has died down, women have been pretty systematically relegated right back to their traditional roles. Revolutionary change just doesn’t seem to translate into revolutionary changes for women. So military actions don’t necessarily improve the lot of women.
So here we are. We are once again living through revolutionary times, at a moment when a large chunk of the population is seriously discussing political, economic and social issues with an eye for making them better.
So far few shots have been fired, but notably one of the first to fall (in Charlottesville, Virginia) was a woman, activist Heather Heyer.
Once again, the opportunity potentially exists to erase some of the paternalistic aspects of our Euro-American social system in the process. The real question, of course, is will this social upheaval lead to better conditions for women?
I don’t know. No privileged group has ever surrendered its privileged position without a fight. History has demonstrated time and time again that social change rarely occurs because it’s “the right thing to do.” Instead, social change occurs because it’s unavoidable—in other words, the pressure for change simply becomes too great. A good example of this is the health care issue currently being debated in America. I can see that we will inevitably move toward single-payer not because it’s “the right thing to do” but because we’re drowning in medical debt which is ultimately unsustainable—not only individually but for the nation as a whole.
The same applies to women’s status. As women have become more and more an integral part of the economy, and as they are now enthusiastically moving into professional fields once exclusively held by men, addressing issues relating to their economic and physical health is going to become unavoidable. And that, of course, is as it should be. But we’re also experiencing the push-back to this. The recent Google memo claiming women’s “biological inferiority” for high-tech fields shows that this kind of ignorance is still being voiced even by those whose education and background suggest they should know a hell of a lot better.
The current rise of white supremacist groups and other ultra-conservative factions is, in some ways, a direct response to this opportunity for women. Certainly they seem fueled by a sense of not only male entitlement but also a sense of male inadequacy. Frankly, these are not winners in the game of life, and I can’t help but laugh at the idea of any of them becoming a romantic interest for any woman who isn’t “slumming.” Even their “Bigot in Chief” is clearly having trouble in this venue.
Of course, it’s not just groups like these, but all the politicians who either overtly or covertly support them, passing draconian and clearly unconstitutional misogynistic laws with abandon, never for once thinking that whatever legislation is passed is only waiting for the next wave of politicians to bury it. The mere fact that they feel the need to perform this type of public “service” is a pretty good indicator of their understanding (at least unconsciously) that their days are numbered. Most of them were voted in by others clearly fearing the winds of change, but those winds are becoming stronger every day.
Women now have more tools to enact such positive changes than at any other time in history. The rise of social media alone has given feminist organizers much more capacity to gather groups of like-minded progressives together to push back at the new conservatism. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I think the time is not too distant when such organizing will be felt much more keenly at the ballot box, when people really begin to understand the power that such organizing can bring. The vast majority of Americans are yearning for change, and among millennials it’s almost unanimous. Now the big problem is to get them all to the voting booths, and this is one way to do it.
Revolutions have historically been bloody affairs, and leave scars for generations thereafter. This time, with persistence, organization and courage, it might be just a little bit less painful. At least for those who believe in the possibilities.
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