The lessons I’ve learned after 40 years of promoting feminism 30



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Thank you Susan B Anthony – you helped get women the vote! I have never said it before. I was too busy fighting the next battle to notice that gaining the vote was the crucial platform which allowed me to claim further rights. I was too focused on correcting all that she left undone to cheer her other than by using her birthday to ask for more. I was too focused of all her cohort did NOT ask for to realise how hard it was to achieve the first giant step. Yes, I knew it took more than 50 years from the Seneca Falls conference for the female franchise to become a reality. But in my heart of hearts, I was more focused on my own empowerment than on hers. Perhaps no younger generation cannot ever be thankful enough or understand the context of their forbearers. It is only now when my daughter, after watching Mad Men, thanked me that I realised I and so many of the older cohort of feminists have not been grateful appropriately to those who forged the way.

It felt great to be acknowledged. It also helped me to understand a new wave of feminists, whether they call themselves that or not, will continue the work of my generation and those who came before. My daughter along with others will correct our mistakes and build on what we were unable to complete. Equal opportunity and pay, flexible hours, marital equality, reproductive freedom, the list is endless.

After 40 years promoting feminism, here are some lessons I’ve learned:

1. You can’t do it alone. You need people in high places, people in low places, and some in-between. Each one has a skill to offer. Use it and share the credit. If you have a spouse, partner, or close friend, treat each other as equals and define roles and responsibilities jointly.

2. Build on what others have done before you. Recognise that they did the best they could, though much work remains. They built a foundation and now you build the first floor. You can be sure there will be need for a second floor to be built by the next generation.

3. Honour those who went before you. It helps you to be a bit more humble. Celebrate and build on both their victories and yours. Small victories lead to bigger ones! Recognise their worth.

4. Use your delicious, self-righteous anger to build rather than destroy. Let it propel you to define your problems and invite others to join you. Let it fuel action, not destruction.

5. While anger is great for inspiring others to act, it is compromise and persuasion that brings change in those who currently disagree with you. Move past your anger to get the best results.

6. Embrace nuance. Every issue is complicated. There will be winners and losers and unintended consequences.

7. Build negotiating skills. Respect others and figure out why they disagree. They are a product of our society too.

8. Build alliances based on overlapping interests. Reach across issues; find allies wherever you can. Focus on your mutual interests and minimize areas of disagreement.

9. Don’t judge people by their vocabulary. What is politically correct now, may have been offensive 40 years ago. (witness: queer!) Is the person willing to learn? That’s all that matters, the rest is packaging.

10. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

We can transcend national borders, religious divides, economic disparities and gender boxes by focusing our energies on women’s and girls’ status throughout the world. We can join forces and convert our anger to power. After all, multinational corporations employ only approximately six million people worldwide but women are 46.9% percent of the world’s population. That’s 3.6 billion of us!

We can harness our collective power to advance the interests of women and girls around the globe. We can reach across generations and across the globe, but we can’t forget to look in our own backyards and make sure to bring justice there. We all feel most passionate about issues we ourselves witness and experience.

We need so many of us from many different backgrounds to continue fighting for women’s rights. None of us can help all women, but each of us can help some.

Share your thoughts below.

Ruth Nemzoff

Dr. Ruth Nemzoff is a resident scholar at Brandeis University's Women's Studies Research Center. She lectures on parenting adult children, relationships and family dynamics. Her papers are archived at the Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she also holds a doctorate in social policy. She has served three terms in the New Hampshire Legislature and was New Hampshire Deputy Commissioner of Health and Welfare. She is the mother of four adult children, four in-law children and grandmother of eight. She lives in Brookline, MA with her husband Harris Berman, Dean of Tufts University School of Medicine.

  1. I believe in equality I dont consider myself a feminest but am for womens rights and I dont believe men are more worthy than women

    4 REPLY
    • it does not matter if you can yourself a feminist or not – it seems you believe in all the same things. I just hope you do not minimise women who state they are a feminist Devona. Feminists believe in gender equality.

    • yes they do Merrin but sometimes I think some of them act in a way that damages the efforts of all of us who have gone before so I prefer not to use the word for myself .It is improving , my daughters are very competantwomen and my doctors are mostly.female and I am proud of them all ,we have come a.long way .

    • I call myself a feminist Devona and proudly so but I admit to a few cringeworthy moments with a few feminists I have interacted with and heard interviewed.

    • That is so Barbara
      It just occurred to me that sometimes in the workplace its another woman that tries to knife you in the back .Anyway most of us are together in this .We have to proud of who we are hold.our heads high and let it be known in the Nicest possible way that no one triffles with us .

  2. I’ve heard many women say they are not a feminist because they reject the label but just a couple of minutes talking with them and hearing their views it is apparent they are. Cheers to the suffragettes.

  3. I believe in gender equality. I must admit that the label of feminist I find off putting. I have seen some very pushy ‘feminists’ that I find embarrassing.

    2 REPLY
    • …and Debbie I have found some pushy women who would die rather than admit they are feminists – while – of course – they were speaking as if they were feminists – it is only a word. The meaning is for one to stand for gender equality = male or female.

  4. Grandmother and great grandmother, purple sash wearing suffragettes, so much respect for those women. I have seen so many changes, superannuation had to be requested, my salary was calculated at one third for mortgage applications, and an instant pay rise when I was paid equal to my male counterparts.

  5. I believe that people should be paid, employed and promoted on merit. I believe that if a woman is doing the same job as a man, then she should be paid at the same rate. I believe that all people should be treated with respect and dignity. Maybe that makes me a humanist. If so, I’m proud to be counted.

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