One hundred fifty years after a handful of courageous and visionary women ignited the first movement for equal rights, women in contemporary society are the most liberated ever to have walked the planet. What suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton said she wanted for women back in 1892 is now true: We are “fitted for independent action.” But where do we who are so fortunate go from here? What is liberation for women today? Asking that single question to twenty-four women, from feminist icon Gloria Steinem to conservative social critic Kay Hymowitz to Islamic scholar Amina Wadud to spiritual matriarch Ma Jaya Bhagavati, we listened for the pulse of women’s consciousness. And while there are clearly diverse and sometimes dissonant viewpoints, across the spectrum you’ll hear a call from women to seize this opportunity to evolve ourselves in order to create a new and very different world.
Author and feminist activist
Part of liberation is defining it for ourselves. Self-authority is like a muscle—it only exists if it’s exercised. So I would never define liberation for another woman. The point is that we support one another in making choices, especially in terms of reproductive freedom. Because if we truly had it as a human right, women would have authority over our own bodies and thus over the means of reproduction. And it would restore the balance between females and males, between humans and nature that seems to have been common to the world’s cultures before the last five thousand years or so. This was before the globalization of patriarchy, racism, monotheism, and nationalism. So it’s up to us to support one another in regaining our self-authority and our respect for it in others, so we aren’t such easy prey for unjust external authorities.
Philosopher and ethicist
Women who have had the chance to learn to read and write should do something to support basic education in the many countries where women have a fifty percent literacy rate or even lower. The world as a whole should cooperate to ensure that every single human being has both primary and secondary education. And rich women, like all rich people, have an obligation to give a good deal of their money to poorer people and to work politically for aid to support gender initiatives abroad.
My general ethical understanding of what it would mean to be liberated is to not be dominated by one’s own tendencies toward narcissism so that we are free to care, to recognize the equality of others, and to care about them as equals.
Cofounder of the Third Wave Foundation
Liberation for women anywhere in the world is actually believing in the equality, or liberation, that you advocate for. Years ago, I was talking to James Farmer, an activist who had been instrumental in fighting for civil rights in this country. He said to me, in a very sobering way, that though he had fought for these rights his entire life, the biggest gap was that, having lived now twenty or thirty years with civil rights, he still didn’t feel that he was fully entitled to them. He had lived under the burden of injustice for so long that it was hard for him to fully imagine himself to be free. So I think the first step is for us as women to believe wholeheartedly that we have these rights, and then other people will believe it too.
What women are you talking about? You have asked me what is liberation for those women “who have benefited from human and civil rights.” Some people have actually not benefited from these rights, and these are the women I am concerned with. I come from a very poor family, and I know many uneducated women who are liberated because of their level of consciousness. Liberation has to do with one’s holistic well-being; you can have that well-being in poverty, and you can have it in slavery. People might see that as a contradiction, but there were people in my ancestry who were slaves and were nonetheless capable within themselves of not being enslaved.
The idea of women’s liberation is an old one with associations that are turnoffs to younger women. I’d rather ask: What is personhood or desire for women today? Women are deeply out of touch with their own desires. Everything in the culture is encouraging them not to think about what they really want. For this reason, the situation for young women today is possibly worse than it was for the housewife of the 1940s and ’50s, who cleaned the toilet in a cinched-waist dress and high heels while the culture told her she was happy. Young women’s consciousness is extremely sophisticated, but they are just as constrained and deluded because they continue to believe they’re exercising freedom when they do what the culture tells them to do. Showing your breasts to men on Fort Lauderdale Beach is no more freeing than cleaning the toilet in high heels! More than wagging a finger, I’m concerned about the way my generation has failed young women in a disastrous way. Part of the women’s liberation movement was about loosening the constraints that gender roles impose on both women and men so we have a different picture of what it is to be a human being and what is morally best for us to live decent lives. It seems to me that we have utterly lost a sense of this.
Also featured in this article:
Helen LaKelly Hunt
Lesley Temple Thurston
Barbara Marx Hubbard
Ma Jaya Bhagavati