Reflections

A Magazine of Theological and Ethical Inquiry from Yale Divinity School

From the Editor: Unfinished Business

Author: 
Ray Waddle

“O God, do not judge! You never were a woman on this earth!” the bold, restless Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941) once declared.

   With Job-like insistence, her plea stakes a claim for the experience of being female. In Tsvetaeva’s case, this included terrible years on the run from poverty, famine, and Stalinist terror as a young mother in Soviet Russia. But exuberance finds a way to the light. So does the voice, the sheer force of a woman’s witness.

   Tsvetaeva’s startling words come to mind as I behold this Reflections issue on women, which hopes to catch something of the spirit of progress experienced by women in twenty-first century life. In essays, poetry, and artwork, their rigor and poise come through. Unmistakable also is an embattled dimension of peril, a sense that so many battles waged by and with women – the right to power, the right to be respected, the right to be heard – must be fought and re-fought over and over again.

   A glance at recent trends and research confirms a theme of unfinished business. Warnings ring out that hard-won gains for women can be lost. Stubborn statistics show women continue to be disproportionately vulnerable in this reckless world of poverty, disease, and war.

   On the American scene, three recent books handily map out a contradiction of our times – women have made great gains, yet remain under threat – and make arguments about the unfinished business of winning political power and good health.

In Sisterhood, Interrupted: From Radical Women to Grrls Gone Wild (Palgrave, 2007), Deborah Siegel says feminism faces steep challenges today. It was always marked by inner conflict and outer controversy, she says, but tensions notably exist today between younger women and older feminists over strategies and values. The times favor Twitter indi- vidualism, not collective power: feminism is made to appear glum and passé. Nonsense, says Seigel. The putdown of feminism is a stale sport, as old and discredited as the ridicule of the right to vote. But she worries that younger women define feminism today as sexual empowerment only. But that’s not enough. Collective action that unites women across generational, class, and racial lines is needed to increase their representation in Congress and business and to reduce poverty and violence against women everywhere. “If those who support gender parity in this country can’t talk to each other or get along, then feminism’s grandchildren may pay the ultimate price,” she says.

With today’s opportunities, girls should be happier than their grandmothers were at their age, says Dr. Leonard Sax in Girls on the Edge: The Four Factors Driving the New Crisis for Girls (Basic Books, 2010). Yet many girls are vulnerable to brittle anxiety and depression, failing to develop a sturdy inner life, he warns. Sax notes four factors: 1) Girls are pushed to present themselves sexually at earlier ages. 2) Texting reinforces hyper-connection with peers but disconnection with themselves. 3) Too many girls obsess about just one dimension of their lives (being thin, being a top student). 4) Toxins in food, lotions, and drinks worsen health problems. Sax says compassionate mentors can help girls develop self-confidence and personhood. Youngsters need perspective on cyber obsessions and toxic ingredients. Religion benefits girls especially – when girls connect with congregational life, they smoke and drink less and feel better about themselves.

How do we square female inequalities (workplace wages, health care erosions) with the many media images of female power (Oprah, Hillary Clinton, Rachel Maddow, Condi Rice, UConn women’s basketball, Katie Couric)? In Enlightened Sexism (Henry Holt, 2010), author Susan Douglas says we face a profound cultural contradiction: feminist values of equality inform society as never before, but they collide with a force that has been gaining momentum since the 1990s – “enlightened sex- ism.” Enlightened sexism says sexual bravado and consumerism are healthy signs of female power; the old battles for equality and respect have been won. Enlightened sexism encourages younger women to worry about their appearance and be competitive with other women. Hence the explosion of make- overs, supermodels, hypergirliness, and strip clubs. Douglas says it’s time to meet resurgent sexism with ridicule and a rededication to the goals of the women’s movement.

   On the occasion of celebrating eight decades of women at Yale Divinity School, Reflections is proud to serve as a testament to some of the arguments, witnesses, and voices who speak to the dreams and conditions of half the human race. 

Issue Title: 
Women's Journeys: Progress and Peril
Issue Year: 
2011