It's easy to get caught up in the internet gender war trainwreck, where we're still arguing over whether women belong in tech or rape victims are liars. But let's set that shit aside and take the long view: Do we have any evidence that the future will bring greater freedom to women, or should we expect more dystopia?
Illustration by Steven Belledin
When I say freedom, I don't mean anything fancy. I'm just talking about women's ability to control their destinies, by having things like access to jobs that give them financial independence from anyone else. Just for good measure, let's say that freedom also includes the opportunity to contribute to the political destinies of our communities by voting, holding office, and being given a chance to run important institutions. I'm not saying anything radical here. These are all pretty typical freedoms afforded to women in modern democratic countries, at least technically — and even to some women in non-democratic ones.
I used the word "technically" for a reason. As most people who have ever lived as women will tell you, many of these freedoms are difficult to achieve in practice. Women are not forbidden from having financial independence and leadership roles, but we still struggle to get them.
But that's not really news, and if you want to debate it, there are plenty of message boards that will welcome your thoughts. What I find more interesting is that women have had these freedoms for such an incredibly short period of time. Considering that humans have been creating systems of government for thousands of years, women's suffrage is like a blink of an eye. In the United States, where I live, women couldn't vote a century ago.
I have a picture of my great-grandmother Zadie Lee Rea sitting on my dresser, taken sometime around 1907. I often look into her sepia eyes, taking the measure of her wry grin, trying to figure out what she was thinking that not-so-long ago day in Weatherford, Texas, as she sat on the edge of a well and stared into the lens of a technology that was changing the world. Later in her life, she became one of the first female pharmacists in Texas. But at the time that picture was taken, she couldn't vote. She wouldn't be able to vote until she was 31 years old.
There are two ways I could respond to this piece of information. I could swell with pride at all the progress in women's rights since Zadie Lee's time, celebrating the hard-won freedom that she and her generation secured for us today. Or I could, just as reasonably, look back in numb terror, counting how few generations separate me from women who had the same voting rights that my cats do right now. How easy it would be to take my rights away, turning the last century into a weird tangent in a history that has mostly featured women as what Zora Neale Hurston once called "the mules of the world."
What if democratic freedoms for women are just a strange historical hiccup, and the window of opportunity for women is already closing? I grew up in a pretty conservative area, and yet as a teenager I was taught that abortion was every woman's right, and that "blaming the victim" in rape cases was something that only those terrible people back in the 1950s had done. Now that I'm an adult, the 1950s don't seem so very long ago to me — especially when women who say they've been raped are pilloried and psychologically brutalized on the internet. And abortion rights are eroding in many U.S. states.
In other words, has my life been an historical exception rather than part of a major social change? It seems like these exceptions are the norm in women's history — all our stories of great women are about people who bucked the system and rose up for a time despite their centuries' versions of GamerGate.
Schoolchildren learn about the powerful queens who ruled Egypt and England, their reigns sandwiched between centuries of male leadership. One of our greatest works of literature, the Tale of Genji, was written nearly a millennium ago by lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu; but for the thousand years following her death, we mostly heard from guys. One of the most important mathematicians in classical antiquity, Hypatia, was a woman. Every other ancient mathematician we study today? Male. Hundreds of dangerous pirate captains sailed the high seas in the 16th century. But hey! One of them was a woman! The deep historical vantage point shows us thousands of years of female subjugation and silence, with a few lucky ladies becoming pirates, mathematicians, novelists and queens.
So what does that tell us about the future? As I said earlier, it can be a fairly depressing prospect. We see that women have gained freedom and lost it, over and over again. There is no smooth road from lack of freedom to total freedom. It is, as Le Tigre sang in relation to something related, "One step forward, five steps back."
But today, in the west, democratically-minded people are fond of saying that we'll never go back again. There will be no more millennia of women's silence because we've come too far. Education has brought enlightenment, and the countries that still prevent women from voting or owning property will eventually come around to our way of thinking.
Could that really be? Have three generations of educated women with voting rights in dozens of countries finally cracked the back of history? I suppose it's possible that we really have changed the basic story of gender relationships on Earth. Maybe the twentieth century wasn't an aberration, but instead the culmination of centuries of often-invisible struggles, which finally exploded into political reality. I hope so.
That said, I worry that we are mistaking our experiences during this tiny historical moment for something bigger, making the classic error of imagining that our lucky lives are blueprints for what everyone else will get tomorrow.