I just finished a good book (From Property to Partner: Women’s Progress and Political Resistance) on feminist history, economics, and future challenges. The authors are two of Indiana’s best scholars and academic voices: Sheila Kennedy and Morton Marcus. I’d urge folks not to shut down at the mention of “feminism” or “academics.”
The book is not an inaccessible meditation on postmodern alienation, performative social constructs, symbolic discourse, or whatever the kids are going on about these days. It’s a plain English discussion of social, legal, economic, and technological trends describing women’s progress from subordinates to (increasingly) equal members of society. It also describes the backlash we’re seeing to those developments.
I’m honestly a little late to the game on feminism. I never doubted women’s right to equal status. But, as a white male born in the seventies, I tended to regard descriptions of male privilege and female disadvantages as overstated. Those things were in the past. Looking around me anecdotally while I was an adolescent in the late 80s, early 90s, there wasn’t (from my limited perspective) a ton of evidence of either. Similarly, I regarded talk of the forces of patriarchy as something like conspiracy theory.
As I got older, the privileges of being a male started to accrue and my horizons broadened. I was better able to see the disparate treatment of men and women. And, of late, the forces of patriarchy have been frantically active and more difficult to ignore.
With that as background, this book was a good primer. It’s a plain-English read and not too long. While the social and legal efforts to obtain more equality for women shouldn’t be discounted, I particularly appreciated the discussion of the various ways in which technology has contributed to progress for women.
Industrialization meant brute strength was no longer as significant a factor for earning a living. The birth control pill allowed women greater control over their bodies and over whether and when to become pregnant. The knock-on effects of that control are difficult to overstate. Unexpected and unwanted pregnancies and the responsibilities of child care (which disproportionately fall on women) have a huge impact on a woman’s autonomy and her equal participation in society. Additionally, advances in household technologies (where women have traditionally been expected to do most of the labor) opened up time for women to make a living outside the home. The authors take a two-pronged approach. They alternate chapters and focus on their respective areas of expertise. Sheila Kennedy’s background is as a lawyer and professor of law and public policy. Morton Marcus is an economist. Together they’re able to cover a lot of ground.
The political backlash to women’s progress has become more pronounced in recent years. A lot of the red/blue, rural/urban divide, particularly on culture war issues, can be viewed as a fight over gender roles. State level gerrymandering, the electoral college, and the Senate’s arbitrary filibuster rules give the forces of tradition that favor a subordinate role for women more leverage.
Also, until recently, the political incentives surrounding abortion favored the political right. The issue galvanized white evangelicals while those on the left mostly ignored the issue in favor of other issues. Despite dire warnings to the contrary, the assumption was that Roe would continue to protect women’s right to bodily autonomy. After all, political activists had warned that Roe’s demise was imminent for decades. With the Dobbs decision and state legislatures (including Indiana’s) rolling back women’s reproductive rights, those political incentives may have shifted. Even in red states, abortion bans appear to be deeply unpopular.
The authors differ on how decisively they have shifted. Neither pretends anything like certainty. Kennedy tends to think that Dobbs may have awakened a sleeping giant in the form of women who, as it happens, enjoy having rights and who vote. Marcus seems less optimistic about whether the shift will have the longevity and the numbers necessary to restore what was lost.
In any event, it was a good read, and I can recommend it.