Where has all this feminism gotten us?

In this day and age, women are still talking about the same problems – and possible solutions – raised decades ago.

Knesset (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
International Women’s Day has provided an opportunity to take stock of our situation every year for the past 100 years. The first such day came as part of what is now called the “first wave” of feminism in the early 20th century. The focus then was primarily on the right to participate in the political process, to vote and be elected, and to a lesser degree on reproduction rights.
The “second wave” began in the 1960s, and hit this country in the early 1970s, focusing at first on the issue of violence against women and broadening to women’s rights in all areas – though particularly in matters of marriage and divorce. The liberal stream of feminism was prominent in this period, as many women concentrated on equal rights – anything a man can do a woman can do, including political office and combat roles in the IDF.
By the ’90s, a more differentiated view characterized a “third wave” in which it was understood that the needs and interests of women are by no means uniform, inasmuch as poorer women, women in minority populations, middle-class women and many other “categories” differ from each other. But it was still argued that mutuality might be found in the fact that no matter what the class, occupation or situation, women’s experiences are different from those of men of the same economic, social or political status. Thus, it was understood that “gender” is socially constructed, and radical feminism – an approach that seeks not numerical or technical equality but the adaptation of society to women’s differentiated lives – became more prominent.
Still a “fourth wave” has emerged (primarily but not only in academic circles) that goes beyond gender to core questions of sexuality. This apparently linear development is misleading, however, inasmuch as there were elements of each wave at every stage of the women’s movement.
SO WHERE has all this feminism gotten us? We can point to a degree of progress here, no doubt. For example, there is an increased awareness in society and institutions of the gender factor, particularly the problem of violence against women, including trafficking and sexual harassment.
Moreover, our law books are replete with progressive legislation, and greater absolute numbers of women may be found not only in the workforce at large but in managerial or senior positions. The courts (petitioned by feminist and human rights organizations) have reached several landmark decisions to bring this about.
Yet, oddly, women are still talking about the same problems – and possible solutions – that were raised decades ago.
The reason is that not only are the absolute numbers still unequal, but even the relative proportion of women to men in leadership or senior positions is still drastically tilted to the male side. Women are still earning only 70 percent of what men earn – despite the law of equal pay for equal work. That is the second reason women seem to be marching in place: not only have our progressive laws gone unimplemented, in many cases, such as the rights of pregnant women or women returning to work after pregnancy, there has been backsliding.
Thirdly, even awareness of gender differences seems to have disappeared (if it was ever present) with regard to advertising, hiring, salaries, work hours and the like. Further, despite the presence of the largest number of women ever in the Knesset – 23 – initiatives in connection with women’s issues are fewer, indeed far fewer, than 20 years ago, when female MKs, as few as they were, saw themselves as representing all women.
Just as 30 years ago, women are still trying to decide where to concentrate their efforts: education of girls, gender consciousness-raising in the schools, appeal to the courts, political participation at the local or national level, extraparliamentary action, “empowerment” training, etc.
Women still have not been able to overcome the power of the religious establishment, nor the centrality of the army, with its militarist norms and values in our society.
What we have not yet grasped is that society as we know it, with its institutions and norms, was created by men for men, and is suited to men. While women have won the right to enter most spheres of this society, we are the ones who have to adapt – be it by maintaining family responsibilities while working the hours set by men (including the short school day), employers’ expectations regarding pay and promotions or the male sense of entitlement, and so on.
Indeed, one of the most significant court decisions with regard to women’s rights was that of the Alice Miller case – not because it permitted women to apply for pilot training, but because the court ruled that the IDF must accommodate itself to the different needs of women. Unfortunately this understanding of the principle of equality, namely making adjustments for difference, has remained a relatively isolated matter.
Women are still obliged to accommodate themselves to the rules and norms created by and for men in virtually every area.
Only a basic change in this order of things – indeed, a total adjustment of society – will fulfill the goals of the women’s movement.

The writer is former head of the Department of Political Science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is currently professor of Government at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.