Last month, I was asked to give remarks and moderate a panel for a reunion of former student activists at Washington University. My college years were defined by the Vietnam War, the emergence of the Black Power movement and 3rd wave Feminism. The topic of my panel was “What have we learned?” I am going to recycle a portion of that talk this morning.
In 1969, I came to Washington University as an 18 year-old freshman, very eager to learn AND to escape the historical distortions and alternate reality of the Deep South. I am so grateful that my youth coincided with progressive upheavals. What I recall about those times is constantly attending anti-war rallies, demonstrations demanding legalized abortion, daily epiphanies and the explosion of Feminist consciousness.
My feminist friends and I never stopped scheming and dreaming up guerilla actions to challenge male supremacy and advocate for women’s liberation.
So, what have we learned?
Although, as Dr. Martin Luther King said, “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice”, there are many spirals, loops and curlicues along the way. Since my youth, most definitely we have moved in the right direction—more people have more rights, white supremacy is being identified and challenged in mainstream contexts, and the status of women is elevated. The fight for women’s rights in the US has been so successful that young women cannot grasp how it was 50 years ago.
Recently, I noticed a photograph in the Post-Dispatch of some rotund, elderly white men smoking pipes in Jon’s Pipe Shop, with a nostalgic story about its closing due to a development project in downtown Clayton. It triggered a memory of a time when we, The West End Feminists, picketed Jon’s Pipe Shop. My friend and roommate had come home from a job in Clayton one day—irate and provoked by a sign she had seen on the door of Jon’s Pipe Shop declaring “NO WOMEN ALLOWED”. Remembering the Jon’s Pipe Shop caper, I cut out the recent picture and article and sent it to my friend Ruth, the instigator of our action, half a century ago. She wrote back, and reminding me that not only was the NO WOMEN ALLOWED sign offensive, in the store they had this statement posted:
Some women are like cigarettes, to be used once and discarded; some women are like fine cigars, to be savored longer and then also tossed out; some women are like pipes to be knocked gently and kept for a long time.
Today, we would not see a statement like this in a retail establishment. Misogyny is alive and well but it is less and less an unchallenged norm, as it absolutely was 50 years ago.
So, this is the progress—the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice. On the other hand, women have lost, for the moment, the right and dignity to control our own persons and biology—we have lost the right to choose when and whether to bear a child.
This is the loop in the moral arc which is bending towards justice. The lesson we have learned is that the fight is not over. Abortion is not an issue—it is a watershed—it is self-determination for women. The life force, always represented by the female, will prevail. As long as humanity exists, women will collectively carry the water, be the water and have the force of rivers and oceans. The trivial sandbars and temporary barriers created by courts, legislatures and myriad idiot politicians will be washed away eventually. We will never concede; and, eventually, patriarchy will be smashed—because the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice. Thank you.