An Open Letter To Women Everywhere

December 14, 2004

Dear Sisters,

I am moved to write to you as a result of my participation in the March For Women’s Lives. Speaker after speaker at the rally immediately prior to the April 25th March admonished the gathering throngs on the Mall in Washington, D.C., that the ensuing two-mile March through the nation’s capital would be for naught if action did not occur to get out the vote for pro-choice candidates running for public office. I am not sure, however, that this historic event, organized by an astounding coalition of approximately 1,400 organizations, did not already succeed just because it came about.

Of course, women’s rights would certainly be advanced, or at least prevented from sliding backwards, if the March participants were to locate and register for future elections the 15 million women eligible to vote—but who did not—in the 2000 national election. And yes, the speakers’ hearts would certainly be gladdened if the March participants were now inspired to run for public office, and exhorted their sisters to do so. Indeed, just one scant week after the March, the Florida state convention of the American Association of University Women offered several workshops on how to increase voter turnout for the 2004 elections.

The rally speakers, chief among them Hillary Clinton, said that if no visible action followed immediately from the March that the event would have been a wasted effort. I think not, because sometimes the galvanization of action does not immediately flow from a momentous event, but must percolate first through a crystallization of conscience and belief among its participants and bystanders (not the least important of which are the media representatives who report and analyze the event to many millions of their viewers, listeners, and readers). Changes in consciousness often bring about changes in debate, education, and eventually action, among officeholders and the electorate alike.

Of the more than 1.1 million Marchers from all corners of the U.S. and from 57 countries, about 10% were men, who, like me, support women’s reproductive right to choose, and want the government to be less intrusive in citizen’s private lives. If only 20% of the participating men learned something from the experience, or who, like me, had some prior thoughts jell and fall into place (such as those expressed in this letter), then 22,000 men came away more enlightened. Similarly, if 20% of the women came away from the experience with more solid beliefs, then 198,000 women (or 220,000 people including the men) are now more capable of advancing the causes of women’s rights specifically, and human rights more generally.

This does not mean that people should not do more right now to bring about badly needed changes in the civil rights of women, nor that these rights will come about if nothing is done. Later, I will give an example of how a dramatic health care issue was promulgated in this country even after years of non-action, and I will also give examples of some actions that people can take right now to hasten changes in women’s rights.
I’m not able to comment on the thoughts of my brothers and sisters whose mental light bulbs went off as a catalystic (and perhaps cathartic) result of our experiences with the March. However, some of them may, indeed, share at least a few of my beliefs resulting from their immersion in this historic occasion.

Before outlining my beliefs, however, I would like to give you some impressions of the March in order to reveal my biases, and also to add a little amusement to what might seem to be a dry, analytical disquisition. Then, I will discuss my thoughts on women’s rights that became more organized in my mind as a result of my participation in the March. I will then suggest some actions that women can take to further their rights, and offer a proposed governmental and corporate experiment as a parting recommendation.
One of the goals that social scientists (which I used to be) try to accomplish (or so at least some of us think we should) is to become more aware of our feelings and reactions in a situation, and to account for our resulting biases and make them public. Otherwise, we will be unable to account for how these feelings affect our conclusions. However—and this is very important—if even by revealing our biases we can not control and account for how they affect our reporting, we can at least provide the readers the courtesy of making it possible for them to account for these biases (and even to dismiss them entirely). To me, this “subjective revelation,” or “reflexivity,” not the “objective” use of language, methodologies, and statistics, is at the heart of science, especially the social sciences.

Here are several sources of my biases that may affect how I describe and analyze this historic March. During a large event like this, there are many factors that limit, dull, and even overpower the observer’s senses and abilities to describe, analyze, interpret, and communicate the facts. Here are some that surely affected me. First, I could only observe an infinitesimally small slice of the rally and the March, since I was only one person located among a veritable sea of humanity that stretched a mile from the Washington Monument to the US Capitol reflecting pool.

I attended the event with my wife and daughter. We searched for, and eventually found, other participants from Palm Beach County, Florida, who came as a coalition of many organizations, among them the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Planned Parenthood, and the Executive Women of the Palm Beaches. My wife is an active member in most of these and other Palm Beach County groups.

During the rally, people on the whole were very polite, given the inevitable jostling that comes from the close proximity of so many humans in one place. Few people seemed to get upset when bumped into or stepped on, and nearly all the people I could see excused themselves profusely whenever they tried to thread themselves through the patchwork of people sitting, standing, and milling around.

Four sets of large screens and loud speakers were situated along the Mall so that everyone could see and hear the speeches and entertainment on a stage otherwise invisible to most. The Palm Beach County contingent was on the Mall almost exactly half way between the stage in front of the Washington Monument where the March was to begin at noon, and the reflecting pool in front of the Capitol where the March was to end.
Nobody seemed to become upset if someone stood in the way of a screen or if a person spoke at the same time as one of the featured speakers, although most people appropriately applauded, yelled, raised signs, and whistled on cue to whatever was transpiring on the stage. From news sources later, I heard that there was virtually no violence—how, you ask, can there be a million people all moving around with no violence?—and only a few arrests, one an anti-abortion bystander for throwing ink at sign-toting Marchers, and 16 others for demonstrating without a permit. At football games with less than 100,000 in attendance there are more arrests!

Related to this, I observed two phenomena at the rally and during the March that I found to be equally amazing. First, except for an occasional police car and officers on bicycles on the streets, and a helicopter overhead, there were no police among the participants. (Of course, there may have been some undercover police working in the crowd.) Second, there were virtually no alcoholic beverages consumed, and virtually no smoking. Nope, not even pot smoke.

Regarding the surprisingly small number of tobacco smokers, this is a good example of how, after focusing public attention on tobacco’s health hazards and on social policies and laws that needed to be changed, an immediate lack of public action did not necessarily auger badly for this cause. Cigarette smoking was known to be a public health problem for years, but nothing seemed to change. Still, debate and educational efforts increased, beliefs changed, people quit smoking, teenagers didn’t begin smoking, and finally, lawsuits prevailed and state and local laws sprang up limiting tobacco advertising and eliminating smoking in public places in many cities, counties, and states throughout the country. In fact, the US is now much ahead of most other countries in the decline of tobacco smoking. Twenty-five percent of adults smoke in America, down from over 50% twenty-five years ago. Throughout this same time period, Russian adult smoking rates have remained above 50%.

I believe the same phenomenon will occur with women’s reproductive rights. Already, a majority of people in this country believes in a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body. I believe this pro-choice figure will rise 25% in the next decade, during which time social action and laws will change to reflect this rise. (And just think, you can say you read it here first!)

Returning again to the March, two other factors limiting my powers of observation were the noise and color surrounding me. Most notable were the T-shirts from every conceivable group in every thinkable color. I couldn’t imagine that someone in the organizing committee might coordinate the colors of the shirts, but none of the shirts seemed to have the same colors. Neither did any of the signs, which were raised on high showing approval of a speaker’s words, and carried proudly during the March.

There were literally hundreds of different signs and banners, but the ones I saw in most profusion seemed to be from NOW, Planned Parenthood, and NARAL Pro-Choice America. The latter made thousands of yellow and blue signs, and its volunteers assiduously handed them out at every subway METRO station in the city. My three-person family alone carried three NARAL signs, a NOW sign, and two Planned Parenthood soft plastic tube signs (used when inflated to bang together to sound like a drum), and we also wore Reform Judaism Action Center T-shirts, onto each of which were affixed dozens of buttons and stickers handed to us on our walk to the morning rally.

The air was constantly punctuated with applause, whistles, shrieks, war cries, and spontaneous chants from the myriad nonprofit organizations and college groups who had ample opportunity to perfect their chants and cadences during interminably long bus trips to the nation’s capital. All of this noise and color blended together in my brain as a background rumble.

Together with the constant milling and slow, inexorable shuffling—a controlled stampede as I saw it—along the parade route, the continuous rumbling noise and profusion of color reminded me of how densely packed everyone was. As a suburbanite not used to this density, I reacted with a low-level fight or flight anxiety that surely must have impacted, if hot warped, the accuracy of my senses.

One sidelight should be noted that added to the background noise: As with every large event, there were various hangers-on and hawkers who took advantage of the opportunity for exposure to thousands of people. At the rally, these groups included organizations propounding religious, racial, poverty, environmental, global, and homosexual causes, many of whom sought out people to sign their petitions. In our democracy, I believe these groups belonged in the March as much as the members of the media, and as much as the vendors who were there supplying pretzels, beverages, ice cream, and souvenirs to the participants.

Yet another factor biasing my analysis was an intellectual and emotional experience that occurred to me. Several of the speakers referred to the Mall as a sacred place and as hallowed grounds. Indeed, any large communion promoting an urgent cause and seeking solutions can often metamorphose a profane area into a sacred place. Such a realization can lead to an emotional response among participant observers like me. At one point, I was sitting on the ground, my view of the screen blocked. As I listened somewhat lazily to the speaker and slowly gazed around me, tears rolled out of the corners of my eyes.

I wondered what the speaker could have said to make that happen, because she wasn’t saying anything others hadn’t said before, nor spoken it with any more fervor than the others. Neither did anything surrounding me set me off (except for all the women, about which more in a minute). What I did think of, though, was the fact that we could have such a large, private gathering without the interference of the government.
With the exception of Red Square in Moscow, Tienanmen Square in Beijing, and a few other places around the globe, there are no urban grounds where such a throng can gather without the prodding of the government and without its controls of what could and could not be uttered. I put together this fact with the idea of the speakers’ references to sacredness, and came up with the idea that America itself is a sacred place; the tears flowed then, and as corny as it seems, they flow again now as I write this.

Shortly, I’ll mention more about Thomas Jefferson, but it’s significant to point out that the evening prior to the March, my family went to the Jefferson Memorial for an Havdalah service, a Jewish ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath. The weather was warm—warmer even than the day of the March—and the sunset over the Potomac River was glorious. Before the service, we had an opportunity to read Thomas Jefferson’s words inscribed on the memorial.

Although I didn’t realize it just then, Jefferson clearly implied the sanctity of America in his writings, and I noticed that several times during the Havdalah service, and at other times throughout the evening, I found myself thinking about Jefferson’s messages. I believe his thoughts also pushed into my mind at the mention of one of the speaker’s reference to the Mall as a holy space and voila, the idea of America as a sacred place was formulated in my mind: Where church is separated from the state, atheists given equal rights to people who believe in God, and the flag—perhaps America’s holiest symbol of all—can be burned—this then is the most sacred location of all: America, what a magnificent paradox! Pass the tissues please.

Leaving behind my crying, let’s turn now to another factor biasing my analysis, perhaps the most prejudicial of all: the fact that I am a heterosexual male. Normally, the observations of a person in a minority role, as I was in the March, can be more objective
in a situation like this, since he can see with fresh eyes what the people in the majority too often take for granted, and therefore do not even notice. In this case, however, the cliché of receiving too much of a good thing—too much estrogen in this case—could easily have short-circuited my brain and clouded my judgment.

Like the anxiety of the density of the human ocean in which I was immersed, the female sea surely created a bias in me of which the reader needs to be aware. In fact, there is no doubt in my mind that the distraction of being surrounded by so many women indisputably affected my observations of the event, and must color everything I say about the March and women’s rights. More than this sexual aspect, though, is yet another factor even more biasing; namely, my hypothesis—formulated long before the advent of the March—that generally speaking women are superior to men. Moving forward, the reader should keep in mind this unabashed pro-women stance, as I think it is an accurate encapsulation of my bias.

Despite this bias, though, I believe that there is much in the chronicles of human development to merit consideration of the hypothesis that women have been superior to men in advancing civilization. Whether from their innate biological requirements of being mothers, or because of their relegation to an inferior status to men in most societies, I do not know. Perhaps it’s a mixture of these and other conditions.
In any event, women seem to exhibit more compassion than men, which slowly, over millennia, have allowed nomads and hunters and gatherers to grow and share food supplies, expand market places, and establish educational systems that neither depended so much on conquering other lands, nor on the vagaries of weather, nor on the availability of wild animals.
Richard Leakey, Jr., a brilliant paleoanthropologist , noted in his book People of the Lake that humans alone among the primates gathered fruits and nuts that could be stored and shared among all members of their tribes. What he didn’t point out, though, is that it was primarily the women who gathered the food to be shared. Similarly, The Ascent of Man, J. Bronowski’s seminal book describing the great technical and intellectual leaps of humanity, is an example of how men have missed the roles that women have played in bringing about a more peaceful and prosperous world.

We now know that women are intellectually equal to men when given the same educational opportunities, and they, too, could have been the great inventors celebrated by Bronowski if given the chance. So, except for a few notable exceptions, how did women, relegated to the back seat of Spaceship Earth, propel their people toward more civilized societies? I believe they simply willed into being more compassionate ways of treating each other.

History is replete with women who developed into very skillful backseat drivers with the use of artistry, cunning, guile, gall, sex, bravery, deceit, and treachery, even occasionally jumping into the front seat to take over the helm of society. Women also manipulated the course of history through the upbringing of their children, passing along their compassion to their daughters and softening the bloodlust in the next generation of men, while at the same time encouraging their sons to show at least a shred of respect for their sisters. To these mothers, it was not enough for men to protect their women from outsiders as bits of property only to ravage them later: they deserved more dignity than that.

Having studied and taught the subject of women’s roles in society in different cultures and during various historical eras, it occurred to me that women, again generally speaking, have been oppressed for a long time around the globe. One of the roots of this oppression is the belief that since women bear and nurture children, that they necessarily ought to rear them. It’s only in the last 50 years that men and women have come to acknowledge that the sexual biological roles of childbearing and child nurturing do not have to be confused with the social gender role of child rearing. Contributing to the disentanglement of these two different role types, were women who showed during World War II that they were as competent as men in handling technology and in carrying out typically “men’s roles.” Finally, when Rosie the Riveter was scientifically determined to be as intellectually equal to Joe the Riveter, was the need for oppressing women exposed to be false.

Still, old habits die hard, and truths are mightily resisted. Thirty-five millennia of oppression, prejudice, and discrimination cannot be expected to disappear over night. There are two basic reasons for this, I believe. First, once patterns of accepted behavior are ingrained in society, they become internalized by a vast majority of oppressors and oppressed alike. In other words, men come to rationalize their superiority by thousands of years of accepted thought, and women come to view men’s power (and women’s lack of it) as legitimate. That is, they come to accept the authority of the imbalance of power, whether based in religion—after all, we are told, Eve came from Adam’s rib, and then seduced him into sin—or in medicine, psychology, education, the law, and in virtually all other social institutions.

In other words, the external institutionalization of oppression by the majority against a minority (regardless of whether the minority in question is defined by sex, race, age, disability, marital status, occupation, wealth, and so on) results in repression, the internalized justification of the oppression, by individuals in both the majority and the minority groups. Therefore, changing this state of affairs in the sexual arena requires a transformation of consciousness among both men and women, which, I believe, must result in two layers of social change.

First, it requires the majority and minority to allow for people of both sexes to receive equal pay for equal work, and to allow women easier entrance into more prestigious, higher-paying jobs (the so-called glass ceiling). It also requires in the realm of reproductive health care a whole host of changes, including access to these services:
sex and contraceptive education for both men and women, emergency contraception, abortions (such clinics of which are unavailable in 84% of all US counties, and even one fourth of these clinics’ clients are victims of antiabortion violence), Medicare and Medicaid funding for abortions, Federal funding for abortions for women in the armed services, fewer doctors advising unnecessary Caesarian births, access to brain stem research for medical advances, and better laws and enforcement against harassment and violence at home and in the work place. The needs for this access only increase for women—already a minority on the power scale around the world—who carry the stigma of additional minority statuses, such as skin color, national origin, religion, age, economic disadvantage, and single parentage.

A second layer of change required before social equality between the sexes can be achieved is that the level of discrimination and hostility directed against women who have been able to rise above the glass ceiling through their meritorious efforts must be reduced. In fact, there is an incredible amount of retaliatory behavior against successful women and their families. This hateful behavior is no less than what Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron had to endure when, respectively, they broke the color barrier, and approached the breaking of Babe Ruth’s Major League Baseball home run record.
Such vituperation by the majority in the form of personal harassment and legal actions often results in members of the minority leaving their hard-earned positions, while other promising women become deterred from even trying to improve their economic and social status. Often, these women leave their positions, silenced by payoffs, fear, and shame. What they experience is not much different than a woman who prefers to not press charges after being raped. In the words of Graciela Chichilniski, women who leave their lofty careers in silence after being targeted by the majority have been “socially raped.”

In order to change this institutionally immoral situation, consciousness must be changed. I believe it is possible for men—the majority—to change sufficiently their consciousness to give up their majority status by allowing equality between the sexes. Men did, in fact, give women universal suffrage, but only after women changed their consciousness and demonstrated it through their behavior (such as the very obvious courage they showed in bringing civilization to the newly emerging Western states). Similarly, men will eventually pass the Equal Rights Amendment. (That’s right, folks, you first read this here, too!) After all, even Afghanistan has equal rights between the sexes written into its new constitution.

For the ERA to succeed here, though, women will first have to bring their collective consciousness to a higher level. Frankly, I don’t know how many women either did not care about the ERA or were against it when it failed more than 22 years ago, but I’m sure it was at minimum a significant minority of women. In the same way, there are still too many women against reproductive rights in order for women to obtain them.
More change in women’s collective consciousness is needed, and this needs to be demonstrated to the men (and the few women) in power. How will this be demonstrated? One way is that solidarity among Sisters across all economic, color, and age lines must be clear for all to see. For example, older middle class white women must emphatically say that the denial of rights to their more downtrodden young black, Hispanic, and poor sisters will no longer be tolerated. Once cross-class, cross-racial, and cross-age solidarity is demonstrated, all rights will come within reach for all women. I did not see a vast amount of women minorities in the March, but then again, it is very possible I was not able to see them from my limited vantage point.
Another sign of increased consciousness is a level of anger, which again, I didn’t observe at the March. Anger for sure was present in the speakers’ messages and in the participants’ responses, but not in a degree sufficient for the majority to sit up and take notice. After all, violence—one of the surest indicators of anger—was not present among the Marchers.

Earlier, I lauded the participants in the March for their self-control, yet such control may stem from repression, which, consciously or not, displays a low degree of anger that safely can be ignored by those in power. Please note that I am not advocating violence, but only pointing out that majority groups frequently do not grant more rights where minority groups do not forcefully demand them. The eminent social historian, Andrew Ross, more boldly states that no significant changes in civil rights can be changed without civil disobedience. In any event, a lack of anger is seen by those in power as an indicator of weak solidarity that does not warrant social change toward equality.

This brings us to the question of why more women are not for equal rights and freer access to health care and reproductive rights. I have already touched upon the social and psychological processes of oppression and repression that cause minorities to see the current state of inequality as legitimate. I have also alluded to the possibility that women are more caring than men, and therefore do not mind seeing their spouses and significant others succeed above themselves. There is yet another possible factor contributing to women’s “false consciousness,” as Karl Marx might say, where they do not act in their own self interest.

Carl Jung, an eminent analytical psychologist who pioneered in the field of medical psychiatry with Sigmund Freud, pointed out that in addition to the day-to-day oppression that becomes repressed in people’s unconscious, there lurk ancient archetypes. These are primitive images and modes of reacting to the environment that are passed down through millennia, generation after generation, in people’s unconscious minds. For example, the archetypal image of women being the weaker and less capable sex has been passed down through the ages, and resides buried in everyone’s unconscious. Such archetypes can indeed change, but only after at least hundreds of years have elapsed.

We need not wait, however, for such archetypes to change in order for our norms of behavior to change. Since the March, I’ve gleaned these few suggestions about what women, both collectively and individually, can do to raise consciousness and advance women’s rights now. Following this list is a proposal for a government and corporate experiment that could change everyone’s consciousness and lead to more gender-based equality. First, here’s what women and sympathetic men can do right now:

  1. Boycott all companies that do not support equality in the work place and who tolerate sexual harassment. Support only those few companies whose policies show a greater proclivity toward equality and reproductive rights for women.
  2. Write your state and national representatives and ask to meet with them to discuss how to put the ERA into the Constitution. Can you imagine what would happen if the more than one million Marchers wrote such letters, faxes, and e-mails to their elected representatives?
  3. Obtain copies of newly published booklets from the AAUW describing the roles that historically obscure women have played in advancing the cause of civilization. Discuss with your local school officials about how to insert such writings into the history lessons of all public school curricula.
  4. Read at least a little bit about how oppression, repression, consciousness, and the unconscious can influence women (and men) into willingly accepting socially inferior roles and lower rewards. There are hundreds of such books in the library beginning even before Plato. I’ve already mentioned Jung, Freud, and Marx. Some of my other European and American favorites written within the last 150 years include, in no particular order, writings by George Herbert Mead, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Vilfredo Pareto, Thorstein Veblen, C. Wright Mills, Erving Goffman, Alvin Toffler, Erich Fromm, Betty Friedan, Margaret Mead, Bronislaw Malinowski, Alexis de Tocqueville, Gloria Steinham, Noam Chomsky, and Peter Berger.
  5. Seek out and help local groups to find and register people, both men and women, to vote in state and national elections.
  6. Run for office or get involved as an appointed volunteer in your local government.
  7. Finally, at least for now, understand how the ideas of Thomas Jefferson can help to free you from the repression of the past. His memorial in Washington clearly indicates that Jefferson was a champion of the Industrial Revolution and the new scientific ideas that underpinned it. These new ideas, he stated, had to be considered and debated without regard to religious beliefs. For a devout Christian, this was an astonishing position to take at the turn of the 19th century, because it meant that the way to salvation was not through any religious beliefs (an idea that actually had its origins in the Old Testament—but that’s for another treatise), but by supporting and being a part of the American trinity of science, capitalism, and democracy. In short, for Jefferson, America itself had become the hallowed ground on which people could (and should) base their decisions, irrespective of any religious doctrine.

For us, both men and women, this means that we must no longer allow ourselves to be cowed by quotes from the Bible, Koran, or any other religious texts. This does not mean that we should not allow religious beliefs to be part of the national debate. We should—and must—because free speech is guaranteed in our Constitution. It only means that we can not let our stand on free choice be affected by threats of eternal damnation. Letting go of the guilt and the threats will relieve us of the repression of the past, and help us to fulfill the promise of Jefferson’s hallowed America. For example, dispel the guilt of the Original Sin referred to earlier: sex education is not dirty, and access to it is your right. (After all, how the heck were humans ever going to learn responsibility if they didn’t leave the Garden of Eden? But again, that’s for another treatise.)

Now for my government and corporate proposal. It is often heard that women are not capable of making sound decisions either in government or in business. Let us test this hypothesis by having women take over every House and Senate seat in the Federal government and in every statehouse for a period of one year. Current office holders would stay on as paid advisors to their “temporary replacements.” Perhaps where issues of foreign policy are concerned, the elected officials would still cast the deciding votes, and their “replacements” would act as their advisors.

This proposal could also be implemented in local governments, although the impact on improving the civil rights of women would not be as significant as on the state and national levels. Similarly, businesses, especially small, private ones, could more easily implement this proposal. In any event, wherever the experiment is attempted, it is important to chronicle how women’s decisions are reached and what the impacts of their decisions are.

Of course, the chances of this proposal being attempted at this time is as small as those of Jonathan Swift’s in Gulliver’s Travels being adopted in 18th century England. Nevertheless, perhaps a less radical proposal could be attempted. For example, each officeholder could appoint one or more volunteer women advisors whose ideas regarding women’s rights are diametrically opposed to the officeholder’s. Much learning would transpire, I believe, between officials and advisors alike, and the current wheels of government would not turn any the slower.

I wish all my Sisters everywhere a better life with more freedom. Such freedom is closer than you think, and, with dedication and hard work, is yours to ask for and to achieve.