Deborah L. Rhode wraps up What Women Want: An Agenda for the Women’s Movement with a quote from a man, newspaper editor William Allen White, urging American women to “raise more hell and fewer dahlias.”
That was back in 1908. Today, executive-activist Sheryl Sandberg is the one calling her fellow women to action. Her success is just one representation of how far the women’s movement has come in the last century. However, that there remains a need for her to admonish women to “lean in” indicates how far it has yet to go.
“I’m all for dahlias, but I think [White] had it right about more hell,” says Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University. “I’d like to see women mobilize and really fight these efforts [like the recent attempt to close Mississippi’s sole abortion clinic], write the checks, make the phone calls, apply political pressure. There’s no substitution for direct action. It’s not enough to hit the ‘forward’ button on your computers.”
Rhode (pronounced RO-dee) has devoted her career to fighting inequality. She is the author or co-author of 20 books, including Justice and Gender (1991), the first major scholarly work to look at laws regarding discrimination, and The Beauty Bias (2010), which explores the social and legal disadvantages faced by those who don’t conform to the norms of attraction.
What Women Want is built upon extensive academic research and interviews with prominent women (Sandberg among them). It serves to identify the many forms of gender inequality in the United States and formulate a plan for action.
The first step is admitting we have a problem: “A central problem for women is the lack of consensus that there still is a serious problem, or one that they have any capacity or responsibility to address,” but there is, and they do, Rhode writes. “On virtually every major dimension of social status, financial well-being, and physical safety, women still fare worse than men. Sexual violence remains common, and reproductive rights are by no means secure.”
Women earn only 77 cents to a man’s dollar. They earn 60 percent of college degrees, yet are underrepresented at leadership levels in every occupation. They’re over half the electorate, but only 18 percent of Congress, 12 percent of mayors and 10 percent of governors, Rhode says. The United States is ranked 78th in women’s participation in representational office—below Slovakia and Bangladesh. A higher percentage of women live below the poverty line, and provisions for state-supported childcare and domestic abuse are woefully inadequate.
To make the changes, Rhode offers some starting points. One is to support political candidates who make women’s issues a priority—especially female ones. “Women are just more likely to address women’s issues,” she says. Another is to invest time or money to women’s causes, and to share knowledge with others.
It’s not as easy as calling one’s self a feminist—in fact, the f-word may be detrimental to the contemporary movement: “It carries so much baggage at this juncture,” says Rhode. “If you give people the dictionary definition, two-thirds to three-quarters of women will identify as feminists. Without the dictionary definition, you get only a quarter to a half, so there are some real problems with the term. I’d like to see more prominent women being willing to self-identify as feminists, but pending a real change in attitudes, I tend not to use the term where I think it’s going to raise hackles.”
Her own hackles are hard to raise, even when it comes to confronting egregious inequalities. “I don’t know that anger is the most productive emotion—it just makes me want to work for change,” she says. Widespread embrace of this measured, analytical approach to advancing women’s rights might be just the thing to speed the path to parity.
Whether change is achieved fast or slow, at least we’re heading in the right direction, says Rhode, who ends the interview on a cautiously optimistic note. “I think it’s going to take much longer than many of us would like, or many of us imagined, when the contemporary women’s movement was launched,” she says, “but at the end of the day, I believe the demographics are with us.”
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.