By Martha F. Davis, Associate Dean for Clinical and Experiential Education and Faculty Director of the Program on Human Rights and Global Economy, Northeastern University School of Law.
The new HBO documentary on Gloria Steinem’s life and work provides an occasion for reflecting on the state of women in the U.S. To her great credit, Steinem herself has urged feminists to use this moment as an opportunity to look toward the future, to plan and strategize for the next wave of feminism. As she has often observed, it took women nearly a hundred years to get the vote. By that gauge, it may be another fifty years until we achieve the broader equality for which Steinem’s generation campaigned.
Before we get too blue about this long arc of history, it is worth remembering that few social movements march steadily toward their goals. Rather, progress is measured in fits and starts, in long struggles and sudden leaps, in a series of moments that add up to lasting social change. The women’s movement is no exception.
Professor Bruce Ackerman, of course, popularized the idea of constitutional moments – times of significant constitutional re-arrangement arising from shared national experiences. The New Deal and the Reconstruction are prime examples.
The dramatic constitutional developments that expanded women’s legal equality are also well-known – the ratification in 1920 of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the vote, for example, and the Supreme Court’s acknowledgement in the 1971 case of Reed v. Reed of the harm of sex-stereotyping. These were momentous legal victories for women, the result of decades of activism and effort. In their wake, however, the actual implementation of gender justice has been slow.
The data tells the story.