Do We Still Need A Women's Movement?

100 years ago, thousands of women marched on Washington D.C. to demand the right to vote. Host Michel Martin asks the Beauty Shop ladies about that moment in history, and where the women's rights movement stands today.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, there have been calls for the Washington Redskins, the pro football team, to change its name because many people consider the name a racial slur. Well, the middle and high school students in central New York decided to drop that name from their sports teams, and we'll tell you what one nearby Indian tribe did in response to that. Just - here's a hint: They did more than just applaud. We'll tell you about it later in the program.

But first, it's time for the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on the week's hot topics with our panel of women writers, journalists and commentators.

Today, we have with us Michelle Bernard. She is the president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. That's a nonpartisan research institute. Joan Wages is the president and CEO of the National Women's History Museum, and Danielle Belton is back with us. She's editor-at-large of Clutch magazine online.

Welcome, ladies. Thank you for joining us.

DANIELLE BELTON: Thank you.

MICHELLE BERNARD: Thank you.

JOAN WAGES: Oh, thanks for having us.

MARTIN: So let's start. Women's History Month is just upon us, so we want to start with a major anniversary in the women's rights movement. This weekend will mark the 100 years since the Great Suffrage March. Thousands of people marched on Washington in support of the women's right to vote.

So, Joan Wages, take us back, if you would. I know you weren't there, but I know...

WAGES: Thank you.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I just want to clarify that. But you are head of the National Women's History Museum, and this is one of the things that this museum presumably will commemorate and tell us more about. So tell us more about the atmosphere that day.

WAGES: Absolutely. There had been a campaign for women to get the vote for up to - what was it - 50, 60 years, and yet it had not gained much momentum. So when this march was put together, it was put together within 60 days. And just think about this. They brought together 5,000 people in 60 days when they had no fax, no phone, no email. I mean, it was a phenomenal feat that they accomplished. And they had 5,000 marchers. There were floats. There were bands, all-women bands that marched. There were men who marched. So it was quite an event, and it was planned for the day before Woodrow Wilson's inaugural. So when Woodrow Wilson arrived at Union Station, he said: Where is everybody? And the police said, well, they're down watching the marchers, because 500,000 people turned out to watch the march.

MARTIN: Fair to say, though, Michelle Bernard, that there was a racial subtext to this, though, as well, in that there were some of the - one of the underlying arguments for some of the marchers was that black men allegedly got suffrage before white women did.

BERNARD: Absolutely. There was always an argument going back and forth and, quite frankly, there has been some argument about this. But what we see happening in the abolitionist movement and in the suffrage movement and in the movement for women's rights was that, more often than not, we saw rights being allocated or being agreed to, I should say, by the majority for black men before we saw them for women. And a lot of the work that we've seen in the women's rights movement came on the heels of the abolition movement, as well as on the civil rights movement.

But even within the group of suffragists, there were many black women who were suffragists that are more commonly known in the black community and not so much in the community at large. So, you know, Sojourner Truth, she fought against slavery, but she was a big women's rights advocate and she gave her famous speech, "Ain't I a Woman?" And that's gone down in the history books.

MARTIN: But isn't it also true, Joan Wages - you know, not to belabor the point - that some of the African-American women were actually asked to march at the back of this march?

WAGES: Yes. But that was resolved. They ended up marching with their state. So they prevailed.

MARTIN: It got worked out...

WAGES: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...as women tend to do. And I understand that the sorority, Delta Sigma Theta, is actually - they're leading a centennial march. They're celebrating their centennial march, and they are marching this weekend, as well.

Danielle Belton, I wanted to ask you, do you - when you think about that era, you know, what do you think? What is most sort of predominant for you?

BELTON: I think, for me, it's important to kind of look back at this particular time in history just to know how far we've come and where we're going with it. And so, for me, it's a fascinating microcosm of, essentially, how - you know, people compare the fact that we had a first black president before we had a first female president, and so this debate kind of came up quite a bit regarding - I'm sorry.

MARTIN: Do you find it upsetting to even sort of - do you feel like it's kind of the boys-versus-the-girls, or something? Or the black folks versus the women, or something like that? I mean, do you find it distressing to think about?

BELTON: You know, it does frustrate me when things kind of break down along these kind of racial and gender lines when it comes to this debate on women's suffrage, on the women's movement. Often, I feel like black women and white women aren't listening to each other, that we have this tendency to operate from these individual silos that keep us from getting the type of progress, keep us from moving ahead in the way that we want to.

Like, for instance, I feel like, a lot of times, there's these issues of white privilege that kind of come up where people don't really acknowledge that the problems of black women and white women can sometimes be very, very different. A lot of times, the suffrage movement, the white feminist movement has been dominated by upper-middle-class women, and their issues are often very different from the issues of poor women, and, in some cases, the issues of African-American women. And that's - a lot of times where the rift comes from is this different - the different issues that both of those sides are definitely dealing with.

MARTIN: You know, to that end, though, I want to move on to another important anniversary that I want to bring in. Just mentioning, though, briefly, Michelle Bernard, that you are involved with the Delta Sigma Theta sorority - and I know I'm going to be pilloried for this, because how many Deltas do I know - are participating in the march, sort of a commemorative march this weekend. Just tell us briefly about that.

BERNARD: Yeah. Absolutely. I am not a Delta myself, but I am in awe of all of the African-American sororities and fraternities. Delta Sigma Theta had just been started on the campus of Howard University, right around the time of this march. And the Deltas, since day one, have been very, very engaged in issues of social justice, with women suffrage being one of the issues that they've been involved with historically. So they will be there, leading the troops on Sunday at the march.

MARTIN: And you're going to be there, too. So you'll stand there, too.

BERNARD: I'm going to be there. I will be there with the National Women's History Museum.

MARTIN: Really? Wearing your red and white, I assume. But, to that end, though, picking up on what Danielle was just talking about, that you wrote a piece about this, Michelle Bernard. It's been 50 years since the publication of Betty Friedan's "The Feminine Mystique." This book is seen as groundbreaking in the women's rights movement. I want to play a short clip of Betty Friedan talking to NPR about it in 1988.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

BETTY FRIEDAN: As long as we were defined only as housewives, only as mothers and never as persons, as people, we couldn't even see what our real problems were. Women were blamed for all kinds of problems, the woman problem, not getting the kitchen sink pure white, not getting the husband's shirts ironed enough, the children's bedwetting, the husband's ulcers, her own lack of orgasms. We had to break through that feminine mystique to say we're people and then, being people, we're then entitled to equal opportunity and the rest of our American and human birthright.

MARTIN: Michelle, you wrote a piece saying that you've never actually read "The Feminine Mystique" - or at least you hadn't at the time you wrote that piece. And you said that you've never actually met another African-American woman who has.

BERNARD: Never. And I will tell you, after the piece was published in The Washington Post, I received so many tweets from women self-identifying themselves as African-American who also said the same thing. I've never read the book, and I won't read the book. I've changed my mind, my tune. I am going to read the book. But, you know, you sort of grew up as an African-American woman hearing the stories about "The Feminine Mystique" and about women taking tranquilizers after spending the day at home making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for their kids.

And a lot of African-American women thought, one, this doesn't speak to African-American women. And it sort of seemed like we felt that - a lot of black women have felt that this was a book that was written for privileged white women who really had nothing better to do than whine about how hard it was to be a stay-at-home mom.

Betty Friedan's book, for better or worse, did not discuss issues that related to African-American women. So, you know, for example, the conventional thinking was, well, black women were not included in the book because black women had to work. Well, there were a lot of African-American women who didn't have to work. They chose to work because they wanted to work. There were African-American and other working-class women who had to work because of financial necessity. And I think that there was a lot that was left out of the book by not including African-American and working-class women.

MARTIN: Joan Wages, I'm fascinated by - in your quest as head of the National Women's History Museum, which is working to secure a location on the National Mall in D.C. in order to kind of lift up these stories from the history of women in this country. Are you still confronting this? Are there people who feel that this has nothing to do with them? It's like a select group of very privileged people. Leave me alone.

WAGES: What we come up against on a regular basis is that people don't know what they don't know. So there's so much about women's history that people don't know about. It's not in history textbooks. It's not in our national parks. It's not in our museums.

So, I mean, if you look back, and just talking about the African-American male issue, I mean, the African-American Museum is now on the National Mall. And we are having legislation introduced today - today is a big day - that would create a commission that would identify a permanent home for the museum.

We also just got polling results today that said that 66 percent of men and women think that there should be a National Women's History Museum. We think that number would be higher if people understood how much women have contributed to the building of this nation.

MARTIN: Has it been - I'm interested again how - do you feel like you're refighting the same issue, kind of the boys versus the girls, the black people versus the women kind of thing? Is that still kind of part of the conversation here?

WAGES: Well, sometimes it is because the history of this nation is very male-centric, so it's not obvious to people that women's history is missing. The number of times that we have said to someone what we're working on, and you can see on a woman's face - what? There isn't one? You know, that it doesn't dawn on them that this entire half of our history is not part of it.

MARTIN: Danielle Belton, I was going to - I happen to know that you have read "The Feminine Mystique."

BELTON: Yes.

MARTIN: So have I. Just raising my hand. So now you've met at least two.

BELTON: Two.

MARTIN: Now you've met two.

BELTON: I've started it. I've started it.

MARTIN: And I won't blow up your spot and mention that you've read "50 Shades of Grey," like all of them, so I'll just keep that between ourselves. Oops. What do you think, Danielle Belton? You're kind of the younger generation here...

BELTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...of all of us here. How do you react to this?

BELTON: Well, it's like "The Feminine Mystique" has its place. It's a very important and seminal book in the women's rights movement. It deserves the attention that it's gotten. It deserves the accolades. It is disappointing that it doesn't include more things that would resonate with working class women and black women, but it's one of those things you have to - it's of its time in that case where people just didn't consider those points of views. I mean Betty Friedan was writing from her own reality and that just happens sometimes. Like, I'm not going to read Sojourner Truth and wonder why she didn't write more about rich white women. You know, like I just - I'm not going to read Ida B. Wells and wonder why she didn't write about what was going on with another group other than black people at that time period.

But it was funny because I found the book in, like, a five cent bin where I also got a copy of "Mommy Dearest" at the time and so - and both books were about - in a way, about women's issues and did resonate a very particular time period of women expressing themselves and express themselves in areas that were taboo, like about, like, arguing that a woman is an individual, that she is a human being and should be accepted on those terms. And then you have "Mommy Dearest," where you have this woman basically speaking out against her mother and there's the taboo of a woman being a bad mother.

And when I think about all those things up to today, where we kind of live in this era of too much information, where people just kind of self-disclose constantly, in a way these things pre-date it. The fact that you get people out there talking about things that make them uncomfortable, you get that out in the open. That's what eventually leads to more equality in our society, you know, more understanding, where you don't have things like a book like Betty Friedan's where you just ignore what's going on with poor women and African-American women.

MARTIN: Yeah. You know, that leads nicely to the last thing I wanted to talk about today, which is that - and speaking of this whole question of where women are and where they aren't and how far they've come and how far they have not come, the Oscars. You know, host Seth MacFarlane's opening song at the Oscars was all about very accomplished actresses going topless in their roles, and here's a short clip. Could we make this as short as possible, please? Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF 2013 OSCARS)

SETH MACFARLANE: (Singing) Hillary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry," Penelope Cruz in "Vanilla Sky" and Kate Winslet in "Heavenly Creatures" and "Jude" and "Hamlet" and "Titanic" and "Iris" and "Little Children" and "The Reader"...

MARTIN: I've already kind of tipped my hat in how I feel about this. This went on for about a minute and a half. Michelle Bernard, you've written that your 10-year-old was a big fan of the song, so what does it say about where women are? I mean is it that, you know, they can just be the butt of the joke? It doesn't matter if - you know, that they are kind of still the objects or what does it matter, that we should actually just laugh about it? Because the fact is they were all topless in these roles. What does that say? That that's - you still need to be topless to get ahead in Hollywood? What's - or more?

BERNARD: I think it's a combination of all of it. I watched and, obviously, as you know, I mean my 10-year-old son has been singing the song all week, which shows you the demographic that thought it was funny, because, you know, he's at an age where he wants to see someone's boobs. I think that, you know, it's sort of - as much as I love the Oscars and I love film, it is a sad commentary on what women at the top of their game in that industry still need to do and the way that they have to be portrayed in certain movies in order to be at the top of their game in the movie industry.

MARTIN: Joan?

WAGES: But they don't really have to do that in order to be at the top of the game, so it's a very interesting dynamic that's going on there, is who chooses to do that, and you know, just as the suffragists said in 1913 when their march was attacked by some of the bystanders and bottles were hurled and rocks were hurled and women were hit, and it's that - you know, it's just disgraceful.

MARTIN: So no topless scenes for you. There will be no nude calendar promoting fundraising for the National Women's History Museum. Danielle, I'm going to give you the final word here since you're kind of our pop culture maven.

BELTON: I was more fascinated by the fact that he was fixated on female nudity in film as opposed to male nudity. And once again, it's women's bodies who are up for conversation, not male.

MARTIN: Well, how about that? Danielle Belton is editor-at-large at Clutch magazine online. She was with us from St. Louis. Joan Wages is president and CEO of the National Women's History Museum. Joan Wages, come back and keep us up-to-date on the progress of this museum, will you?

WAGES: Thank you.

MARTIN: Michelle Bernard is president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy. They were here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Ladies, thank you all so much.

BELTON: Thank you.

WAGES: Thank you.

BERNARD: Thank you.

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