Katherine Spillar

Katherine Spillar.

A few weeks ago I talked with Katherine Spillar about her life as an activist for women’s rights. In 1987, she was one of the four co-founders of the Feminist Majority Foundation.  Spillar serves as its executive vice president and also as executive editor of that primal feminist magazine, Ms. Magazine, which the foundation has published for the past 12 years.

FMF’s sister organization, the Feminist Majority, engages in lobbying and other direct political action on issues like the right to abortion and laws targeted at domestic violence. The Feminist Majority Foundation (FMF) provides resources focused on issues of women’s equality and empowerment, including research, public policy development, public education programs, and grassroots organizing projects.


“What Isn’t Rape?” is one the public-education videos produced by the Feminist Majority Foundation.

I became a feminist in a flash. I wondered if Katherine Spillar had, too, So I asked her.

Q. Do you remember, as I do, the first time you knew you were a feminist? My first time was in college, when I read The Second Sex. Was there a book or an anecdote or a click! of realization that made the scales fall from your eyes?

A. I think I was born a feminist. Both of my parents were physicians, and from my earliest memories I heard abut how—in the early sixties, and on into the seventies—my mother had struggled to get into medical school and be respected in a very male-dominated world.

I don’t remember a moment when I wasn’t aware that women and girls are treated by society as the lesser sex. In my very egalitarian household, I was constantly hearing, “Girls can do anything they want. There’s nothing that will hold you back.” But I was keenly aware how sexist the textbooks were back then [Spillar is 58], and of the many opportunities denied to women.

What really was critical in my life was this: In 1982 I was following whether or not the Equal Rights Amendment was going to be ratified by the required number of states. I remember going to a rally in downtown Los Angeles on June 30, 1982, which was the last day of the required ratification period. I was absolutely shocked and dismayed that the ERA was not ratified. It’s such a simple idea—that women and men are equal under the law and that you cannot discriminate against women on account of their sex. And I thought, “Who could be against this, really?” I was so naïve.

It dawned on me, as I found out about the National Organization for Women, that there was an organized effort to fight for women’s rights—and that people like me had to get involved. I could no longer just be a spectator, demanding equality in my own life but not demanding equality for all women and girls.

That’s when I got active, and that’s when I was able to make real contributions as a volunteer and then, ultimately, to do this full time. For 26 years I have been able to focus every day and every ounce of energy and brain cells on how we’re going to get to equality—not just for women and girls in this country, but to guarantee the human rights of women and girls all over the world.

Q, A lot of younger women and girls, I read and hear, are reluctant to call themselves feminists. Are you discouraged by that? Do we have enough activists today?

A. I’m not discouraged at all. And yes, we have a lot of activists. And young women are especially active. In public-opinion polls, when women are asked, “Do you consider yourself a feminist?”, over 50 percent come back “yes.”

So over 50 percent of women self-identify as feminists. That’s why, back in 1987 when we started the Feminist Majority Foundation, we took the name. It’s a consciousness-raiser. People are under the impression that feminism is unpopular—that women are reluctant to call themselves feminists, especially younger women. That is what we read in the media day in and day out. But when you actually do a public-opinion poll, it actually comes back that a majority of women consider themselves feminists, and the younger the category of women responding, the higher the numbers.

The foundation’s take on that clueless question, “What Does a Feminist Look Like?”

What’s remarkable in most of these polls, given that the term “feminist” has been so thoroughly denigrated in the mainstream media, is that a majority women polled do self-identify as feminists. When the questioner defines the term “feminism” (“someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of women”), the numbers of women who identify as feminist goes even higher.

Q. Why would anyone fight this movement?

A, There are interests worldwide that are opposed to equality. Who’s opposed? It’s those people who profit from discrimination—discrimination in the workplace, discrimination in what women are paid (not only here, but all over the world) for the work they do. The wages that women are cheated out of go into the pocket of someone. So, business and corporate interests, by and large, are profiting from sex discrimination. That’s why it persists. And so individual women are filing lawsuits, women are filing class-action lawsuits.

We know what these sweatshops are paying women and girls in Bangladesh and India and throughout the world. And we know that most women’s labor isn’t even paid . . . most  is related to the domestic sphere, where it isn’t paid in any way. There are very powerful interests that are opposed to tougher laws—including a constitutional amendment—because with a constitutional amendment and tougher laws we could fight discrimination better, and we could win more cases and win real compensation for those women.

Then there’s the male patriarchy. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, women who defied the ban on female driving knew they could be arrested for driving. If you don’t allow women to drive, they can never be independent: They can’t go to jobs, they can’t go to school; it’s a great way to control women and to keep them in a lesser status . . . Look at the courage women are showing by getting behind the wheel of their cars.

Q. We at Women’s Voices just did a post on the troubling resurgence of the Men’s Rights Movement here in this country. And, in order to show how widespread anti-woman bias is, UN Women simply put into the computer the phrase “women shouldn’t.” The computer led them to answers like “women shouldn’t have rights . . .  vote . . .  work.” I have always wondered this: Why have men disliked women so much, from the beginning of time and in every country?

In some cases, I suspect it is dislike. But in other cases I suspect it’s what they’ve always known. If you think back to the typical family in the fifties and sixties, the man was the head of the household, king of his castle. His wife waited on him, his mother catered to him, his children belonged to him. In fact, as late as the 1800s, here in the U.S., women were classified under the law as chattel. They were owned by their fathers until they were married off, and then they were owned by their husbands. And I mean “owned.” Every inheritance that a woman got belonged to her husband. The children, if their parents got divorced—and few women did—belonged to him under the law. Anything they had built together—their home, their livelihood—was his. Think of the struggle women went through in this country and are still going through all over the world, to change some of those “customs and traditions.”

I think too many men don’t even think. And that’s why the feminist movement and women’s studies programs all over the world are asking this critical question: Why are things the way they are? And if it’s not fair, change it. It’s the click; it’s the light bulb that goes off it’s suddenly when you realize that things are grossly unfair.

I think it’s not so much that men don’t like women, it’s that they’re used to being treated as the favored sex. And that plays out in employment, education, society at large, social life, political life. They hold the power, and they get used to it.


Coming next: Katherine Spillar on the heartening news on women’s progress and her suggestions for effective activism. Plus an essay from Alexandra MacAaron on the obstacles, these days, to raising a feminist daughter.