Last week I spoke with Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation and executive editor of Ms. Magazine, about her activism in the cause of women’s legal, economic, social, and political equality with men. This once-radical idea has always encountered fierce opposition. Here’s her counsel on how to help move our culture toward granting women full equality.
Q. What actions can women take to make their situation change?
A. We have to hold the institutions in this country accountable—whether it’s employers, state or local or federal institutions, or policymakers. We need to become active, to talk with them, criticize, organize. If you don’t like who’s representing you in Congress, do something about it, because if they have a sexist record, chances are you’re not the only one who is opposed to them.
The U.S. holds a key place in the community of nations. We’re the largest single economy. We are a very powerful force all over the world, whether you like it or not. Too often it’s this military power being exercised. But we have enormous economic power, and so if the U.S. decides to challenge a country that is blatantly oppressing women, we can do something about that oppression. We have to urge the State Department and the Congress and the administration to do this. Would it make a difference if the U.S. were to officially complain to the Saudi Arabian government that it cannot continue to treat its women as if they’re chattel? It could start to make a difference. We not only buy Saudi Arabian oil, but Saudi Arabia buys a lot of stuff from us–notably, military weapons and equipment. They want a friendly relationship with us.
Join groups like Equality Now and the Feminist Majority Foundation and the National Organization for Women. Get Ms. Magazine so you can know what’s going on in the world. Every day we are posting stories and putting up ideas for activism on women’s-equality issues. You could write to your member of Congress on issues you’ve been notified about. We’ve even rallied massive numbers of signatures to get the ruling powers in Iran to free the feminists they have arrested; it’s a crime against the state to be a feminist in Iran. We’ve been able to embarrass them and press them until they’ve had to back off on some of their treatment.
So I would say: Support a feminist organization. Keep up with feminist news sources. Become active. Even if you’re only a “computer activist” [signing petitions created by feminist organizations], if you’re only just clicking—that counts. More important—if you can, get active in your local political campaign, because who serves in Congress is very, very critical. Without more women and more feminists there, our progress is being stalled because of our opponents.
And if nothing else, be involved in your social circles. Question the joke about women enjoying rape. Question if you think there’s violence against women in your apartment building or neighborhood. We’re publishing a letter in the Fall issue of Ms. about a woman who was driving along and saw a man beating up on a woman and taunting her. The driver stopped and yelled at him until he came toward her car and the woman could get away. That’s courage. When you see a situation, speak up and do something about it.
How is Ms. different today from the way it was in its early years?
We’re offering more investigative journalism. But we’ve also expanded the kinds of issues we cover. We still cover reproductive issues, because that is such a battleground. And workplace issues, too, are still a battleground. In the earliest days, a majority of women did not identify as feminists, and women’s rights were debatable. In polite company you could still debate whether or not women should be equal! You can’t have that debate now in polite company. That debate may still be going on in fundamentalist churches and in the Vatican in Rome, but now pretty much everybody believes women should have equal opportunity. So now the battleground is, What are we going to do to actually see that happen?
I think that Ms. has always—and certainly under our leadership in the last 12 years—served to shine a spotlight on what this movement is doing in this country, and what the feminist movement is doing all over the world, to foster the advancement of women and girls. It has helped people to be empowered in their own lives, and also to work collectively for the advancement of women and girls.
There is always going to be a need for Ms. until we get to full equality, and we’ll know that when we see it. I don’t expect it to happen any time soon, but I do hope that Ms. will continue to contribute to this advancement and that we will see full equality in our lifetime.
What are the most impressive changes you’ve seen in your lifetime?
Women have gotten into positions of power—although we’re still underrepresented at those decisionmaking tables. We have cracked open these doors. But more critical is the growth of this movement globally . . . and it’s not coming from the United States. The idea didn’t originate here. The feminist movement in India, South Asia, is much older than the contemporary movement here. And feminists from across the globe are coming together through the U.N and the Commission on the Status of Women.
We are positioned to go this final distance and cross the finish line into full equality. That is within sight. I would say that a generation ago, two generations ago, I’m not even sure we could have imagined it, but I think it is within sight.