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.


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  • Heather Turi November 19, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Here to here to my mother’s comment (see Claudia Harkins above). I am a working woman with two very young children (ages 5 months and 2 years) and it is very difficult to “have it all” as they say. It is therefore very important for women (and men if they are primary caregivers) to speak up for greater flexibility in the workplace-flex hours, part-time work, teleworking, etc.–to enable women to both serve as primary caregiver AND contribute to the workforce. Men should be both supportive at home as well as supportive to other women’s responsibilities in the workplace.

  • claudiaharkins@hotmail.com November 17, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    I grew up in the late 50s and 60s. Both my parents were teachers and believed in education. They believed education was important, for my two brothers it was essential to find a well-paying profession. On the otherhand, education was essential for my sister and me because it was the way to meet a successful husband, and it was necessary to be knowledgeable to be able to speak to these educated men. Oh yes, teaching was the best profession because you would have the same schedule as your children (summers off and vacation days) and the salary was decent. I am a feminist, married a feminist, and have two daughters that are feminists. Of course, my daughters are struggling to do it all – professional career, wife, and mother. Men must step up in more ways than just equal pay for women in the workplace. They must also be an equal partner and parent!

  • roz warren November 12, 2013 at 3:51 pm

    Loved this. Shared it on FB, as per Tomi’s excellent suggestion. It’s interviews like this that make me proud that I write for WVFC!

  • Toni Myers November 12, 2013 at 3:42 pm

    I had a non-consciousness-raising mother, and it wasn’t until the late 60s, living in NYC, that I began thinking about women’s issues. They’d been taking a back seat to Civil Rights and Vietnam. Ha, Civil Rights! I’d read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. I remember struggling with changing my name when I married in early 1970…I did not, thinking I had to have a doctorate or be a public figure. So little confidence! I took my birth name back 5 years later. In Seattle, later that year, I took a UWashington class called “Women 101”. I think I still have the notebook I put together as part of the class, composed of ads and my commentary. think I sent it to my sister as well, who was experiencing her own heightened awareness of all these issues. I presented my then-husband with a list of all the work I did (going to school at the time) and its value. He laughed. A woman in authority at the first library system I worked for in Seattle made fun of me in print for demanding that Frederick and Nelson give me a credit card in my own name as my husband had no interest. They didn’t so I didn’t use the store. She said it was neurotic! I quit shortly after. Maybe 50 years back, my father, whom I adored and respected, confided to me that women could not be raped unless they let it happen. I’d never been raped, but I knew he was full of s..t, said nothing at the time. I liked to think he evolved. I wish a lot of people and institutions would evolve, right now!

  • Margery Stein November 12, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    This is a fascinating & empowering interview. It sent me back to my own ‘first feminist’ moment. This occurred when my mom’s 3rd child (my youngest brother) had just gone off to college. I came home for a weekend & mom told me that she had joined a “consciousness-raising group” of women to figure out what to do with her life, now that her kids had fled the nest. I followed her transformation over time, & the process sparked a nerve in me. I was then living with my now ex-husband; I was working full-time & also doing all the cooking, food shopping, & cleaning. I went home for Xmas, called him, & told him I was not coming back unless he agreed to split all the chores with me.

  • Toni Myers November 12, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    Feminists of the World, Unite!
    Wait…we already have.
    Thanks, Debbie for this wonderful piece. It is astounding how much work there is yet to do. If all your readers pass this on, do something to advance the cause this week, we will make some more waves, not ripples.
    Women are steadfast and persistent. We WILL prevail!