The Stateswoman Archive

The Women’s Movement Moves into the 21st Century

by Connie Threinen

Connie Threinen offered the following remarks on June 26, 2003, at a meeting to officially introduce the Wisconsin Women=Prosperity Project.

Lieutenant Governor Barbara Lawton has asked me to take two minutes to create a sort of bridge from the women’s movement of the last part of the 20th Century across time to the present-the 21st Century. As I looked at my old files and mulled over some of the issues and events of the three or four decades of feminist advocacy, I found myself quite overwhelmed by the scope of our interests and actions. Some of you here have been part of it too, and you will have the advantage of being able to pick up the banner and run with it.

In 1963 when Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique hit the market, feminism seemed to explode onto the societal scene. Here were new ideas and new problems to deal with, or so we thought. At first we were quite unaware that the agenda of the 19th Century women’s movement had earlier covered a full range of women’s issues—of which suffrage was only one. Unknowing, we started on a clean slate, analyzing our complaints and the causes of the injustices we felt.

What we later came to recognize is that both stages of the women’s movement were caused not by spontaneous combustion or by the publication of a particular author, but were the gradual result of economic and technological changes in the American society as our country moved from the agricultural era to the industrial and urban era and now to an age of electronics. Muscle power was continually being replaced by machines and brain power. In both eras technology chipped away at traditional male and female roles.

Women, like men, had been producers—producers of fabric, clothing, bread, butter, soap, etc. But gradually, technological advances made it more efficient to purchase such goods, and women and families became consumers, needing income for purchasing. Furthermore, medical technology allowed women more control over the size of their families. The homemaker role became less and less adequate for many women. As the economy became more and more mechanized and service-oriented, women’s skills were in demand, and women joined the labor force in large numbers. Controversial though it was for married women to be working outside the home - working for pay! - it was an appropriate adjustment to the times.

By 1977 when the federal government called the first National Women’s Conference, we had uncovered major problem areas, and we had resolutions to deal with every one. We demanded equality in employment, education, political affairs, in family life, in the ownership of property. (Our concern for the status of full-time homemakers led us to develop Wisconsin’s marital property law.) We wanted more control over our sexual and reproductive lives, and protection from violence. We blamed advertising and publications for unfair stereotyping, even pressured newspapers to end the practice of listing job openings in separate male and female columns. And I haven’t even mentioned the ERA and affirmative action. We worked on both the laws and on the practices we wanted to change.

As the century drew to a close, the women’s movement was feeling some backlash. Attacks on Title IX and reproductive rights were under attack, for example, and a younger generation seemed more interested in being feminine than feminist. Suddenly, now has appeared the new report on the Status of Women. Will it renew the enthusiasm of the 20th Century movement and will it stimulate a 21st Century women’s movement? Whatever, the new energy that you will bring to the women’s movement is welcome, and we hope that you can build upon our work.

You will inherit two very strong organizations-one governmental; one non-governmental. The Wisconsin Women’s Council is statutory - part of the government. The Wisconsin Women’s Network is a coalition of many progressive women’s groups including the League of Women Voters, the American Association of University Women, the National Organization for Women, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, among many others. These women have much experience and statewide - even national - outreach.

However, we should be aware of some very significant differences between the mid-sixties when the 20th Century women’s movement formed and these early days of the 21st. The 20th Century movement coincided with the U.N.’s direction to member nations to investigate the status of women in their respective countries and, in compliance, the U.S. put Eleanor Roosevelt in charge. There were relatively progressive administrations in the national government. The post-war period was energized by a desire to create a better world. A great demand for goods and services resulted in good employment opportunities. The times made it easier for “the establishment” to accept the new women.

The environment now is different. The economy is struggling. Unemployment is a serious problem. Both public and private budgets are stressed. It is government policy at all levels to reduce expenditures. Longtime efforts to bring the economically disadvantaged into the mainstream are low on the agenda of the national administration. Divisions between rich and poor will make it more difficult to provide the education needed to lift all. Opposition to family planning and reproductive choice and even sexuality education will continue to be divisive.

The challenges are great, but challenges are also opportunities. Women are not an isolated part of the society, and women’s issues are not isolated from other issues. Statistics show that the economic security of American families is directly related to the employment status of the wife and mother. With the employment status of women high on your agenda, you must play a major part in efforts to improve the country’s employment picture generally.

At present both the national administration and the business community advocate lowering taxes to increase consumer expenditures to increase the production of goods and services and to create jobs. In the hey-day of the women’s movement we advocated at least two different remedies. One was to spread the work around by reducing hours of work, which could be done in several ways and which is quite possible without reducing incomes, since technology has made it possible to increase productivity.

The other recognizes that our economy does not need more workers to make more goods for people to buy. Rather, it sees that the needs of our society are for more public services, for maintenance of the infrastructure, for more writers, more parks and park rangers-all in the public sector but even more worthy of our taxes than many of the private goods and services we buy. This solution flies in the face of “privatization,” but I challenge you to include it in your considerations.

There will be many challenges ahead for the women’s movement, and I expect to hear more about them as you prepare for the first statewide women’s conference of the 21st Century. You have my very best wishes for success.

Connie Threinen is a past chair of the Wisconsin Women’s Network.

This article first appeared in the September 2003 issue of the wisconsin Women’s Network’s Newsletter, The Stateswoman.