My friend recently showed me a post on Feministing entitled, “What Argument Against the ERA Could Feminists Face?”, commenting about the possibility of the ERA being reintroduced in the House, which invoked some personal reflection on the matter.
The beginning of the Feministing post states:
Recently Rachel Maddow ran a segment… on her MSNBC show. In the segment, she indicated that the ERA has been reintroduced in the House of Representatives…
The plain language of the ERA, in the 1970′s and now, is as follows:
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”
Schlafly’s, and her peers’, arguments against the ERA included “the potty problem” — legalization of unisex bathrooms — as well as the arguments that making men and women equal under the law would make women and men the same thing; would push women out of the home and into the workplace; would allow “homosexuals” to be married, adopt children, and teach in schools; would (under a draft) force women to go into military combat.
First of all, the ERA was only 3 votes away from getting passed in 1972… so it wasn’t like it was extremely “out there” back then - just a little bit - not radical enough, apparently, to get fewer than 35 votes in the house.
Secondly, yes, it seems strange that feminists who were actively involved in Women’s Liberation would be against the ERA. However, I think this fact, as well as the fact that it really does, as Rachel Maddow suggests in her segment, make even more sense that it is appropriate to pass the ERA today, points out some important differences and goals between the women’s movement during second wave/women’s liberation, and today. It is extremely important for us to note, today, that LGBT issues, race issues, and class issues are a huge part of third wave feminism. To ignore this fact, and to stick to “white, middle class” feminist issues is absolutely fatal for the movement.
In the 1970s, it was considered radical enough for women to step out and demand reproductive rights, wage rights, etc. However, today, although we clearly still face political and legal issues (as can be seen from the recent defunding of Planned Parenthood, etc.) we also face a multitude of newer, different issues. Because of these new issues, third wave feminism needs to focus on the attitudes that perpetuate the inequality that women still face, not just the laws that enforce them. I think that there is somewhat of a hesitance, or even a failure to do this. Therefore, we are beginning to see a backlash against feminism that is becoming impossible to ignore, and that can be seen through politicians such as Michele Bachmann refusing to call herself a feminist, to the Planned Parenthood controversy. Clearly, many women today are too focused on the idea that second wave feminist ideas ARE feminist. We have failed to completely create and uphold out own definition of feminism.
Here is where, I believe, “the potty problem” truly fits in, as an issue, for third wave feminists. Placing women and men in separate restrooms perpetuates an idea that the sexes are unequal, in the sense that they are physically, unalterably, different. We no longer have separate bathrooms for people of different races, and all public bathrooms are now, by law, handicap accessible.
However, it is understandable, in a certain sense, why so many women are averse to the idea of unisex bathrooms. Public restrooms are a place where women tend to feel safe - at least to some degree. As women, it is undeniable that we are constantly on the defensive. We are raised being told not to talk to strangers, not to walk alone at night, etc. Therefore, it is easy to see, because the restroom is a place where one is bound to feel somewhat more vulnerable than usual, why many women are uneasy about unisex restrooms being the norm. Furthermore, it is not as though this fear of vulnerability is completely unfounded. There have been cases in the news recently, such as a child molestation case in Washington, well as a case in Hawaii, that involved sexual assault in public or shared bathrooms. The Hawaii case, however, which deals with the disabled, as well as sodomy, also exemplifies the fact that it is naive to assume that vulnerability is limited to issues of gender, and that it is callow to believe that one is safer in a public restroom just because each bathroom is designated specifically for “men” and “women”.
Likewise, transgendered people face similar, often greater, fears of vulnerability and prejudice everyday. When faced with the predicament of needing to use a public restroom, male/female bathrooms present a particularly difficult dilemma. Either option leaves him or her vulnerable. For example, imagine that you are a biological male who identifies as female. Your options in this instance are either to A) Use the women’s restroom, where you risk being confronted (maybe even violently) about your sex, being treated as a “freak” or a “pervert”, or being humiliated (often this happens by someone calling security). B) Use the men’s restroom, where you also risk violent confrontation (especially since many men are prone, because of the patriarchal cultural attitudes that they are raised with) to find expression of a gender that is not traditionally aligned with a person’s biological sex to be offensive and/or threatening). In addition, if one identifies as female, using the men’s restoom would undoubtedly feel particularly demeaning, and is an overt reminder that your identity is neither respected nor observed by others.
Many do not consider the vulnerabilities on both sides - not only by women (in regard to the potential dangers faced by sharing public restrooms with men) but by gender-queer people, as well. I am not saying that there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer here. It is a difficult question. However, what IS clear, is that, as third wave feminists, we need to confront these issues by being much more open minded. We cannot let ourselves get stuck in the mindset of second wave feminism. Futhermore, although, in the 1970’s, the women’s liberation mindset was progressive, now, in the second decade of the 21st century, it has clearly shown itself to be antiquated.
Arguing against the ERA because of issues like “the legalization of unisex bathrooms” is ultimately counterintuitive the feminist agenda. Feminism is about gender equality. It is no longer simply about equality of the sexes. A feminist that rejects the unisex bathroom idea is contradicting her/him-self. This is because, in doing so, he/she is embracing the idea that there is a clear gender binary (an idea upon which the patriarchal social construct is, essentially, founded), and rejecting the concerns (even refusing to realize the existence of) those that exist outside of said binary.
At the end of the Feministing post, the author states,
Should the ERA again become a priority for feminists, the feminist community would then be confronted with choices on how to combat the “bathroom bill” meme:
- The feminist community could take the position of the Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley in arguing that the burden of proof is on those who use the meme to prove that not only is bathroom predation by trans people is significant, and is more significant in jurisdictions that currently have gender identity protections on the books.
- The feminist community could also choose to embrace the arguments of second wave feminists who — like those on the religious right — argue that trans women in women’s restrooms are predators, and seek to add language to the ERA that in some way allows trans women to be excluded from women’s restrooms.
- The feminist community could also choose not to embrace the ERA because much of the feminist community doesn’t accept trans women as women, and they believe that the ERA would result in them having to embrace trans women as their community sisters.
Of course, a fourth alternative is that the feminist community so divides over how to approach the “bathroom bill” meme against ERA that it becomes functionally paralyzed.
It seems to me that the author of this post, although mostly just reflecting on the issue, fails to significantly note that the “option” for feminists not to embrace transgendered people is inherently anti-feminist, and, therefore, not really an option for those who truly continue to seek gender equality. Our only real option, in the third wave of the women’s movement, is to adjust and broaden our views on gender and sexuality, in general, so that all expressions and forms of gender are seen as equal. Without doing so, gender binaries and patriarchal attitudes remain uncontested, and, thus, equality can never really be achieved.