Cultural Amnesia

Updated: Mar 19, 2019

One of the dangers of the current historical moment is to believe that enough progress has been made and that the situation we find ourselves in now passes for equality.


The Equality State recognized women's right to vote 150 years ago. The 18th Amendment was enacted a century ago. The first woman governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross, was elected governor of Wyoming in 1925—on the same day that a woman was elected governor of Texas.[1] Though it is tempting to believe that women experienced the dark ages prior to that, “By 1920 the number [of women enrolled as college students] was over 47 percent, and women received one-third of all graduate degrees.”[2] Women comprised nearly half of the college population at the time, yet we think of women’s educational attainment as a relatively new phenomenon.


Even before that, women in the early 19th century were reacting to the feminism of their mothers and grandmothers. In many ways, the current “postfeminist” era actually echoes the turn of the 19th century.


Sociologist Stephanie Coontz writes: "At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a rash of media stories trumpeted the rise of 'postfeminist' women – young women who had backed away from the career ambitions of their mothers or grandmothers to focus instead on marriage and motherhood. The postfeminist label greatly oversimplifies the complexity of women’s beliefs and behaviors in the early twenty-first century. But it accurately describes a generation of women in…America in the early nineteenth century."[3]


Theologian Bonnie Miller-McLemore discusses this propensity for forgetting when she writes about “our general cultural amnesia.” She builds on Coontz’ examples from earlier eras, exposing the ways in which we consistently overlook the radical progress of earlier generations of women. Feminist efforts were not limited to the first- and second-waves of feminism. Throughout American history, we find women advocating for the “equal responsibility of men and women,”[4] and further advocating for “specific domestic reforms that would assure this.”[5] By relegating the advancement of women to discrete and short-lived epochs of time, we doom ourselves to repeating these mistakes.[6]


Unfortunately, our collective cultural amnesia has deep consequences for women.


Instead of making steady progress, women have experienced a steady stream of advancement tempered by a comparable succession of setbacks. With each surge forward comes a seemingly well-reasoned resistance. “As the arguments that women lack the necessary intrinsic talent to succeed in male-dominated occupations has become less and less convincing, the argument that women are just less interested has grown and flourished.”[7]


For the past decade, women’s achievement has remained flat as judged by women in elected office, presence in corporate boardrooms, leadership of the nation’s top companies, and the wages that women are paid for the same work as men. Here is a quick run through some of the more telling (and disheartening) stats:

  • In the United States, women are a majority of the electorate but hold only a quarter of upper-level state government positions and, until 2019, only 16 percent of congressional seats. (That figure is now 23.7% or 127 of the 535 members of Congress.)

  • Over half of college graduates but less than a quarter of full professors and a fifth of college presidents are female.

  • In management, women account for about a third of MBA classes, but only 2 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, 6 percent of top earners, 8 percent of top leadership positions, and 16 percent of board directors and corporate officers.

  • In law, women constitute about half of new entrants to the profession but less than a fifth of law firm partners, federal judges, law school deans, and Fortune 500 general counsels.

  • Half of the students in divinity school are women, but women are only 3 percent of the pastors of large congregations that have been ordaining women for decades.

  • The gap widens for women of color who account for only about 4 percent of congressional legislators, 3 percent of full professors, and 1-2 percent of corporate officers, top earners, law firm partners, and general counsels.[8]

  • Even in the nonprofit sector, where women comprise nearly 70% of all employees, less than 20% of top positions are held by women and women are “entirely absent from chief executive roles at certain kinds of big charities.”[9]

As the data demonstrates, women’s achievement across sectors has plateaued. Likewise, women’s wages, once climbing steadily upward, have not kept pace with men’s. Women attend to productive and non-productive work alike. Yet they are paid less for their productive work than their male counterparts and continue to be rewarded not-at-all for their domestic work.


Surely a system in which more women vote than men, more women attend church than men, more women raise children than men can find a way to support women both literally and figuratively?


This requires a definitional shift.


For women to garner the support they need, the entire system needs to alter its perception of productivity. According to Bonnie Miller-McLemore, “The corporate gospel, it seems, has secured its definitions of success and productivity in the minds, watches, and economic pocketbooks of the American people. Those who make it to the top…must give up so-called non-productive activities—‘family vacations, Little League games, birthday parties, evenings, weekends, and lunch hours…and most other pastimes.’ Taking care of others or enjoying oneself is a pastime? Work with material results is ‘productive’? Reading a book, raising a child, meditation are ‘nonproductive’?”[10]


Until the definition of generativity expands to encompass the critical—yet unpaid—work of family and community, still disproportionately undertaken by women, “balance” in personal and professional commitments will elude everyone.


Unfortunately, this reality affects women far more than men. We need to work together—alongside government and private industry—to make the changes because they will benefit everyone: women, men, our communities, our economies, our children, our grandchildren. Join us.


***


Footnotes, for your reading and research pleasure:

[1] Miriam A. Ferguson, first female governor of Texas, was elected the same day, but inaugurated fifteen days after Ross giving Ross the distinction of being, officially, the first female governor. Currently, nine women serve as governors of US states.


[2] Michael S. Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 65.


[3] Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage, (New York: Penguin, 2005), 161.


[4] Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Also a Mother: Work and Family as Theological Dilemma, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 67. Miller-McLemore makes her case citing examples of efforts from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Fraces Willard in the nineteenth century.


[5] Miller-McLemore, 67.


[6] “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana (1905) Reason in Common Sense, volume 1 of The Life of Reason.


[7] Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 52.


[8] Barbara Kellerman and Deborah Rhode, Women and Leadership: The State of Play and Strategies for Change, (New York: Jossey Bass, 2010), 2.


[9] Heather Joslyn, “A Man’s World,” The Chronicle of Philanthropy, September 17, 2009. “Despite the preponderance of women in nonprofit jobs, they are entirely absent from chief executive roles at certain kinds of big charities. No arts-and-culture organization, hospital, public-affairs group, Jewish federation, or other religious organization in The Chronicle's survey of the 400 biggest charities is currently headed by a woman. Among environmental and animal-welfare groups, only one has a female leader, and the same is true of museums and libraries.” Note: Updated research published in Nonprofit Quarterly and GuideStar in 2018 demonstrate that these gaps persist, as does the nonprofit gender pay gap.


[10] Miller-McLemore, 58.

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