Not many know that in 1982 Champaign-Urbana played a notable role in a “chain-in” protest against the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment at the State Legislature in Springfield, Illinois. This passionate feminist action gained widespread national media coverage, including a centerfold photo by renowned photographer Annie Leibowitz in Life Magazine. It was driven mostly by women from the Champaign-Urbana area: Mary Lee Sargent, former Women’s History professor at Parkland College; Berenice Carroll, former Director of Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois; Jane Mohraz, former editor at the University of Illinois Press; Kari Alice Lynn, cleaning business owner; and me, Pauline Kayes, former Women’s Studies professor at Parkland College. Along the way, a number of other local women, like Anne Casey, Loretta Manning, Joyce Meyer, Nila Blair, Sue Yarber, Pat Cramer, Nancy DeLew, and Marlena Williams, joined us for a milestone in women’s history that proved feminism can be the guiding light not only to resist white male patriarchy but also to advance women’s equality in every realm.
Thirty-five years later, we are living in a surreal epilogue to Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale (how appropriate that a Hulu television version will premiere this coming April). As one of my “sister chainers” recently remarked, “We are watching everything women worked for in the past 40 years unravel in just a few months.” How did we get here? My view is that we underestimated the devious tactics of a white male supremacist patriarchal culture and society to deprecate and repress women in order to hold on to power. My view is that we let the light of feminism dim so much that we did not realize how imperative it would be to counteract the insidious, deeply- rooted hatred of women that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy provoked in both men and women.
If misogyny is a key operating ideology of patriarchy, feminism would be the antidote. But during the campaign, feminism was mostly lost in a “bewilderness” of what we called in the eighties M (male) A (approval) D (desire): MAD women and men speaking in tongues to distract and bamboozle us. And so misogyny was left unencumbered, to become one of the main fuels (along with racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and classism) to fire up the “election” of a white male patriarch-in-chief with a warped misogynist world view that “grabbing women’s pussies” is a way to “respect” women.
I won’t list here all the ways that Hillary Clinton was held to an impossible double standard, insulted and maligned, threatened and hated, vilified and misrepresented, lied about and stereotyped. What we need to realize is that the common malicious thread to all of this propaganda was the personification of Hillary as the frightening female stereotype that undermines many intelligent, ambitious women: cartoons of her being burned at the stake; chants of “lock her up”; doctored video loops portraying her as old and sick; constant name-calling as bitch, witch, cunt; nicknames of “Killary,” “Shrillary,” and “Crooked Hillary.” It was no surprise that those who are privileged by the white male patriarchy would resort to misogyny to prevent Hillary from being elected. But most disconcerting for me was the fact that this same misogynist propaganda originated by right-wing media was repeated by some progressives on the left, both men and women (think Susan Sarandon) to rationalize why they would vote for any other woman but Hillary (think Jill Stein).
And then we wonder how an ignorant, incompetent, crude, bigoted, and lying white man was “elected”? Obviously the rules of the patriarchy make any unqualified, inexperienced white man superior to any qualified, experienced woman. Obviously, Hillary Clinton was expected to be perfect with no flaws or mistakes whatsoever while the white man who landed in the White House could be “bad to the bone.” Sound familiar?
A favorite mantra of the feminist movement in the ’70s and ’80s was “the personal is the political”—meaning that every aspect of life could be analyzed through a feminist lens to reveal the subordination, inequity, and objectification of women in patriarchal culture: housework, sex, politics, education, law, advertising, film, music, family, child care, employment, art, marriage, rape, literature, communication, religion, etc. And from this lens came an incredible wealth of new women’s studies knowledge, courses, and organizations. In 1976, I wrote one of the first Women’s Studies theses in the country for my Master’s in English at Purdue University: “The Evolution of the Authentic Female Voice in Women Writers.” When I attended the founding convention of the National Women’s Studies Association in San Francisco in the late 1970s, I was just one of a small group of feminist academics and activists sharing this new knowledge in just a few disciplines. By 1986, when the University of Illinois hosted the National Women’s Studies Conference, women’s studies knowledge was burgeoning in hundreds of colleges and universities across the world in almost every discipline.
Three concepts were pivotal to women’s studies knowledge and feminist activism in the ’80s: patriarchy, misogyny, and feminism. To appreciate the radical nature of these concepts, I would recommend reading their definitions in A Feminist Dictionary (1985), compiled by Cheris Kramarae, Paula Treichler, and Ann Russo (also from the U of I). Patriarchy is described as systemic and institutionalized dominance of white males and subordination of females in every aspect of life. Misogyny is the hatred of and disgust for actual women, girls, and females as well as for any trait or abstraction associated with the female or the feminine—all used to justify the mistreatment and disempowerment of women. Although these concepts were the backbone of second-wave feminism, for the millennial generation they were no longer seen as essential to understanding and improving women’s lives. Big mistake, because these crucial constructs for analyzing what writer Adrienne Rich termed the “lies, secrets, and silence” of a dysfunctional, conspiratorial patriarchy went missing at one of the most pivotal moments in history.
Unfortunately, the kind of feminist activism and power we needed to counteract the treachery of the one-two punch of patriarchy and misogyny against Hillary Clinton before the election only came one day after the “inauguration” of Trump. Five million women and men protested in 946 towns and cities around the world because it became all too clear that now the “political was the personal,” with civil liberties, women’s rights, health care, environmental regulations, etc. about to erode daily by the swipe of his pen. In a telephone interview, Sargent reflected on the emergence of a new women’s movement: “It fills me with hope, especially since the movement arising from the January 21 women’s marches is led by women of color, who grasp in a way that the earlier white-led movement did not: womanists and feminists must confront all forms of subordination as they intersect with our oppression as women.”
(To learn more about the 1982 action, visit the website for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library to listen to my oral history interviews conducted in 2013 (ERA Fight in Illinois) with Mark DePue, Director of Oral History for the Lincoln Library, https://www.illinois.gov/alplm/library/collections/oralhistory/illinoisstatecraft/era/Pages/Kayes,Pauline.aspx)
Pauline E. Kayes was a professor of Women’s Studies at Parkland College for 35 years. Since 2002, she has been President of DiversityWorks Inc., a coalition of educational consultants providing comprehensive diversity education to colleges, universities, K-12 schools, communities, organizations, and businesses (www.diversityworksinc.net).