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Pandora’s Box and the Volunteer Police Force

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Posted on May 22, 2014

Photo by Mycael (CC BY 2.0)

By Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch

This piece first appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.

[This essay is from Rebecca Solnit’s new book, Men Explain Things to Me, and appears at TomDispatch.com with the permission of Haymarket Books and Dispatch Books.]

The history of women’s rights and feminism is often told as though it were a person who should already have gotten to the last milestone or has failed to make enough progress toward it. Around the millennium lots of people seemed to be saying that feminism had failed or was over. On the other hand, there was a wonderful feminist exhibition in the 1970s entitled “Your 5,000 Years Are Up.” It was a parody of all those radical cries to dictators and abusive regimes that your [fill in the blank] years are up. It was also making an important point.

Feminism is an endeavor to change something very old, widespread, and deeply rooted in many, perhaps most, cultures around the world, innumerable institutions, and most households on Earth—and in our minds, where it all begins and ends. That so much change has been made in four or five decades is amazing; that everything is not permanently, definitively, irrevocably changed is not a sign of failure. A woman goes walking down a thousand-mile road. Twenty minutes after she steps forth, they proclaim that she still has 999 miles to go and will never get anywhere.

It takes time. There are milestones, but so many people are traveling along that road at their own pace, and some come along later, and others are trying to stop everyone who’s moving forward, and a few are marching backward or are confused about what direction they should go in. Even in our own lives we regress, fail, continue, try again, get lost, and sometimes make a great leap, find what we didn’t know we were looking for, and yet continue to contain contradictions for generations.

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The road is a neat image, easy to picture, but it misleads when it tells us that the history of change and transformation is a linear path, as though you could describe South Africa and Sweden and Pakistan and Brazil all marching along together in unison. There is another metaphor I like that expresses not progress but irrevocable change: it’s Pandora’s box, or, if you like, the genies (or djinnis) in bottles in the Arabian Nights. In the myth of Pandora, the usual emphasis is on the dangerous curiosity of the woman who opened the jar—it was really a jar, not a box the gods gave her—and thereby let all the ills out into the world.

Sometimes the emphasis is on what stayed in the jar: hope. But what’s interesting to me right now is that, like the genies, or powerful spirits, in the Arabian stories, the forces Pandora lets out don’t go back into the bottle. Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of Knowledge and they are never ignorant again. (Some ancient cultures thanked Eve for making us fully human and conscious.) There’s no going back. You can abolish the reproductive rights women gained in 1973, with Roe v. Wade, when the Supreme Court legalized abortion—or rather ruled that women had a right to privacy over their own bodies that precluded the banning of abortion. But you can’t so easily abolish the idea that women have certain inalienable rights.

Interestingly, to justify that right, the judges cited the Fourteenth Amendment, the constitutional amendment adopted in 1868, as part of the post-Civil War establishment of rights and freedoms for the formerly enslaved. So you can look at the antislavery movement—with powerful female participation and feminist repercussions—that eventually led to that Fourteenth Amendment, and see, more than a century later, how that amendment comes to serve women specifically. “The chickens come home to roost” is supposed to be a curse you bring on yourself, but sometimes the birds that return are gifts.

Thinking Out of the Box

What doesn’t go back in the jar or the box are ideas. And revolutions are, most of all, made up of ideas. You can whittle away at reproductive rights, as conservatives have in most states of the union, but you can’t convince the majority of women that they should have no right to control their own bodies. Practical changes follow upon changes of the heart and mind. Sometimes legal, political, economic, environmental changes follow upon those changes, though not always, for where power rests matters. Thus, for example, most Americans polled would like to see economic arrangements very different from those we have, and most are more willing to see radical change to address climate change than the corporations that control those decisions and the people who make them.

But in social realms, imagination wields great power. The most dramatic arena in which this has taken place is rights for gays, lesbians, and transgender people. Less than half a century ago, to be anything but rigorously heterosexual was to be treated as either criminal or mentally ill or both, and punished severely. Not only were there no protections against such treatment, there were laws mandating persecution and exclusion.

These remarkable transformations are often told as stories of legislative policy and specific campaigns to change laws. But behind those lies the transformation of imagination that led to a decline in the ignorance, fear, and hatred called homophobia. American homophobia seems to be in just such a steady decline, more a characteristic of the old than the young. That decline was catalyzed by culture and promulgated by countless queer people who came out of the box called the closet to be themselves in public. As I write this, a young lesbian couple has just been elected as joint homecoming queens at a high school in Southern California and two gay boys were voted cutest couple in their New York high school. This may be trivial high school popularity stuff, but it would have been stunningly impossible not long ago.

It’s important to note that the very idea that marriage could extend to two people of the same gender may only be possible because feminists broke out marriage from the hierarchical system it had been in and reinvented it as a relationship between equals. Those who are threatened by marriage equality are, many things suggest, as threatened by the idea of equality between heterosexual couples as same-sex couples. Liberation is a contagious project, speaking of birds coming home to roost.

Homophobia, like misogyny, is still terrible, just not as terrible as it was in, say, 1970. Finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task. It involves being hopeful and motivated and keeping eyes on the prize ahead. Saying that everything is fine or that it will never get any better are ways of going nowhere or of making it impossible to go anywhere. Either approach implies that there is no road out or that, if there is, you don’t need to or can’t go down it. You can. We have.


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