Published in the January 12, 2004 issue of The Nation
Good News for Women
by Katha Pollitt
There was plenty of gloomy news for women in 2003. American women make just under 80 cents on the male dollar for full-time, year-round work. We lost Carolyn Heilbrun, Carol Shields, Rachel Corrie, Nina Simone and Martha Griffiths. Russia tightened its abortion laws; in Slovakia Romani women were sterilized without their permission; Iraqi women were freed from Saddam but confined to their houses by crime and Islamic fundamentalists. The Globe ran a slutty cover photo of Kobe Bryant's accuser. The New York Times reported that women are having painful and potentially crippling surgery on their toes in order to fit into their Manolos and Jimmy Choos, while in China, where short people are subject to major discrimination, they are undergoing excruciating operations to lengthen their legs. What's the matter with people? Don't answer that.
Still, it's the end of the year, so let's break out the champagne for good news around the world for women in 2003--accomplishments, activism, bold deeds and grounds for hope.
1. Shirin Ebadi won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Iranian feminist and human rights crusader is the first Muslim woman to receive this honor. The ayatollahs are furious!
2. Hormone replacement therapy was further debunked. Instead of protecting you from Alzheimer's, it doubles your risk. The unmasking of HRT is a major triumph for the women's health movement, which has claimed for decades that its supposed benefits are drug-industry hype. You can read all about it in Barbara Seaman's devastating exposé, The Greatest Experiment Ever Performed on Women: Exploding the Estrogen Myth.
3. Antiwar activism got a feminist edge. The Lysistrata Project saw 1,029 productions of Aristophanes' hilarious, bawdy comedy performed all over the world on March 3. Code Pink took on Bush--and Schwarzenegger--with nervy humor.
4. Barbara Ransby's moving and invaluable Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision illuminated a behind-the-scenes heroine of the civil rights struggle. As Ransby showed, there are other, more egalitarian ways to move forward than by playing follow the leader.
5. A Department of Education commission rejected energetic efforts to water down Title IX, the main legal vehicle promoting equality for women's athletics in schools; the Supreme Court didn't overturn affirmative action.
6. Some movies had leading female characters who were not wives, girlfriends, prostitutes or assassins: Whale Rider, Bend It Like Beckham, Sylvia, Mona Lisa Smile. Sofia Coppola's Lost in Translation got raves. Older women were beautiful and sexy in Swimming Pool, starring the ever-fabulous Charlotte Rampling, and in Something's Gotta Give, where 57-year-old Diane Keaton gets to choose between grumpy-old-man Jack Nicholson and boy toy Keanu Reeves.
7. One in four people in Ireland saw The Magdalene Sisters, the movie that exposed the lifelong virtual consignment to hard labor in convent laundries of Irish girls who fell afoul of the church's harsh double standard of sexual morality by, for example, being raped.
8. Afghan women set the gold standard for courage with major conferences in Kandahar and Kabul to push for women's rights in the new constitution. At the loya jirga, 25-year-old delegate Malalai Joya electrified the world when she accused the mujahedeen who control the assembly of destroying the country in the early 1990s.
9. In Lawrence v. Texas, the Supreme Court struck down sodomy laws criminalizing gay sex. The Massachusetts Supreme Court, headed by a woman, ruled that the state Constitution required that gays should be able to marry.
10. Amina Lawal, condemned to death by stoning by a Nigerian Sharia court for having sex out of wedlock, was set free on appeal.
11. Prodded by an ACLU lawsuit, Michigan stopped drug-testing welfare recipients (only 7.8 percent came up positive, by the way--the same as at your office) as well as applicants.
12. Jessica Lynch showed herself a real heroine by refusing to go along with the propaganda parade.
13. Seventy-eight-year-old Essie Mae Washington-Williams confirmed longstanding rumors that she is the daughter of racist Senator Strom Thurmond and his family's 16-year-old black maid, Carrie Butler. That Strom died at 100, reputation intact, definitely proves that God does not exist.
14. In New York, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit upheld the 2001 ruling in Nicholson v. Scoppetta that child services can't take away the children of battered women.
15. Louise Glück, who has written poems that are burned into my brain, became Poet Laureate, only the ninth woman to hold the post in the past sixty-six years.
16. Desperately poor women in Nigeria's Niger Delta staged militant demonstrations--including stripping--against Shell, demanding that the company employ locals and share the wealth with the community. They won!
17. An FDA panel gave the thumbs-up to making emergency contraception an over-the-counter drug. Teen pregnancy, still too high, has hit a historic low.
18. Under heavy attack from women, DaimlerChrysler abandoned its sponsorship of the Lingerie Bowl, a pay-per-view Super Bowl halftime event involving models playing full-contact football in their underwear. Turns out women buy cars too.
19. Lieut. Gen. William "Jerry" Boykin, who thinks Allah is an idol and that God put Bush in the White House, quoted his ex-wife as follows: "I don't love you anymore, you're a religious fanatic, and I'm leaving you."
20. The Dixie Chicks survived. Pro-war crowds stomped on their records, Clear Channel refused to give them airplay and Christopher Hitchens called them "f**king fat slags." But they're still singing to sold-out crowds, and they're still great.
Hoping you are the same,
Happy New Year!
"Subject to Debate" columnist Katha Pollitt has written for The Nation since 1980. Pollitt's writing has appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, Ms. and the New York Times. In 2001, her Nation essays were published as a collection, Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.
© 2003 The Nation