From the ERA to Black Lives Matter: Is momentum enough to generate actual change?

By Valerie Steenhaut

Published Jun 11, 2020 at 11:07 AM

Reading time: 2 minutes

Global politics

Jun 11, 2020

In times of pandemic-induced isolation followed by outbursts of racist police violence, our awareness of injustice has risen, leaving us wavering between senses of anger and powerlessness. Many of us, especially white people like myself, are taking this unreal momentum as a privileged opportunity to learn, listen and question our day-to-day values and actions—which were previously hidden under a frantic pace of routine. But is momentum enough to generate actual change?

Last week, HBO aired the final episode of Mrs America, a series depicting the US’ complex struggle for social reform, following the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) movement, which fought and protested to incorporate gender equality into the American constitution. Simultaneously, the series also represents a notable moment in time where second-wave feminists were at their peak point, believing they could affect real, systemic change. 

The dreadful power of the story lies, however, in seeing how the progressive feminists lose (the ERA is still not ratified in the US), as we see history backlash before our eyes. The weapon behind this backlash is Phyllis Schlafly, an intelligent, conservative anti-feminist housewife, who succeeds in mobilising a counter-campaign paving the way for Trumpian populism and neo-conservative politics. US President Donald Trump is even known to have attended her funeral as a sign of gratitude to her legacy. Cheers for that, Schlafly.

In the introduction to Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique (a second wave, white feminist classic), Lionel Shriver writes: “Social progress is reliably two steps forward, one step back.” Comparing the movements of the 1960s and 1970s, a general momentum for civil rights, we indeed encounter countless stories of similar backlashes—moments where movements came close to real, radical change, before being cut down again by an opposition that’s too afraid to admit they might have been wrong and too comfortable to accept any change.

Watching President Trump marching into a Church, Bible in hand, in the middle of a wave of international outrage, we’ve come to understand just how deeply divided our world has become. As most of us probably got caught last week in the #BlackoutTuesday discussion, many probably didn’t even see any black squares on their feed. Some might even have sent loving emojis to the US police forces, in praise of their reaction to the “devastating riots attacking their nation.”

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Anarchists, we see you!

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It’s striking to realise (and learn, for some) exactly how we have been living inside a bubble on either side of the political spectrum, enforced by our like-minded friends and the algorithms which provide us with content we already agree with. Very rarely are we presented with ideas that challenge our way of understanding the world. We have gone as far as ignoring those specific moments and facts. This echo chamber has made us deeply underestimate our opponents, it has prevented us from hearing minority voices, and has divided us as a society.

In the middle of the world’s divide, there seems to be little room left for universal, common goals, which should go beyond left or right-wing. In a way, we are worse off than the political movements of the seventies, who at the time could get the support of progressive conservatives capable of seeing oppressive systems (the then First Lady Betty Ford, a Republican, was a vocal feminist who supported abortion rights and the ERA). This political type today seems to be nonexistent.

It’s demoralising to realise how many issues have generally remained unchanged, not only when it comes to Mrs America’s gender issues, but also in terms of race, climate justice and public access to education, healthcare and unemployment benefits. It’s shocking how, once we start looking, the intersectionality of discrimination becomes visible everywhere. 

History has already shown us that momentum is not enough. What we can learn from both feminism and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, is that continuous awareness, continuous learning and continuous activism can.

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