“I Can’t Believe I Have to Say This”

This phrase is becoming something of a necessary cliché in enlightened speech about women. Last summer it surfaced in shocked responses to the Todd Akin “legitimate rape” mess. In September, Elizabeth Warren used it in her Democratic Convention speech to praise Obama for believing in “- and I can’t believe I have to say this in 2012 – a country where women get equal pay for equal work.”

It came up again last week in the fury over the media’s sympathy for the Steubenville rapists, when the blogger at The Belle Jar wrote a great piece reminding us that the young victim deserves justice not because she is some man’s daughter, sister, or wife but because “women are people. I seriously cannot believe that I have to say this in 2013.”

And why isn’t it obvious that women are people who deserve all due rights and respect? Because, as blogger Darlena Cunha writes, society still assumes that girls and women are simply worth less than men, and these assumptions go unquestioned “because [society] thinks we’ve overcome them. And if you’re above something, you don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s not you. It’s not what you are doing or what you think. Only it is. The problem is we think we’ve solved a problem when we haven’t.”

So when something like the Akin embarrassment or the media “coverage” of Steubenville happens and reminds us that there are still lots of folks who don’t actually believe girls and women are inherently worthy human beings, it feels pretty crazy. And we cannot freaking believe that we have to keep saying that the earth really is not flat. Disbelief is a logical reaction.

But at some collective level, the disbelief also seems real, which is important to notice because I think it reveals an interesting assumption about progress, like social progress does or should march along at a steady pace, that it is somehow neat and linear and permanent. That all we have to do is pass a few good laws and everything will be fine. And when something happens to contradict this belief, we are shocked at the failure of progress to keep up its obedient pace. We Americans love our progress, and we want it discounted online with free shipping.

But progress is more like a great and rocky friendship than a decent computer that surprises you when it crashes every so often.

I was reminded of this some months back when I stumbled across an early 20th century article about single motherhood, another topic the right loves to attack (more blogs on that coming up). The piece was written by Elsie Clews Parsons, an anthropologist, folklorist, professor at Columbia University, and the wife of senator Herbert Parsons. Parsons was also a feminist, and the paper she published is called “When Mating and Parenthood Are Theoretically Distinguished.” The year was 1916, the same year that Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic in the U.S.

Like Sanger, Parsons sought practical solutions to the curses of forced marriage, unwanted pregnancies, and the shaming of “illegitimate” children. In her paper, she coolly tosses aside the notion of women and children as property and even proposes insurance for mothers. It is truly stunning (for more details, read the article here).

Now, it would be easy to explain this away. We could dismiss Parsons as an elite outlier who obviously did not represent society. We could say that Parsons could dare to propose mothers’ insurance only because women didn’t have the economic opportunities available now. We could say that many more women today are choosing to be single parents, which makes the whole picture more complex.

But the fact is that Parsons, who as a senator’s wife had a public rep to worry about, had no qualms about refuting the outdated notions of women and children as men’s property and single motherhood as shameful. And she had no problem arguing that society should support (not shame) children born to unmarried parents. In 1916.

This is light years ahead of the latest conservative blather about how marriage is the solution for poor families (see data by Center for American Progress for an intelligent response). And it is eons away from the media’s treatment of the Steubenville crime.

Women obviously have more equality now than in 1916, but Parsons wrote in a time when women’s rights were steadily on the rise. The past two decades have seen many women’s rights under sustained attack, which is hard to believe when more women than ever go to college and have careers, and Sheryl Sandberg can write a book credibly advising women on how to be corporate bosses. And yet no one can deny that women’s reproductive rights have been seriously compromised. And now the latest report from Think Progress that the gender wage gap actually widened between 2011 and 2012.

This inconsistency is part of what makes the whole progress thing so hard to comprehend. We’ve got Sheryl Sandberg and we’ve got CNN on Steubenville.

But I think the psychological aspect of believing reality is actually harder. The idea that we really must believe that certain congressmen don’t understand the facts of pregnancy, that women have lost ground on equal pay, that entire news networks believe that rapists are worthier than victims – it is all exhausting.

If we want sustained progress, if we want to do more than just drive back the hooligans when they really get out of line, we are going to have to believe the scary truths no matter how much they embarrass our self-perception of living in an advanced democracy where equal opportunity reigns. And we will have to believe them for longer than the most dire news cycles and elections.

It’s not that we shouldn’t express outrage – we should and many do. The Belle Jar piece broke through the bedeviling fatigue in part because of its outrage. And what is amazing is that aside from the specifics about the Steubenville case and President Obama, the message of the piece is straight out of the 1970s. It does the work we need right now because, like it or not, we are dealing with some of the same basic problems (and a few worse) as 40 years ago.

But there’s a potentially happy ending here: if facing the scary truth means more furious blogs, pissed-off phone calls, and sleet-filled rallies, it also invites us to celebrate being female. Not in the velveeta navel-gazing way, because we don’t have that luxury any more than we can afford to get depressed and just go watch Downton Abbey. I mean celebrating being female by showing that we know what’s at stake. This is something I am trying to do with my young daughter to counteract the anti-female messages she encounters, some of which she has already started to mimic.

Paying real attention to women’s realities demands vigilance and a certain tolerance for pain, but it also implies joy because it invites us to remember people like Elsie Clews Parsons from nearly a century ago, and people like Elizabeth Warren today. It reminds us to notice the best of ourselves and to imagine how we can do things better with our kids and in our communities, right now.