A Day of One’s Own: Shelby Knox, Ariel Levy and Susan Estrich Reflect on Women’s Equality Day

img 3381 A Day of Ones Own: Shelby Knox, Ariel Levy and Susan Estrich Reflect on Womens Equality Day“Two, four, six, eight, Church and State don’t ovulate!” chanted the protesters at the Women’s Equality Day march held on Sunday’s anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment and organized by Women Organized to Resist and Defend (WORD). That amendment, passed on August 26, 1920, guaranteed women the right to vote, but some notable feminists still think the campaign for full equality is still alive and well.

“This is the first action we’ve organized,” related Karina Garcia, a press officer for WORD. The march kicked off at Times Square at 1 pm with over a hundred people participating, around a quarter of the crowd male. “Women have been treated like bargaining chips, particularly by the Democratic Party. Politicians seem to think that they can trade off our rights.”

Ms. Garcia was referring to the incident last summer when President Obama told the Republican Speaker of the House, John Boehner, “I’ll give you abortion in D.C.” to reach a budget compromise. This means that low-income women in the District of Columbia will be prevented from receiving Medicaid assistance offered by the D.C. government for abortion procedures.

On August 24, we bonded over dinner with Radical Women and their leader, Anne Slater. Radical Women is a socialist, feminist organization dedicated to achieving the full equality of women. It was formed in Seattle in 1967 and has since expanded into an international organization. The dinner was held at the Black Women’s Blueprint in Brooklyn, at the table where Ms. Coretta Scott-King, Rosa Parks and other Civil Rights activists communed to bring about change. This served as a reminder that the battle for suffrage came directly out of the battle against slavery.

“Right now, we are facing an attack on women’s rights,” Ms. Slater announced to the hushed room. “The media are calling it the War on Women. Over the last two years, state legislators have passed 164 laws restricting women’s rights.” Ms. Slater is visiting NYC to support the Durham-Lopez Freedom Socialist presidential campaign, which prioritizes survival issues facing women, LGBT communities, people of color and immigrants.

The Observer endeavored to speak to three pioneering women about the importance of campaigning for women’s rights. Activist Shelby Knox, who starred in “The Education of Shelby Knox,” documenting her campaign for comprehensive sex education in the high schools of Lubbock, Texas, told us why the documentary filmmakers had reached out to her.

“We had already made headlines in Lubbock with our campaign,” Ms. Knox recounted. “In the Washington Post a reporter wrote:- ‘There’s nothing to do in Lubbock except have sex, says 15 year old virginity pledger, Shelby Knox.’ My parents and grandmother were thrilled.”

Unfortunately, despite arduous campaigning, Ms. Knox did not succeed in changing the law.

“There is still an abstinence only policy,” she admitted. But the undaunted crusader has not stopped campaigning since then. Ms. Knox is now the Director of Organizing, Women’s Rights for Change.org and recently helped 14-year-old Julia Bluhm convince Seventeen magazine to make a pledge not to photoshop and to show diverse ranges of beauty in their pages.

For Ms. Knox, the dwindling support for the Feminist movement may be the result of poor education in schools concerning women’s struggle for equality.

“We are not really taught the history of women, both our struggle for our rights and also the history of what women contribute to the world,” she explained. “I think it’s very important that we have a day that we sit down and remember that history.”

“Any social reform takes about a century to really seep into society,” Ms. Knox replied when we asked how long she thinks it will take to reach full equality. “In this country we really do see unfortunately the birth of women’s rights in the 1960s so I would say, we’re into that century about 50 years. And I don’t know if in 50 years we’ll be completely equal but hopefully we’ll at least be having the right conversations.”

In Bryant Park, the Observer had lunch with Ariel Levy, author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the Rise of The Raunch Culture (2005), which criticized the highly sexualized American culture where women objectify each other and themselves, and where female sexuality is about performance rather than pleasure. Coincidentally, we were sitting next to a couple engaging in an enthusiastic game of tonsil tennis.

“They’re really fond of each other. They like each other a lot,” Ms. Levy commented. Tearing our eyes away from the spectacle, we asked how she had reacted to Republican Todd Akin’s infamous comments last week about “legitimate rape.”

“There are plenty of people who don’t have any sense of how the female body works and who don’t believe in science. I mean it’s the same minds that bring you Creationism,” she replied, unsurprised by his gaffe. “It’s a fundamental philosophical difference and you either think abortion is murder or you don’t… and if you don’t, then you don’t think people should be imposing their religious views on your body.”

For Ms. Levy, the public reaction to Mr. Akin’s comments proves that there is still an enduring Feminist conscience.

“People are in a genuine froth about that Akin quote,” she added. “I think it’s going to play a big part in the next election. The War on Women is sticking. People do care about that.”

In Female Chauvinist Pigs Ms. Levy hammered the point home that gender is constructed rather than innate, so we asked what she thought about campaigns such as Pinkstinks, which targets products and media to undo the “pinkification” of girlhood and the gender stereotyping of children’s toys.

“I don’t think the solution to fixing our world is to tell your daughter she can’t wear a tutu and be a ballerina if that’s what she wants,” Ms. Levy replied. “I think the point is to make it clear that there are other options.”

“The other thing that is really important is that you don’t want to be saying “pretty” all the time,” she added. “You don’t want to be drilling into a little female person from the minute she’s born that that’s her value. I think that to me is more something I would be fixated on as a parent than pink and blue, and dolls versus trucks, because a lot of the time it seems like resistance is futile.”

After coffee with Ms. Knox and lunch with Ms. Levy, the Observer finally managed to corner lawyer, professor and political commentator for Fox News, Susan Estrich. She bluntly declared that she would not be celebrating Women’s Equality Day.

“I think what I’d really celebrate is when we have Men’s Equality Day. The idea that we still have to have a Women’s Equality Day, it just suggests that we’re not even close,” Ms. Estrich replied. “It’s like every day we have Men’s Equality Day and then one day we pick out a day and say this is Women’s Equality Day.”

Mr. Akin’s comments about “legitimate rape” enraged Ms. Estrich who not only was a rape victim herself, but also published a book called Real Rape dealing with the legal and social issues surrounding the cataloguing of rape cases.

“The whole point of the book was that you didn’t have to be raped by a stranger in an alley, which I was, to be really raped,” Ms. Estrich told us. “I wrote that book in 1986, and what’s really depressing is to be making the same point in 2012. The problem is that you can change the words of the law but unless the public understanding, the public and prosecutor’s perception changes, having a better-worded statue doesn’t get you necessarily a different result.”

For Ms. Estrich, the “hook-up culture” of no-strings-attached sex, often under the influence of alcohol, unfortunately makes it much more difficult to prove a rape case.

“It can look in a lot of cases like a man is taking advantage of an inebriated woman. She is a state in which it may look like she can consent, but she really shouldn’t be held capable of giving consent,” stated Ms. Estrich. “I used to joke, only half in jest, that since everyone should be using condoms anyway to protect themselves, the condom container should have a space for two initials, and you should initial the condom the way you would for any other contract or agreement to show that you’re doing this voluntarily. And people would laugh, because it was, I quote, unromantic. I mean what’s so romantic about a woman who can’t see straight?”

When we asked all three interviewees what was the most critical issue for women since getting the vote, the control over one’s body was considered to be of the utmost importance.

“Until women have control over their reproductive freedom, they are not going to have full control over their lives,” reiterated Ms. Estrich. “We have won the battle in the courts but lost the war in many states and communities, because there is no access to abortion, or that access to abortion is so laden with punishment that many women are effectively denied safe, free access to abortion.”