Is the modern world ringing the death knell of feminism? With women gradually being integrated into all walks of life, is feminism poised to become an outdated concept? According to Estelle Freedman, author of No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women, the answer is a resounding NO. Freedman, a professor of feminist studies at Stanford University, was encouraged to author this volume when she failed to find for an acquaintance a single book that covered the various aspects of feminist scholarship. Her endeavor to fill that void led to this extraordinary book, a tour de force that leaves the reader convinced that gender struggles are far from over and that new challenges in the politics of family, work, health and sexuality have yet to be faced by the feminist movements throughout the world.
A very basic question that Freedman tries to tackle is the negative connotation of the term feminism. Despite the fact that many women (and men) believe in the concept of basic equality between the genders, they are loathe to call themselves feminists. Freedman defines feminism as “a belief that women and men are inherently of equal worth. Because most societies privilege men as a group, social movements are necessary to achieve equality between women and men, with the understanding that gender always intersects with other social hierarchies.” Why, then, are people uncomfortable with this term? Is it popular misconception, media hype or simply fear of women’s independence? In Freeman’s own words (and one of the many gems in the book), “feminism by providing a powerful critique of the idea of a timeless social hierarchy, in which God or nature preordained women’s dependence on men, has the potential to deconstruct categories such as gender, race and sexuality.” Hence the discomfort!
Starting with the emergence of the feminist movement to its modern day avatars across nations and cultures, Freeman discusses at length some of the major struggles women face on the road toward equality. Their work at home being largely unpaid labor, women are at an economic disadvantage. Where they work in factories and offices, they are underpaid and rarely hold powerful positions. All this translates to a political disadvantage with fewer women occupying the role of policy makers. In most countries, therefore, legislation is made by men and often does not reflect women’s choices.
Apart from political and economic rights, feminists are also battling over physical and reproductive rights, and Freedman's book discusses these at length. These have turned out to be complex issues with the spread of HIV, lack of contraception facilities and anti-abortion legislation. The author feels that all these notwithstanding, a gradual redefining of the female choices and form is visible and goes on to narrate a wonderful event that occurred during the 1999 finale of the World cup soccer championships, when American player Brandi Chastain’s kicked the penalty shot into a winning goal and pulled off her soccer shirt with a victory cry. This act that claimed equality with the male soccer players also exposed her strong fit body in shorts and a sports bra and captured the new meaning of the female form - fit, fashionable, sexual and strong.
A great read, No Turning Back is a must for anyone wishing to understand the complexities that contribute to the gender gap and hierarchy in society today, and how feminism must shape policies to enable changes in labor, reproduction and culture to ensure justice and equality for the peoples of the earth. As Gertrude Mongella, a Tanzanian politician and women’s rights activist, says, “A revolution has begun and there is no turning back.” Freedman shows us that there is a long way to go. The time has not come to sing a requiem to the women’s movement. At least not yet.