In the half-century since I wrote the essay below, as part of a cover story on “The Politics of Sex,” there has been some definite progress. “Women’s issues” are no longer in a silo but are understood as fundamental to everything. For instance, the single biggest determinant of whether a country is violent, or will use military violence against another country, is not poverty, natural resources, religion or even degree of democracy; it is violence against women. And since racial separation can’t be perpetuated in the long run without controlling reproduction—and thus women’s bodies—racism and sexism are intertwined and can only be uprooted together.
A belief in equality, without division by sex or race, is now held by a huge majority in public–opinion polls. But a stubborn minority of Americans feel deprived of the unearned privilege of that old hierarchy and are in revolt. The time of greatest danger comes after a victory, and that’s where we are now. Many of the predictions of my 50-year-old essay about the future hold up, but there are a few lessons I’ve learned since then (including to negotiate a writing fee beforehand, since my agent later told me I was paid less than male contributors).
I won’t be around when these words are read 50 years from now, but I have faith in you who will be.
Steinem is a writer and feminist organizer
What It Would Be Like If Women Win
By Gloria Steinem
Originally published: Aug. 31, 1970
Seldom do utopias pass from dream to reality, but it is often an illuminating exercise to predict what could happen if they did. The following very personal and partisan speculations on how the world might be different if Women’s Lib had its way were written for TIME by Gloria Steinem, a contributing editor of New York magazine, whose journalistic curiosity ranges from show business to Democratic politics. Miss Steinem admits to being not only a critical observer but a concerned advocate of the feminist revolt.
Any change is fearful, especially one affecting both politics and sex roles, so let me begin these utopian speculations with a fact. To break the ice.
Women don’t want to exchange places with men. Male chauvinists, science-fiction writers and comedians may favor that idea for its shock value, but psychologists say it is a fantasy based on ruling-class ego and guilt. Men assume that women want to imitate them, which is just what white people assumed about blacks. An assumption so strong that it may convince the second-class group of the need to imitate, but for both women and blacks that stage has passed. Guilt produces the question: What if they could treat us as we have treated them?
That is not our goal. But we do want to change the economic system to one more based on merit. In Women’s Lib Utopia, there will be free access to good jobs — and decent pay for the bad ones women have been performing all along, including housework. *Increased skilled labor might lead to a four-hour workday, and higher wages would encourage further mechanization of repetitive jobs now kept alive by cheap labor.
*Gloria Steinem in 2020: As people look at screens more than at one another, the opposite has happened; the workday never ends
*With women as half the country’s elected representatives, and a woman President once in a while, the country’s machismo problems would be greatly reduced. The old-fashioned idea that manhood depends on violence and victory is, after all, an important part of our troubles in the streets, and in Viet Nam. I’m not saying that women leaders would eliminate violence. We are not more moral than men; we are only uncorrupted by power so far. When we do acquire power, we might turn out to have an equal impulse toward aggression. Even now, Margaret Mead believes that women fight less often but more fiercely than men, because women are not taught the rules of the war game and fight only when cornered. But for the next 50 years or so, women in politics will be very valuable by tempering the idea of manhood into something less aggressive and better suited to this crowded, post-atomic planet. Consumer protection and children’s rights, for instance, might get more legislative attention.
*Gloria Steinem in 2020: With Trump as a backlash to Obama, almost any woman President would be a relief
Men will have to give up ruling-class privileges, but in return they will no longer be the only ones to support the family, get drafted, bear the strain of power and responsibility. Freud to the contrary, anatomy is not destiny, at least not for more than nine months at a time. In Israel, women are drafted, and some have gone to war. In England, more men type and run switchboards. In India and Israel, a woman rules. In Sweden, both parents take care of the children. In this country, come Utopia, men and women won’t reverse roles; they will be free to choose according to individual talents and preferences.
If role reform sounds sexually unsettling, think how it will change the sexual hypocrisy we have now. No more sex arranged on the barter system, with women pretending interest, and men never sure whether they are loved for themselves or for the security few women can get any other way. (Married or not, for sexual reasons or social ones, most women still find it second nature to Uncle-Tom.) No more men who are encouraged to spend a lifetime living with inferiors; with housekeepers, or dependent creatures who are still children. No more domineering wives, emasculating women, and “Jewish mothers,” all of whom are simply human beings with all their normal ambition and drive confined to the home. No more unequal partnerships that eventually doom love and sex.
In order to produce that kind of confidence and individuality, child rearing will train according to talent. Little girls will no longer be surrounded by air-tight, self-fulfilling prophecies of natural passivity, lack of ambition and objectivity, inability to exercise power, and dexterity (so long as special aptitude for jobs requiring patience and dexterity is confined to poorly paid jobs; brain surgery is for males).
Schools and universities will help to break down traditional sex roles, even when parents will not. *Half the teachers will be men, a rarity now at preschool and elementary levels; girls will not necessarily serve cookies or boys hoist up the flag. Athletic teams will be picked only by strength and skill. Sexually segregated courses like auto mechanics and home economics will be taken by boys and girls together. New courses in sexual politics will explore female subjugation as the model for political oppression, and women’s history will be an academic staple, along with black history, at least until the white-male-oriented textbooks are integrated and rewritten.
*Gloria Steinem in 2020: Not until we start paying public-school teachers as much as every other democracy does
As for the American child’s classic problem—too much mother, too little father—that would be cured by an equalization of parental responsibility. Free nurseries, school lunches, family cafeterias built into every housing complex, service companies that will do household cleaning chores in a regular, businesslike way, and more responsibility by the entire community for the children: all these will make it possible for both mother and father to work, and to have equal leisure time with the children at home. For parents of very young children, however, a special job category, created by Government and unions, would allow such parents a shorter work day.
The revolution would not take away the option of being a housewife. A woman who prefers to be her husband’s housekeeper and/or hostess would receive a percentage of his pay determined by the domestic relations courts. If divorced, she might be eligible for a pension fund, and for a job-training allowance. *Or a divorce could be treated the same way that the dissolution of a business partnership is now.
*Gloria Steinem in 2020: Once domestic labor is accorded the same value as salaried work
If these proposals seem farfetched, consider Sweden, where most of them are already in effect. Sweden is not yet a working Women’s Lib model; most of the role-reform programs began less than a decade ago, and are just beginning to take hold. But that country is so far ahead of us in recognizing the problem that Swedish statements on sex and equality sound like bulletins from the moon.
Our marriage laws, for instance, are so reactionary that Women’s Lib groups want couples to take a compulsory written exam on the law, as for a driver’s license, before going through with the wedding. A man has alimony and wifely debts to worry about, but a woman may lose so many of her civil rights that in the U.S. now, in important legal ways, she becomes a child again. In some states, she cannot sign credit agreements, use her maiden name, incorporate a business, or establish a legal residence of her own. Being a wife, according to most social and legal definitions, is still a 19th century thing.
Assuming, however, that these blatantly sexist laws are abolished or reformed, that job discrimination is forbidden, that parents share financial responsibility for each other and the children, and that sexual relationships become partnerships of equal adults (some pretty big assumptions), then marriage will probably go right on. Men and women are, after all, physically complementary. When society stops encouraging men to be exploiters and women to be parasites, they may turn out to be more complementary in emotion as well. Women’s Lib is not trying to destroy the American family. A look at the statistics on divorce—plus the way in which old people are farmed out with strangers and young people flee the home—shows the destruction that has already been done. Liberated women are just trying to point out the disaster, and build compassionate and practical alternatives from the ruins.
What will exist is a variety of alternative life-styles. Since the population explosion dictates that childbearing be kept to a minimum, parents-and-children will be only one of many “families”: couples, age groups, working groups, mixed communes, blood-related clans, class groups, creative groups. Single women will have the right to stay single without ridicule, without the attitudes now betrayed by “spinster” and “bachelor.” Lesbians or homosexuals will no longer be denied legally binding marriages, complete with mutual-support agreements and inheritance rights. Paradoxically, the number of homosexuals may get smaller. With fewer overpossessive mothers and fewer fathers who hold up an impossibly cruel or perfectionist idea of manhood, boys will be less likely to be denied or reject their identity as males.
Changes that now seem small may get bigger:
MEN’S LIB. Men now suffer from more diseases due to stress, heart attacks, ulcers, a higher suicide rate, greater difficulty living alone, less adaptability to change and, in general, a shorter life span than women. There is some scientific evidence that what produces physical problems is not work itself, but the inability to choose which work, and how much. With women bearing half the financial responsibility, and with the idea of “masculine” jobs gone, men might well feel freer and live longer.
RELIGION. Protestant women are already becoming ordained ministers; radical nuns are carrying out liturgical functions that were once the exclusive property of priests; Jewish women are rewriting prayers—particularly those that Orthodox Jews recite every morning thanking God they are not female. In the future, the church will become an area of equal participation by women. This means, of course, that organized religion will have to give up one of its great historical weapons: sexual repression. In most structured faiths, from Hinduism through Roman Catholicism, the status of women went down as the position of priests ascended. Male clergy implied, if they did not teach, that women were unclean, unworthy and sources of ungodly temptation, in order to remove them as rivals for the emotional forces of men. Full participation of women in ecclesiastical life might involve certain changes in theology, such as, for instance, a radical redefinition of sin.
LITERARY PROBLEMS. Revised sex roles will outdate more children’s books than civil rights ever did. Only a few children had the problem of a Little Black Sambo, but most have the male-female stereotypes of “Dick and Jane.” A boomlet of children’s books about mothers who work has already begun, and liberated parents and editors are beginning to pressure for change in the textbook industry. Fiction writing will change more gradually, but romantic novels with wilting heroines and swashbuckling heroes will be reduced to historical value. Or perhaps to the sadomasochist trade. (Marjorie Morningstar, a romantic novel that took the ’50s by storm, has already begun to seem as unreal as its ’20s predecessor, The Sheik.) As for the literary plots that turn on forced marriages or horrific abortions, they will seem as dated as Prohibition stories. Free legal abortions and free birth control will force writers to give up pregnancy as the deus ex machina.
MANNERS AND FASHION. Dress will be more androgynous, with class symbols becoming more important than sexual ones. Pro-or anti-Establishment styles may already be more vital than who is wearing them. Hardhats are just as likely to rough up antiwar girls as antiwar men in the street, and police understand that women are just as likely to be pushers or bombers. Dances haven’t required that one partner lead the other for years, anyway. Chivalry will transfer itself to those who need it, or deserve respect: old people, admired people, anyone with an armload of packages. Women with normal work identities will be less likely to attach their whole sense of self to youth and appearance; thus there will be fewer nervous breakdowns when the first wrinkles appear. Lighting cigarettes and other treasured niceties will become gestures of mutual affection. “I like to be helped on with my coat,” says one Women’s Lib worker, “but not if it costs me $2,000 a year in salary.”
For those with nostalgia for a simpler past, here is a word of comfort. Anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer studied the few peaceful human tribes and discovered one common characteristic: sex roles were not polarized. Differences of dress and occupation were at a minimum. Society, in other words, was not using sexual blackmail as a way of getting women to do cheap labor, or men to be aggressive.
*Thus Women’s Lib may achieve a more peaceful society on the way toward its other goals. That is why the Swedish government considers reform to bring about greater equality in the sex roles one of its most important concerns. As Prime Minister Olof Palme explained in a widely ignored speech delivered in Washington this spring: “It is human beings we shall emancipate. In Sweden today, if a politician should declare that the woman ought to have a different role from man’s, he would be regarded as something from the Stone Age.” In other words, the most radical goal of the movement is egalitarianism.
If Women’s Lib wins, perhaps we all do.
*Gloria Steinem in 2020: The relationship between violence against females and all violence other than self-defense should inform our foreign policy
This article is part of 100 Women of the Year, TIME’s list of the most influential women of the past century. Read more about the project, explore the 100 covers and sign up for our Inside TIME newsletter for more.