The ongoing emancipation of women is this country's finest social achievement. Why, then, does something with so much to be said for it have so few partisans saying interesting things? Specifically, how did something so grand and difficult come to be identified with something so trivial and undemanding as ERA?
These questions crept into my mind because the Equal Rights Amendment was resubmitted to Congress just as I was reading Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own." Based on dazzling lectures delivered in 1928, it is a much- needed model of feminism for grown-ups.
I will not rehearse yet again the arguments against cluttering the Constitution with ERA, a nullity that adds nothing to the equal protection, due process and other guarantees for all "persons." I will, however, confess to having mistakenly assumed that no worse argument for ERA could be invented than the one that ERA is necessary to "put women in the Constitution" and "raise consciousnesses." Comes now the argument that the republic's fundamental law should be messed around with because recent elections revealed a "gender gap."
Sensible persons are bored by the grandstanding, fund-raising and frantic laziness that is the essence of the endless ERA campaign. But persons interested in a serious statement of what sexual equity depends on should ponder Woolf's idea that what a woman really needs is a room of her own. Granted, Woolf's concern (for which she was abused) was with exceptional women--writers of promise. But her point is generally applicable. It is that intellectual independence depends on material things.
Her message was not welcomed by persons who, when women's suffrage was won, had said, "Well, that's that." And her point should trouble persons fixated by a gesture like ERA.
Why, she asked, have there been so few women writers? Because, she answered, women have been generally poor and invariably subordinate. Furthermore, there was until recently no nourishing tradition of women writers. (Today's finest writers are disproportionately women--Margaret Drabble in England, Mary Gordon and Anne Tyler in America, to pick from scores of examples. When Woolf and others energized the tradition, its growth became exponential.) And women have had children; they have not had immersion in the enlarging swirl of the world.
In a flight of chilling whimsy, Woolf wonders what would have happened if Shakespeare had had a sister with comparable genius. Woolf imagines her driven to suicide, crazed by the torture of creative urges permitted no outlet. The conditions of her life would have been inimical--indeed, prohibitive--to the state of mind necessary for expressing her gifts.
Writing well is terribly difficult; it requires concentration, tranquillity. But Jane Austen, according to her nephew, "had no separate study to repair to." Writing is fertilized by experience. Suppose she had gone to sea, or the Crimean War, or even to London, instead of just to the sitting room. Could Tolstoy, situated as Austen was, have written "War and Peace"?
Any excellence demands not only a formal right to think for oneself, but resources: time and suitable conditions--an income and a room of one's own. Woolf's analysis of why, up to 1928, there had been so few women writers can be extended beyond literature to the professions. And from such analysis flows a moral imperative--a long, complicated, demanding agenda of social change.
One cannot promote the dissolution of patriarchal mores without painstaking work that is less simple and amusing than campaigning for a constitutional vacuity like ERA. It cannot be done without the provision of material things: equal access to education and credit, recruitment into roles of authority, ample immersion in the shaping rigors of athletics, and much more. The health of a society always short on talent, and justice to individuals, depends on this momentous undertaking. But what has ERA to do with it?
It is, perhaps, still possible for persons with disorienting emotional investments in the ERA cause to convince themselves that ERA would, through some inexplicable causality, alter the social climate, and would do so sufficiently to justify the investment of additional millions of dollars and hours in the struggle. But it is an abuse of the Constitution to base change on vague hopes of climatic change. And it is obvious that substantial concrete advantages--the moral equivalent of rooms of their own--could have been secured for many women by wiser investment of the resources already squandered in the 10-year obsession with a constitutional redundancy.
Women addicted to the narcotic of ERA campaigning are solemn without being serious. Their characteristics are the reverse of those Virginia Woolf displayed in her almost conversational yet steely and mind-opening masterpiece.