By Pally, Marcia
The Nation , Vol. 240
In the past year pornography has commanded the public attention that demon rum did generations ago. On Nightline and the Cable News Network and in the pages of Newsweek, representatives of Women Against Pornography debate Al Goldstein (Screw) and Bob Guccione (Penthouse) on the one hand and civil libertarians on the other. The right wing applies a feminist patina to its antiporn platform: even Phyllis Schlafly's newsletter has changed its description of pornography from a moral and social evil to a danger to women. Ordinances banning porn, written and promoted by feminists Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin, have been introduced in Minneapolis and Los Angeles, and passed in Indianapolis [see Lois P. Sheinfeld, "Banning Porn: The New Censorship," The Nation, September 8, 1984]. Although the Indianapolis law was struck down by a Federal District Court, the city took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and it is expected to go all the way to the Supreme Court.
Last month, perhaps in response to the tumult, Attorney General Edwin Meese 3d empaneled a Justice Department commission to "study the effects of sexually explicit material . . . and recommend new ways to control it," according to The New York Times. Former Arlington, Virginia, prosecutor Henry Hudson, who will head the eleven-member panel, feels he is qualified for the job because he succeeded in closing down porn venues in his district. The American civil Liberties Union feels otherwise. Barry Lynn, legislative counsel to the union, said, "I'm afraid there is a train marked 'censorship' which has just left the station."
It's easy to understand why the religious right is attracted to the antipornography crusade and why the average television news viewer finds it entertaining. But what's the appeal for feminists? What's the draw for a movement that fifteen years ago presented a broad political program emphasizing economic issues, reproductive rights and cultural critique? The First Amendment argument against suppressing pornography has appeared in this and other periodicals. But there is a feminist case to be made as well, rooted in the deepest beliefs of the women's movement.
In March, Betty Rosenstein of the Los Angeles County Commission for Women proclaimed, "Every problem of women is a subset of pornography." To borrow a line from Katherine Hepburn, How from where we started did we get here? Because of our own political naivete, in part; because of contradictions in our movement; and because of the country's conservative shift.
The women's movement of the early 1970s was extraordinarily optimistic. We knew we had far-reaching problems, but we boasted solutions to match. We offered one another impetus and vision. We found role models--Mary Wollstonecraft, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Simone de Beauvoir and Amelia Earhart, to name a few. We heard one another's sad storis and told one another to go on, get over it, get out. We told one another we could.
A great deal was accomplished in the movement's first years: Roe v. Wade, hundreds of books and courses on feminism, Ms., the First Women's Bank. Like many 1960s activists, we expected to continue felling foes at a rapid clip. We expected the Equal Rights Amendment to sail through state legislatures. But the first victories were the easy ones--society was ready for them. Then came the show work: the tedious educational process, the organizing against cultural resistance, simple inertia and, finally, against a backlash and economic crisis. Few feminists were prepared for the E.R.A. debacle, for Harris v. McRae or for Reaganism, with its "pedestal" lingo and social service cutbacks. Pro-choice activists found themselves again fighting battles they thought they'd won; women athletes in colleges lost the ewaul facilities and funding newly guaranteed under Title IX; pregnant women on public assistance could no longer count on supplemental food allowances. …