Entitlement and its Discontents
This week, New York Magazine’s cover features an oral history of Ms. Magazine, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary. Written by the journalist Abigail Pogrebin, who also happens to be a daughter of Ms. co-founder Letty Cottin Pogrebin, the oral history captures the recollections of all those involved in the founding of the magazine. Most striking to me was the reminder of how blatant, unapologetic, and institutionalized sexism was in the early 1970s, when “help wanted” ads were segregated by gender, married women couldn’t get credit cards in their own names, and even women’s magazines were entirely run by men. Tellingly, the feminist founders of Ms. couldn’t imagine producing the magazine without the support and permission of men. And in the early days of the magazine, they pronounced the title “M-S” because people didn’t recognized the word “Ms.”
As a historian of the women’s movement, I love pieces like this one that bring feminist history to a wide public audience and that necessarily raise the question of how change happens and what its legacy is today. So I was particularly interested in Abigail Pogrebin’s own reflections on the legacy of Ms. in an interview with the Sisterhood blog of the Forward. She said, "The enduring legacy is that we’ve forgotten the hurdles. It’s not only that we now believe that anything is possible, it’s that we think we are entitled to it. That is an enormous achievement."
Pogrebin’s words struck me in two ways: as a succinct summary of popular attitudes towards feminism, and as a potential contradiction in terms. Can forgetting be a legacy? And is entitlement – with all its negative associations – really the goal?
But as I thought more about it, I realized that entitlement can be an achievement. We get farther by believing we are entitled to something than by asking tentatively for it or by believing someone is doing us a favor by giving us what we’ve requested. Thinking in concrete, personal terms, I realized that I’m certainly raising my daughter to grow up feeling entitled to full equality.
As a historian, however, I can’t shake the disturbing feeling that entitlement and its accompanying amnesia are a mixed legacy. Sure, forgetting the hurdles that used to exist for women suggests that social change (for some) has been so complete as to render the previous state of affairs impossible even to remember. But it also erases the process that made the change and makes invisible the power of the women’s movement. Where does that leave us, as we try to move forward with the changes yet to be realized?
The danger, too, is that the entitlement felt by some people will mask the fact that this entitlement is far from universal. It should hardly be necessary to point out that there are many people in the world (even in the US) who do not feel entitled to equality and who in fact encounter many hurdles every day. Entitlement is useful if it provokes outrage on behalf of those who do not yet experience it, but I fear that more often entitlement takes the wind out of activism’s sails.
One might argue that the case of Ms. is, in fact, an example of women who were entitled in some ways (e.g. education, class, and for many, race) working to achieve greater entitlement for all women. One of the points that Pogrebin’s oral history makes clear is that Ms. was designed to introduce ordinary women to feminism rather than to cater to the radical feminist leaders (many of whom disdained the magazine as compromised and not sufficiently ideological). In that context, then, maybe it’s ok to embrace entitlement as a legacy, so long as we make an effort to resist its companion amnesia, to reject complacency, and to work harder for those who do not yet feel entitled to equality.