Culture change is slow, but it happens. What’s happening now in society isn’t the same as in the past, and it won’t be the same in the future. Culture changes in small and large ways, largely through the coordinated actions of groups of people. Those groups, though, are made up of individuals who want the culture to change.
One of the best examples is the change in how society thinks about drunk driving. It used to be a thing we regretted but accepted – at least until it affected our family directly. Over the years, though, drunk driving affected more and more families, until it could no longer be ignored. Then, on September 5, 1980, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded. Now, there are chapters in every state in the US and every province in Canada. Candy Lightener, the founder, had suffered the loss of her 13-year-old daughter to a drunk driver, and she couldn’t – wouldn’t – take it anymore.
Over the years since, MADD members have been tireless advocates for more public awareness and stricter laws. They’ve been successful on both counts. Now, more people are having designated drivers, serving nonalcoholic alternatives at their parties, and making drunk drivers anathema in society. States have instituted legal limits on blood alcohol. Bartenders are avoiding lawsuits by cutting down on overserving and confiscating car keys. Drunk drivers are losing their licenses and being given harsher sentences for vehicular manslaughter. The culture changed.
It isn’t something that happens overnight. In fact, in many cases, cultural change is positively glacial. In the 1970s, women across the U.S. were working for reproductive rights and social reforms. But in my high school, it was easy to make fun of feminism. Bra burning. The Equal Restrooms Amendment.
The ERA has still never been ratified. The reproductive rights gained have been rolled back ever since and now have been thoroughly gutted. But the most lingering effect of feminism that I can recall from that time is this: consciousness-raising.
Women’s eyes were opened to the idea that they were equal beings with men. That they deserved equal pay for equal work. Equal treatment under the law. Equal sexual freedom. Equal opportunities. Equal respect. Women gathered in consciousness-raising groups to explore the possibilities.
Times changed. Women entered the workforce, though not without difficulties, all of which needed to be addressed – the “glass ceiling,” still unequal pay, the “mommy track,” lack of child care, and sexual harassment.
What did we get? Our own cigarette now, baby. Lip service to equal pay, but no real change in the pay gap. Sexual freedom that was in many respects sex without consequences – for men. Today, women are still shamed for engaging in non-procreative sex and enjoying it.
The culture change has been incremental and subject to a lot of pushback. In 2018, the Miss America pageant discontinued its swimsuit competition, a largely symbolic gain. Sexual harassment has become legally defined as discrimination, but the “Me Too” movement was greeted with cries of “Not All Men” and complaints about how it’s now impossible to even speak to women without being accused of something. The National Organization for Women is not the successful, respected group that MADD is.
Culture change is coming, though. Compare the status of women now to what it was in the 1970s. Fifty years of progress have happened, though that progress is under increasing attack these days – sometimes literal, violent attacks and the heinous ranting of incels.
I’d like to think that I had a small part in the culture change. Once, when my friends and I were standing in line at a restaurant. I happened to notice a sexist piece of “art” hanging inside. I remarked on it to the host, who said, “If it bothers you, why are you here?”
“You’re right,” I said, then turned on my heel and walked away without looking back. Soon I noticed that my entire party was following me. It was a tiny rebellion, but I hope it raised the restaurant worker’s consciousness by at least a little bit. Hit them in the pocketbook, I always say.
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