Women must still struggle for equality, even with history on their side

"Keine gewalt gegen Frauen." That's what the women of Cologne are saying on signs carried in spontaneous protests that erupted across the city last week following an ugly outbreak of male power, arrogance and lack of discipline.

On New Year's Eve, as thousands of year-end revelers crowded into the German city's main plaza by the central train station and the extraordinary Gothic cathedral, about a thousand "North African or Arab-looking" men set about systematically molesting and manhandling hundreds of women; one rape was reported. It was an organized attack, a premeditated, violent and intimidating disparagement of women. Police and others in the crowd did not initially grasp what was happening. Imagine Rockefeller Center at Christmas or Times Square on New Year's Eve; many women feared for their lives and safety before people understood. The attack was similar to but far larger than other organized assaults against women in other cities. Cologne's women are demanding "no violence against women."

Some have suggested it was a consequence of accepting, inviting even, a million non-western refugees into the country, pointing to 22 of the men so far charged who are asylum-seekers. One German newspaper reported that some of the men carried with them lists of sexist and racist phrases that were translated from Arabic to German, from which they shouted insults. But blaming it on refugees is just what extreme right-wing purists in Germany want.

German authorities don't see it this way. Early on, federal and state (Nordrhein-Westphalia) officials shot down the notion that this was a refugee issue. It wasn't, they noted; it was a violation of German criminal law by groups bent on acting like pigs. Of those arrested, three were German, another American. A majority of the German people seem to have concluded the same, judging from the earliest polls and from the spontaneous protests across the city during the week following the assault.

So it was an assault not just against the women of Cologne, but women everywhere by those who can't imagine women as equals, those being left behind as history inexorably moves on. Easy as it would be to explain it as a clash of western and non-western values, we in the West aren't that far from the same root view that women are to be seen and not heard, and not seen as they would like to be, but only as a male-dominated social structure allows them to be seen. And not to behave as they might wish, but only in ways that conform to sanctions prescribed by that same male-dominated social and power structure.

The feminist movement has a deep history in the West, and particularly in America. In American college history classes, students are likely to read that Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John while he was attending the Continental Congress in 1776, to "remember the ladies." In their Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions at the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony wrote that "woman is man's equal -- was intended to be so by the Creator, and the highest good of the race demands that she should be recognized as such." The suffragists under Alice Paul's leadership argued that women were as capable as men, if not more so, to carry out the responsibilities of citizenship. Margaret Sanger's conviction and imprisonment for asserting the right of women to birth control in 1917 generated significant public outcry.

The women's rights movement of the 1960s made substantial progress with the inclusion of women as a protected class in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Much subsequent protection of women's equal rights today rests on that inclusion. But it has been a persistent and demanding battle. The third wave feminism of the 1990s sought to direct attention to discrimination against women of color, lesbians, transgender people and bisexuals. The struggle continues, even on the equal pay issue.


The notion that all humans are created equal falls easily from the lips, but living it is another matter. It collides quickly with "exceptions," like non-whites (think slavery), non-believers, the ethnically and culturally different, Jews, women. The ugliness in Cologne should remind us just how far we have to go.

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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Steve Haycox

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.