One of the oldest, and most interesting, conflicts among supporters of civil rights is the struggle between feminists who sought “protective legislation” for women (limiting hours, working conditions, etc., for women) and feminists who sought gender-blind equality. A nice, succinct summary of this conflict can be found here, ironically, at a library at the University of Michigan:
When the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution was proposed in 1923, it created a rift among suffragists. Women who had fought for protective labor legislation feared that the ERA would undo their efforts to protect women in the workplace, while feminists believed the amendment was necessary to bring about equality for women in American society. The opposition to the amendment by women who otherwise supported women’s rights persisted through mid-century, as is illustrated in the records of organizations such as the National Consumers League. In the 1960s and 1970s the women’s liberation movement began to produce new views of the ERA and renewed support for the amendment.
Alas, this paragraph is now dated. The equal rights feminists of NOW, etc., who by this and virtually all other accounts had won this debate and banished the “protective legislation” feminists to a quaint footnote in histories of feminism, have now (or NOW) abandoned their victory, backtracked, picked up the tattered principles of their vanquished former foes, and are now giving full-throated, often shrill, voice to the notion that women, poor little shrinking violets, must have special privileges to protect them from competition on equal terms with men.
Indeed, in Michigan it appears that the leaders of the fight to preserve special preferences for minorities and women have all but forgotten minorities, and the shibboleth of “diversity” that is supposed to justify giving them special privileges in admission and hiring, and turned all their energies to predicting that the sky will fall on women if preferential treatment is barred. (I have discussed this phenomenon quite often, such as here, here, and here.)
But wait a minute. Lest I be accused of failing to practice what I preach, let me hasten to point out that in abandoning the gender-blind egalitarian principle that led to their triumph over the “protective legislation” feminists — also known as “difference” feminists, in a familiar twist, because they thought women were not simply “workers with breasts,” as the Marxists were fond of saying, but were purer than men — the gender-blind equality feminists were not unique, or “different.” They simply emulated the abandonment of the principle of race-blind equality and the adoption of pleas for special preferences that characterized the larger civil rights movement.