Posted by: JanF | March 22, 2012

Women’s History Month – Towards a Better Future

Over the past three weeks we have talked about women’s history in honor of Women’s History Month. It is time to talk about women’s future, which will take more than a month.

Women did not march and protest simply because they thought the sashes were cute, they did not seek public office on a whim, and Title IX was not just about playing sports.

Women marched for the vote and for reproductive rights. They sought public office to improve the lives of women and children … and all people. And they sought equal educational opportunities to claim their piece of the American dream.

All of this was necessary to dig out of a huge hole that the law had put women into.

An essay from New Deal 2.0, a project of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute How Women Became Citizens (Hint: It Didn’t Happen Overnight!) by Ellen Chesler shows how women’s economic lives have evolved.

Here is the huge hole we were put into, courtesy of Sir William Blackstone, 1769:

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband

Essentially, “coverture” is “what’s his is his and what’s hers is his”.

Single women who were considered adults, even widows could own property and engage in some business, as well as probate transactions. They could take care of themselves, as long as the “careers” they pursued did not infringe upon those held by men.

Any property a woman held upon entering into the marriage became her husband’s property, or he could hold it in trust for her. In America, there were some instances when a woman could request that a trusted male who was not her husband hold her property, such as her father or brother, if imposed within a pre-marriage agreement.

Upon marriage, however, a woman lost almost all of her rights. About the only right she possessed was the right to be taken care of by her husband. However, if the husband was not of a generous nature, or kind/compassionate, a woman could suffer severely by his hand. In early America, if a woman was treated brutally, she could bring her husband to court, and the court might intervene in some fashion.

The 18th century was not a great time for women but there was at least one woman pushing back. In 1791, British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft wrote an essay A Vindication of the Rights of Woman after learning that the French assembly issued a report stating that “women should only receive a domestic education”:

In the treatise, Wollstonecraft responds to the educational and political theorists of the 18th century who did not believe women should have an education. Wollstonecraft stated that women should have an education that was relevant and appropriate with their position in society.

Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.

One of Wollstonecraft’s central arguments in the Rights of Woman is that women should be educated rationally in order to give them the opportunity to contribute to society

I will refrain from blockquoting and bolding this:

Instead of viewing women as ornaments to society or property to be traded in marriage, Wollstonecraft maintains that they are human beings deserving of the same fundamental rights as men.

I’m certain you are glad that I have such amazing restraint that I would not blockquote and bold something like this:

women are human beings

Otherwise, people would think I have an agenda.

The 19th century provided a little more pushback, this time by John Stuart Mill in collaboration with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill in their essay The Subjection of Women. The essay provides:

… a detailed argumentation and passionate eloquence in opposition to the social and legal inequalities commonly imposed upon women by a patriarchal culture. Mill attacks the argument that women are naturally worse at some things than men, and should, therefore, be discouraged or forbidden from doing them. He says that we simply don’t know what women are capable of, because we have never let them try – one cannot make an authoritative statement without evidence. We can’t stop women from trying things because they might not be able to do them. An argument based on speculative physiology is just that, speculation.

Fast forward 142 years to 2011

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce kicked up an, er, “duststorm” of controversy last summer when they claimed that there was no longer a “pay gap” between men and women.

In the world inhabited by real humans, women are not anywhere close to economic parity with men:

U.S. women still earned only 77 cents on the male dollar in 2008, according to the latest census statistics.[...]

Women earned less than men in all 20 industries and 25 occupation groups surveyed by the Census Bureau in 2007 — even in fields in which their numbers are overwhelming. Female secretaries, for instance, earn just 83.4% as much as male ones. And those who pick male-dominated fields earn less than men too: female truck drivers, for instance, earn just 76.5% of the weekly pay of their male counterparts

This is not like 1769 and certainly an improvement over 0% of every dollar but hardly time to declare the struggle for pay equity over.

Women’s history is part of the history of our country. We study it because it reminds us not only of what we owe our forebearers but what we have yet to do.

It is not okay that women make less than what men make in the same industries and with the same education. It is not okay that households run by single mothers are more likely to be in poverty. It is not okay that opportunities are still restricted.

It is said that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It is also true that those who do not take the gifts of those who have gone before us miss a great opportunity.

The lessons of women’s history are these individuals’ gifts to us: both their victories and their defeats. Embrace them, learn from them and use them to move us forward toward a better future for all of us.

And because all important movements need music for inspiration, once more with feeling:

For more information on Women’s History Month,
National Women’s History Museum
National Women’s History Project
Women in America (pdf) from the White House

This is the fourth in a series of posts (some originally published in 2011) celebrating Women’s History Month.

(A version of this was originally posted on 03/30/2011 at BPI Campus)

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