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Feminism And Gender Equality In The 1990's

Overall, the rights and status of women have improved

considerably in the last century; however, gender equality has

recently been threatened within the last decade. Blatantly sexist

laws and practices are slowly being eliminated while social

perceptions of "women's roles" continue to stagnate and even

degrade back to traditional ideals. It is these social

perceptions that challenge the evolution of women as equal on all

levels. In this study, I will argue that subtle and blatant

sexism continues to exist throughout educational, economic,

professional and legal arenas.

Women who carefully follow their expected roles may never

recognize sexism as an oppressive force in their life. I find

many parallels between women's experiences in the nineties with

Betty Friedan's, in her essay: The Way We Were - 1949. She dealt

with a society that expected women to fulfill certain roles.

Those roles completely disregarded the needs of educated and

motivated business women and scientific women. Actually, the

subtle message that society gave was that the educated woman was

actually selfish and evil.

I remember in particular the searing effect on me, who once

intended to be a psychologist, of a story in McCall's in

December 1949 called "A Weekend with Daddy." A little girl who

lives a lonely life with her mother, divorced, an intellectual

know-it-all psychologist, goes to the country to spend a weekend

with her father and his new wife, who is wholesome, happy, and a

good cook and gardener. And there is love and laughter and

growing flowers and hot clams and a gourmet cheese omelet and

square dancing, and she doesn't want to go home. But, pitying

her poor mother typing away all by herself in the lonesome

apartment, she keeps her guilty secret that from now on she will

be living for the moments when she can escape to that dream home

in the country where they know "what life is all about." (See

Endnote #1)

I have often consulted my grandparents about their experiences,

and I find their historical perspective enlightening. My

grandmother was pregnant with her third child in 1949. Her work

experience included: interior design and modeling women's clothes

for the Sears catalog. I asked her to read the Friedan essay and

let me know if she felt as moved as I was, and to share with me

her experiences of sexism. Her immediate reaction was to point

out that "Betty Friedan was a college educated woman and she had

certain goals that never interested me." My grandmother, though

growing up during a time when women had few social rights, said

she didn't experience oppressive sexism in her life. However,

when she describes her life accomplishments, I feel she has spent

most of her life fulfilling the expected roles of women instead

of pursuing goals that were mostly reserved for men.

Unknowingly, her life was controlled by traditional, sexist

values prevalent in her time and still prevalent in the nineties.

Twenty-four years after the above article from McCall's magazine

was written, the Supreme Court decided whether women should have

a right to an abortion in Roe v. Wade (410 U.S. 113 (1973)). I

believe the decision was made in favor of women's rights

mostly because the court made a progressive decision to consider

the woman as a human who may be motivated by other things in life

than just being a mother. Justice Blackmun delivered the

following opinion:

Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a

distressful life and future. Psychological harm may be imminent.

Mental and physical health may be taxed by child care. There is

also a distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted

child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family

already unable, psychologically and otherwise, to care for it.

In other cases, as in this one, the additional difficulties and

continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved.

(See Endnote #2)

I feel the court decision of Roe v. Wade would not have been

made in 1949. Even in 1973, it was a progressive decision. The

problem of abortion has existed for the entire history of this

country (and beyond), but had never been addressed because

discussing these issues was not socially acceptable. A culture

of not discussing issues that have a profound impact on women is

a culture that encourages women to be powerless.

The right of abortion became a major issue. Before 1970, about a

million abortions were done every year, of which only about ten

thousand were legal. Perhaps a third of the women having illegal

abortions - mostly poor people - had to be hospitalized for

complications. How many thousands died as a result of these

illegal abortions no one really knows. But the illegalization of

abortion clearly worked against the poor, for the rich could

manage either to have their baby or to have their abortion under

safe conditions. (See Endnote #3)

A critic of the women's movement would quickly remind us that

women have a right to decline marriage and sex, and pursue their

individual interests. However, I would argue that the social

pressure women must endure if they do not conform to their

expected role is unfair. The problem goes beyond social

conformity and crosses into government intervention (or lack

thereof). The 1980's saw the pendulum swing against the women's

movement. Violent acts against women who sought abortions became

common and the government was unsympathetic to the victims.

There are parallels between the Southern Black's civil rights

movement and the women's movement: Blacks have long been

accustomed to the white government being unsympathetic to violent

acts against them. During the civil rights movement, legal action

seemed only to come when a white civil rights activist was

killed. Women are facing similar disregard presently, and their

movement is truly one for civil rights.

A national campaign by the National Organization of Women began

on 2 March 1984, demanding that the US Justice Department

investigate anti-abortion terrorism. On 1 August federal

authorities finally agreed to begin to monitor the violence.

However, Federal Bureau of Investigation director, William

Webster, declared that he saw no evidence of "terrorism." Only

on 3 January 1985, in a pro-forma statement, did the President

criticize the series of bombings as "violent anarchist acts" but

he still refused to term them "terrorism." Reagan deferred to

Moral Majoritarian Jerry Falwell's subsequent campaign to have

fifteen million Americans wear "armbands" on 22 January 1985,

"one for every legal abortion" since 1973. Falwell's anti-

abortion outburst epitomized Reaganism's orientation: "We can no

longer passively and quietly wait for the Supreme Court to change

their mind or for Congress to pass a law." Extremism on the

right was no vice, moderation no virtue. Or, as Hitler explained

in Mein Kamph, "The very first essential for success is a

perpetually constant and regular employment of violence." (See

Endnote #4)

This mentality continued on through 1989 during the Webster v.

Reproductive Health Services (109 S. Ct. 3040 (1989)) case. "The

Reagan Administration had urged the Supreme Court to use this

case as the basis for overturning Roe v. Wade." (See Endnote #5)

It is disturbing that the slow gains achieved by the women's

movement are so volatile and endangered when conservative

administrations gain a majority in government. To put the problem

into perspective: a woman's right to have an abortion in this

country did not come until 1973. Less than two decades later, the

president of the United States is pushing to take that right

away. It seems blatant that society is bent on putting women in

their places.

From the above examples, it appears American culture prefers

women as non- professional, non-intellectual, homemakers and

mothers. This mentality is not easily resolved, because it is

introduced at a young age. Alice Brooks experienced inequality

on the basis of her race and her sex. In her autobiography, A

Dream Deferred, she recalls the reaction of her father when she

brought up the idea of college to him:

I found a scholarship for veterans' children and asked my father

to sign and furnish proof that he was a veteran. He refused and

told me that I was only going to get married and have babies. I

needed to stay home and help my mother with her kids. My brother

needed college to support a family. Not only was I not going to

get any help, I was also tagged as selfish because I wanted to go

to college. (See Endnote #6)

This is another example of women being labeled as selfish for

wanting the same opportunities as men. Alice Brooks is a very

courageous woman; seemingly able to overcome any oppression she

may encounter. During her presentation to our class, she

said that "women who succeed in male dominated fields are never

mediocre - they are extraordinary achievers." Her insight

encapsulates much of the subtle sexism that exists today. I feel

that no one can truly be equal in a society when only the

"extraordinary achievers" are allowed to succeed out of their

expected social role

This attitude of rising blatant and subtle attacks on women's

civil rights is further exemplified in recent reactions to

affirmative action plans. These plans have been devised to try to

give women and minorities an opportunity to participate in

traditionally white male dominated areas. However, we see the

same trends in legal action for the use of affirmative action

plans as we saw in the 1980's backlash against the Roe v. Wade

decision. A few interesting points were presented in the case,

Johnson v. Transportation Agency, Santa Clara (480 U.S. 616

(1987)). Mr. Paul E. Johnson filed suit against the Santa Clara

County Transportation Agency when he was denied a promotion,

feeling the company's affirmative action plan denied him of his

civil rights. Some interesting facts were presented in this case:

Specifically, 9 of the 10 Para-Professionals and 110 of the 145

Office and Clerical Workers were women. By contrast, women were

only 2 of the 28 Officials and Administrators, 5 of the 58

Professionals, 12 of the 124 Technicians, none of the Skilled

Crafts Workers, and 1 - who was Joyce - of the 110 Road

Maintenance Workers. (See Endnote # 7)

The above statistics show women have been considerably

underrepresented at the Santa Clara County Transportation Agency.

These numbers are not uncommon and are found throughout business.

It is interesting to note the current popular perception is that

affirmative action precludes white males from finding employment

with companies that implement these plans. The truth is in the

numbers, however. The fact that Mr. Johnson felt he was denied

his civil rights because an equally qualified woman was given a

promotion, instead of him, is just a small window into the subtle

sexism that exists today. Most critics of affirmative action do

not consider the grossly unequal numbers of men in management and

professional positions. Secondly, it never seems an issue of

debate that a woman may have had no other previous life

opportunities in these male dominated areas. I do not intend to

argue that affirmative action is good or bad, but only wish to

point out that the current backlash against these programs is

heavily rooted in sexism and racism.

Often blatant violence or unfair acts against a group of people

will cause that group to pull together and empower themselves

against their oppressors. The women's movement has made large

steps to eliminate many of these blatantly sexist acts in the

last century. Now the real difficulty is upon us: subtle acts of

sexism and the degrading social roles of women in today's

conservative culture. Alice Brooks so eloquently described her

experiences with inequality, stating, "the worse pain came from

those little things people said or did to me." As these "little

things" accumulate in the experience of a young woman, she

increasingly finds herself powerless in her relationships,

employment, economics, and society in general. The female child

has as many goals as the male child, but statistically she is

unable to realize these goals because of the obstacles that

society sets in front of her. Society and media attempt to

create an illusion that women have every right that men enjoy.

However, women will never be equal until the day female

scientists, intellectuals, professionals, military leaders, and

politicians are just as accepted and encouraged to participate in

all of society's arenas as males.

Word Count: 2069

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