3.01.2009

The March of Women's Rights

by Kit-Bacon Gressitt

March is Women’s History Month, which opens the proverbial door to a smorgasbord of juicy topics.

To begin, there’s the scarcity of content about women’s contributions to our nation in public school curricula; hence the designated month and the Women’s History Project. While some folks debate the need for February as Black Americans' month of note, I’m not so eager to give up March. Consider the ongoing disregard — or is it disdain? — of the women’s rights movement that created fertile territory for our accomplishments of the last century. Although, tallying what we have achieved, what we haven’t and where we’re losing ground is a painful calculation.

Perhaps most illustrative of the need to better educate school children — and some adults — about women’s contributions, abilities and pursuit of equal rights is the level of histrionic misogyny that has become accepted in our media. Bill O’Reilly was at it again recently, referring to White House correspondent Helen Thomas as the Wicked Witch of the East. In defense of his bad boy behavior, he compared his FOX News television program to a Saturday Night Live comedy routine and demanded they be held to the same standards of commentary. This is, actually, a nice little aspiration for O’Reilly.

But women’s history and the intrinsically linked women’s rights movement encompass much more than teaching misogynists to speak with their big heads; they are a focal point for the rights and responsibilities for which women have advocated long and hard — and which men have long enjoyed.

For instance, the right to vote: Women achieved suffrage in 1920, interestingly 50 years after black men were enfranchised during the Reconstruction era. The white landed gentry were more comfortable giving their former male slaves the vote than they were their own wives. Some men went so far as to toss their brides in asylums or jail to keep them off the suffragette trail. Do you suppose the discomfort with women’s power persists even today — you know, that Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton thing?

Then there’s pay equity, which we tried to resolve with the Equal Pay Act of 1963, but it didn’t do the trick. So President Obama joined the battle in January when he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The new law allows women greater ability to challenge pay discrimination, but, sadly, does not put an end to it. Women in the United States are now earning a whopping 78 cents for each dollar earned by men. Woo-ooo. Or not.

Credit discrimination was tackled in 1974, with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which has improved access to credit for women — unless they fall victim to the common scenarios about which the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) cautions: they can lose their credit histories when they marry and change their surnames and when creditors report married couples’ accounts in the husbands’ names only — yes it’s common. Oh, and there’s that other scenario the FTC mentions: “If you suspect discrimination… Complain to the creditor. Make it known you’re aware of the law. The creditor may find an error or reverse the decision.” Isn’t that tactful!

One of the most significant rights won by women in the last century is control of our own bodies through access to contraception. If that strikes you as not such a big deal, just think about it: no pills, no patches, no IUDs, no diaphragms, no rings — no condoms, fellows! — and lots and lots and lots of unwanted pregnancies.

The Comstock Act of 1873, a federal anti-obscenity law, effectively prohibited the distribution of contraceptives because they were considered lewd and lascivious. To win women the right to medically prevent conception, it took: the 1936 Federal Appeals Court decision in United States v. One Package (of Japanese pessaries!), excluding contraceptives from the Comstock Law; the American Medical Association’s 1937 reversal of its earlier declaration that contraception was not “physiologically, psychologically and biologically sound;” family planning activist Margaret Sanger’s persistent machinations; and a whole lot of subsequent legislation. And still, there are those who consider contraception tantamount to abortion; pharmacists who refuse to dispense contraceptives, and insurers who refuse to cover them. And the battle rages on.

So, our successes are varied. Although, from the early suffragists to the supposedly bra-burning feminists of the 1960s (bra-burning turns out to be a myth even Snopes.com has debunked, despite using the term “militant feminist,” as though advocating for ourselves is somehow unacceptable) to young women of the 21st century who don’t know enough about women’s history to appreciate the rights they so blithely take for granted, we have had some delicious moments. But as for me, I’m still hungry for equality.

(Editor's Note: This piece is cross-posted from Kit-Bacon Gressitt's personal blog, Excuse Me, I'm Writing.)

(For other posts along similar topical lines, please see: "Politics: Women, Power & the Next Four Years;" and "The Abortion War: On the Frontlines.")

(The photo shows a march for women's suffrage in 1912 in New York City; the photo is from the Library of Congress and is in the public domain.)










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