Feminine Oppression Today
FEMINIST, once a dirty word, is now an occupation and reputation respected in American society. HOMEMAKER on the other hand, a taxing full-time job, is now a dirty word, a lowly occupation for stereotypically, frumpy, old-fashioned women with little ambition and a lack of self respect. With our culture proactively campaigning for total gender equality, we must ask ourselves, globally speaking, are women more or less oppressed today than they have been in the past? The Oxford English Dictionary defines oppressed as downtrodden or unjustly kept in a position of subjection and hardship; persecuted. Many women across the world today are oppressed, some even more so than their counterparts from the past. Ironically, this is due in part to the push for total gender equality.
Pre-Columbian Native American women often chose their sachem or chief. However, the sachem was always male. Native Americans had distinct gender roles. Men hunted and protected while women farmed and took care of the children. Most Native American communities traced their lineage through the matriarchal line, which guaranteed the bloodline since the identity of the father was not always certain. Today Native American people can choose to live on or off of reservations. The majority continue on reservations with little advanced education. In his article “American Indian Reservations: The First Underclass Areas?” Gary D. Sandefur, professor of social work and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, states that of the 336,384 Native Americans living on reservations, over forty percent live in poverty. Thirty percent are high school drop-outs and thirty percent of the heads of household are female. Avert.org reports that “the rate of Chlamydia … among American Indians… is higher than among whites,” as is gonorrhea and syphilis. National Public Radio reported that rape is frequently unreported and under-prosecuted on reservations. “The story of what happened to Ironroad, [a woman who was raped and brutally murdered in July of 2007] and more importantly what happened to the investigation of her death, is a window into what is happening on Native American reservations across the country. Cases like hers are going unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted, according to tribal officials.” The Justice Department reports that one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. Police forces are inadequate to stop this oppression.
While Native American women once played an important role in their society as providers and nurturers, they are now often regarded as sex objects. Many Native American women have lived on reservations their whole lives, watching their mothers live by prostitution and, not knowing any other lifestyle, grow up to do the same. The result of trying to “Americanize” Native Americans is greater exploitation of Indian women than in the past. With their cultural roles re-defined, too many men oppress women further.
Pre-Columbian women were not oppressed until western culture was forced upon Native Americans. Colonial American women, meanwhile, came from longstanding European Traditions that most women today would find unacceptably oppressive. “An union without affection is the most deplorable situation a woman can be in,” Mary Stevensen said in the late 1700’s. When the American colonies were in the midst of making their bid for freedom, the women of the colonies were, in the eyes of some, oppressed. When Abigail Adams wrote to her husband in March 1776, she said “remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands.” John Adams, a more than usually loving husband, laughed. He dismissed the idea without serious contemplation. When a woman married in colonial America, the fundamental rights granted to “all men” were stripped from her. A married woman could not sue, sell or purchase land, make a will, or sign contracts. Her earnings, children, and body, legally belonged to her husband. But the biggest farce of all was the romantic face of marriage. Girls would grow up preparing a dowry for marriage only to find, like Mary Withers, “now I have turned house keeper, for, to my sorrow I know there is no romance in going from the smokehouse [to] the storeroom and from there to the cellar half a dozen times a day.” When involved in a bad marriage this lack of legal equality was certainly oppressive. Single women were hardly better off. They had few income resources and were openly mocked by political cartoons and comedies. Slave women had no rights. They did not own their own bodies, they could not marry, and their children were the property of their masters.
In the summer of 1848 the feminist movement that would sweep North America and Europe like a tidal wave started building. Its leaders evoked and adapted the preamble to the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony and Lucrettia Mott, all mothers and wives, quickly rose to prominence as passionate feminist leaders. On August 6, 1920 the 19th Amendment was ratified, giving women the right to vote. Other rights to education, property and inheritance slowly followed. On the opposing side, there were anti-suffragists like Annie Black who told the U. S. Senate that “suffrage robs women of all that is gentle, tender, attractive.” It wasn’t until 1983 that Columbia College became the last Ivy League School to admit women.
Today’s American feminist issues include birth control, home-making verses working, anorexia and other eating and body-appearance disorders, and high rape and abuse rates. In 1957 “the pill,” small, pink, and readily available, was approved by the FDA. This form of birth control gave women the “opportunity” to have intercourse without lifelong “side effects,” like children. Interestingly, STD rates as well as AIDS have shot up dramatically since that date. Between 1997 and 2009 Chlamydia rates more than doubled. At the same time, anorexia and similar mental illnesses have become more and more common.
Since the 1800s the attitude of feminism has changed dramatically. While Stanton, Anthony and Mott were homemakers who merely asked for equal legal rights in marriage and voting, a new race of feminist emerged in the 1970’s. These feminists openly scorned the devoted mother. Children were for daycare, men were for work and women were for work. A woman at the beginning of the 19th century had to ask why she couldn’t be a doctor. Now she must ask why she cannot be a stay-at-home mom. Whereas 100 years ago the loss of virginity was considered a tragedy, you’re now a tragic loser if you’re a virgin. An American woman must now endure persecution from other women for having a large family, and for raising that family in the home. This strange breed of feminist oppression coincides with increased levels of women being abused in other ways as well. With 1.2% of Americans getting assaulted and 0.4% of women reporting rape with an additional 4% or upwards keeping silent, oppression of women is far from a relic of the past. This modern form of feminism is not the cure. In fact, it is a cause.
Europe’s oppression of women goes back farther than America’s. In Greek and Roman cultures women were not allowed to vote and ‘child’ brides as young as 12 were not uncommon. Evidence suggests that high ranking Roman women were able to read, write and, in some cases, allowed to own property. Unfortunately, the middle ages wiped clean any progress made in Rome. Women such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Christine de Pizan proved that though women were just as capable as their male counterparts, they were still denied the rights of property, inheritance, education and even their own bodies. During the Empirical period of European history (1700-1800), Jane Austen depicted in her six novels the shallow and insignificant role many women were relegated to play. Writing was such a low occupation for women that when Austen published her books she gave the author credit as follows: BY A LADY—. An interesting theme through Austen’s books is that while petty and foolish women end up in oppressive situations, often the clever and kind heroine marries a man who allows her to think for herself. The problem remained however that this privilege was only generously allowed. In 1918 the British Parliament passed the Representation of the People Act, granting women over the age of 30 the right to vote. By the 1930’s women in most European countries could vote.
While education and employment rates rise in European countries, so do those of rape. Gmu.edu reports that in 1993, 23% of European women were forced into sex. Twenty-three out of 100 European women are oppressed into sexual assault. The age of chivalry has left these “civilized” nations, leaving only the desires of the stories with none of the romance, true love, or security enjoyed in centuries past. Terms like “date rape” and “sexual harassment” are now universally understood. In eras past, even mentioning a girl being ravished was a humiliating, vile, and a disgraceful bit of gossip. The virtue of wives and daughters was fought for by brothers, husbands, sons, and fathers and avenged as best as possible. Now, it seems that few are willing to protect or defend the one fourth of European women who are sexually assaulted.
The Islamic scripture the Qur’an gives women instructions on modesty and submission. Historically, Westerners too easily assume that Muslim women are oppressed. The modesty of Islamic women has protected them more than European and American women. Sadly, in some countries, it appears that there has been a recent shift from the intended meaning of shaira law. Islam means submission, the willing submission of both men and women to the will of Allah. Unfortunately, in some present circumstances it seems that Allah has been replaced my men. So how far does submission go? Well, Middle Eastern women being raped are not able to press charges or get a divorce. Not until May 2005 were the women of Kuwait empowered to vote. Kuwait is only the 4th Middle Eastern country to allow women this right. The Jewish nation Israel was the first in 1933. Israel stands as a monument to womens’ rights in the Middle East. It is a very liberalized country. Israeli women enjoy many of the same rights as American women. While rape and harassment rates are still a national issue, it is less so than so than in surrounding Middle Eastern countries and America. Rape and female circumcision (far more painful, invasive, and permanently damaging than its male counterpart) rates have shot up to the point where middle-east-info.org reports that 97% of Egyptian women have unwillingly undergone female genital mutilation and 90% of Sudanese women have been similarly oppressed. In several countries polygamy is still an accepted practice—up to 4 wives—and girls can be married off while still infants so long as they don’t have intercourse before the age of 9. On March 11, 2002 Amnesty International reported that 14 girls were killed and dozens of others injured in a school fire in Mecca because the religious police would not allow them to leave without their head scarves. It further states that “Saudi Arabia remains the only country in the world that prevents women from driving, studying law and engineering, directly selling or buying property, attending court (even when accused of murder), and showing their faces in public."
Certainly protection and modesty are important in Islamic countries, but at what level of forcible subjection are they justified? While most people agree that American and European women have inherited more rights than their predecessors, it seems that in some places rights for Middle Eastern women are decreasing. While the western world pushes for complete gender equality, even gender anonymity, the Middle Eastern world has reacted oppressively in the opposite direction.
Asian countries present yet another variation of these issues. In approximately 100 AD (during the Han Dynasty), Ban Zhao, a female instructor of the girls of the imperial court of China wrote a well known text called Admonitions for Girls in which she emphasized humility, obedience, and cleanliness. She based her instructions on the analects of Confucius, who taught that there were 4 major relationships. None of these include daughters, and the only one which includes women is submissiveness of wife to husband and then to son. Early Asian women had a blend of rights and oppressions. In the early 1000’s foot binding became a popular practice in elite Chinese families. Foot binding (a status symbol) is breaking the bones of the foot and then wrapping the feet continually throughout childhood so that the feet would be no longer than 5” by the time girls reached adulthood.
Rich Asian women did have some limited access to education, mainly Confucian philosophy, writing, and domestic arts. They were expected to be humble and supportive without fail and to obey completely the man they were bound to, first father, then husband, then son. Their only purpose in life was to bear sons. Kangyouin, Empress of Japan in the 1840s, was set aside by her husband and forced to shave her head and join a Jain nunnery because she had born him only 2 daughters. He then married a 14-year-old, younger than his 15-year-old daughter. The emperor’s second wife also failed in her only domestic duty, producing sons. Fortunately for the emperor however, it had not yet been discovered that the male is the one who produces the sex gene.
The Asian Foundation reports that domestic violence is currently an international issue. STDs are also a problem in Asian countries today and Asian women are still forced into traditional roles and turned away from jobs more often than American and European women. Communist movements have encouraged negative gender equality and yet one single and childless woman reported to journalists that she felt trapped because everyone knew she would someday marry, have children and stay home, so they wouldn’t hire her. Asia seems to be slowly moving in the direction of America and Europe in ways that are both positive and negative for women.
Are women more oppressed today than they have been in the past? In her book A Return to Modesty, Wendy Shalit offers compelling logic and evidence leading to the conclusion that while women are treated more equally in some parts of the work force, their mystique, their power, their influence for good, and their safety is rapidly decreasing. Never before in all recorded history have rape, STDs, and eating disorder statistics been so high. Yes, women in the Americas and Europe can vote, they can work, they can own property, they can get a divorce. But can they walk down the street in safety? Can they go to a party without being molested? Can they trust that the men they work with are trustworthy? While women in the Middle East and Africa are being blatantly oppressed by law and culture, the women of America and Europe are oppressed in different ways. Shalit points out that some women in the world are being forced to be mothers and homemakers while others are forced not to be. Few have the privilege of choice. She argues that while we can and should enjoy most equalities, men and women are separate. Co-educational bathrooms and gym classes, kindergarten maturation, and Hollywood acculturation have taught American and European women to demand equality and in return to expect exploitation. A return to chivalry, modesty, and virtue are the solutions, and for once the women hold the power. Demand modesty and chivalry, and you demand a better, safer equality for all women.
American and European women can become lawyers, doctors, politicians, teachers, or homemakers. They can vote and campaign, own property, divorce, ask a man on a date or say no to a marriage proposal. Sometimes it seems that our opportunities are boundless. While we have yet to elect a female president, we successfully run for office. Our hopes for the future are bright and our lives are full of opportunities waiting to be grasped. The Asian countries are also progressing towards equality both positive and negative. With deeper cultural barriers in place, their progress is slower but still encouraging. The Middle East and Africa do not seem to be getting any closer to equality; in fact they are more oppressive of womens’ rights than in the past. Ironically, it is the country of India that elected the first woman Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. She was assassinated, as was the female president of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto. Their elections were an encouraging step in the right direction but the huge majority of women who are constantly oppressed in Middle Eastern and African countries make it hard to be optimistic. Hopefully, the Egypt crisis right now will give women another opportunity to gain their rights.
Are women oppressed today? Yes. In the Middle East and Africa persecution is as obvious and harsh as ever. In fact, while Muslim women originally had more rights than others, Middle Eastern and African countries have become more and more oppressive as America and Europe become more and more ‘equal.’ In America and Europe we have control over whether we are oppressed or not, and sadly, we often don’t stand up against oppression. Instead we step up to the noose and let ourselves be hanged.
Am I a feminist? That depends of the contested definition of feminist. Some tell me I am radical, but when I read the radicals I find their works insulting. They push down the traditional woman and glorify the extreme and obscene. I believe in the beauty of womanhood, the authenticity of chivalry and that the genders are inherently and rightly separate, equal and complimentary. Women in America today are given so many opportunities but often we leave them unclaimed or unwanted. I’m with Rosie the Riveter when she says we can do it, so sometimes I wonder why we don’t. I align with Shalit and have found her writing persuasive when she argues that we must seize the opportunity to stand up for our rights as equal humans and especially separate genders. Women should be allowed to choose safety, security, and a career in or out of the home. Most importantly, women, and all humans have the right to respect. But women have demanded to be just like men and have been degraded in the process.
The counsel of the Greek Gods originally consisted of six goddesses and six gods. When Dionysius, lord of wine, and the corruptions associated with it, such as rape, prostitution, and oppression, appeared on the scene, Hestia, goddess of the hearth, of the home, and defender of women, was forced to step down to make room for him. Tipping the scale of the gods in favor of man. Over the years Hestia has faded into the background of obscure mythology. While books are written glorifying the God of the wasted, where is the goddess of the home? Here stands he who glorifies oppression. Where is she who defends womanhood?