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Feminism And Gender Equality In The 1990s (2081 words)

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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.

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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
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
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.

The Ethnic Moment, By P.L. Fetzer. Page
Constitutional Law Cases & Essays,
By S. Goldman. Page 205.

A People’s History Of The United States,
By Howard Zinn. Page 499.

Beyond Black And White, By M. Marable.

Page 40-41.

Constitutional Law Cases & Essays,
By S. Goldman. Page 767.

The Ethnic Moment, By P. L. Fetzer. Page

Constitutional Law Cases & Essays,
By S. Goldman. Page 784.

Fetzer, Philip L. The Ethnic Moment, The
Search For Equality In The American Experience. New York: M.E. Sharpe,
Inc., 1997.

Goldman, Sheldon. Constitutional Law Cases
& Essays, Second Edition. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

Marable, Manning. Beyond Black & White.

New York: Verso, 1995.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of The
United States. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1980


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