Has the Women’s Movement Made Sufficient Progress?

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By Teresa Roberts

The other day, there was a protest march in my hometown against the anti-abortion movement sweeping the nation. In a midwestern bastion of conservative politics, the turnout was predictably small. I wasn’t in attendance, but the local news reported the event on social media. I already knew what to expect from the hundreds of comments that followed, so I only read a few. The one below, made by a man, immediately caught my eye.

“From the looks of these women, they’ll never attract a man in the first place. Who’d want to marry them?” 

BOOM! There it was, a central theme throughout systemic sexism, articulated by a man who gets angry at the very idea that there could be anything else women care about except marrying and having children. Whatever a woman might accomplish in life is secondary to taking care of a man.  Her opinions don’t matter. In fact, she should just shut up. Her anger is unbecoming and her convictions are unimportant. No man would ever want to marry a woman like that.

Not all that long ago, this outdated notion was the norm.

There were few opportunities for women. We were limited by the law and social pressure. Our lives were completely predictable. Marry and have children was the only socially acceptable choice. 

Recently, I read a collection of essays edited by Jo Freeman called Women: A Feminist Perspective. It was published in 1975.  Already a young mother at the time, the book took me back, back, back, to the good/old bad/old days when the feminist movement was beginning to flourish once again, challenging status quo. It also reminded me of just how uninterested both my mother and my mother-in-law were in my desire to finish college and build a career. They saw my goal more as a hobby, fully expecting that there would always be a man around to support me. What I should do if he divorced me or died was never discussed. What I should do once my children were grown wasn’t important. What I should do if my husband lost his job wasn’t considered either. 

All these years later, I’m deeply bothered by the realization that there are people who still believe that a woman’s life should be largely about finding a husband.

This outdated attitude became blatantly obvious when the small band of politically involved women in my home town were so easily scorned on a public thread. Nothing was mentioned about the purpose of the march — only that they were worthless, ugly, and no man would want to marry them anyway. Without husbands and babies, what’s a woman worth? I couldn’t help but wonder, however, if this complete stranger who so cavalierly attacked the protestors had a wife, a girlfriend or a daughter? If so, is this the message he gives to them every day of their lives? One would hope not.

I’ve enjoyed reading Jo Freeman’s book. Each essay was written by a female scholar, thoroughly researched and well documented. That exercise alone in a day and age of amateur-hour opinions is commendable. Yet, I can’t help but compare 1975 to today. Have we made as much progress as I had hoped we would?  

To the hateful man whose comment was aimed at marginalizing this handful of very brave women marching in my hometown — 

“If women have learned anything, and some of us have, we now understand that we have the power to determine whose genes get passed to the next generation. Not men. And, some of us knew long ago that your seed needs to be spilled on the ground not implanted in another human being.” 

Too harsh? Maybe. There are plenty of men who have committed time and resources to rooting out systemic sexism and all of its far-reaching effects on women. They want their daughters to have as many opportunities as their sons. They’ve come to realize that women contribute far more to society than just having babies. In fact, having a baby can be a rather mindless act for many as there often is no plan in place to do so. It just happens, sometimes before a woman is ready to properly provide for a new life. Long before a man has any idea whether he could stomach being a father over the long haul. And, most importantly far too easily for any woman to be sure that the genes contributed were worthy of being passed on. Thus, an increasing number of women have stopped having babies with men that simply aren’t equipped to be good fathers. We’re slowly finding our power. We’re coming to understand our own selves and are making it a priority to reach our potential, earn our own money and make our own personal decisions. We’re postponing marriage or not marrying at all. We’re postponing childbirth or choosing not to have children. We have careers and hobbies and if we do marry, we choose men who value our autonomy and are supportive of our accomplishments as well as men who share in the domestic responsibilities and bond with their own children. Finally, just like men, women have choices now. The whole wide world is ours to explore and experience. We have no intention of going back to the way things used to be. On that you can be sure.

On a personal note. I finished college and went on to have a 27-year career as a teacher and a principal at the largest elementary school in my state.

During the time that my husband’s jobs were being shipped overseas, I was supporting the family, providing medical insurance and keeping us afloat. I have never had to worry that if I found myself alone that I would have to scrounge for a living. And, although I’m well past childbearing years, I stand with women everywhere who are determined to have full control over their own lives and bodies. Thankfully, women have made measurable progress. Even though there are those who would love to drag us back to the Dark Ages, this is still the best day and age to be a woman in many parts of the world.

Yet, there remains too many countries where women’s lives are a living hell. They’ve tasted little to no personal or economic freedom. Often, their lives are threatened or they are beaten and tortured by their husbands. Some are still victims of honor killings, murdered by their own families for daring to sample the smallest bit of freedom. It is difficult to accept that in the 21st century there are still many women who are nothing more than slaves.

To my sistuhs in the US who are outraged by sharia Christian laws that are being passed in an increasing number of states, we must not become complacent.

I look at my beautiful granddaughter, bright and deeply interested in life and I vow every day that I’ll never give an inch to the religious right who is determined to spoil her access to opportunity. The ground we covered since 1975 must not be taken for granted. The last one hundred years have changed the lives of American women. It’s not my mother’s or my grandmother’s world any longer. It’s a new world with a life force of its own, a life force that demands that all women everywhere get to enjoy a human being’s right to freedom, opportunity and autonomy. I contend that we’ll continue to make progress if we remember to take full responsibility for our own lives.

Nobody else will take better care of you than YOU. Men have always understood that. That’s how they’ve stayed in power for so damn long.

Teresa Roberts is a retired educator turned writer, travel blogger, and professional myth buster.  Her most recent book is Have We Been Screwed? Trading Freedom for Fairy Tales.

About the Author Karen Garst