One of the greatest benefits of teaching is hearing the views of young people. Last spring when my AP Lang and Comp class studied feminist authors, we read Judy Bradshaw’s classic essay from 1972, Why I Want a Wife. Bradshaw addresses the issues of a wife’s duties. Of course those duties include such items as complete care of the home, children, working to support the husband’s education, playing hostess, and being there for his sexual needs. The caveat, of course, is “If by chance, I find another person more suitable as a wife than the wife I already have, I want the liberty to replace my present wife with another one. Naturally, I will expect a fresh, new life; my wife will take the children and be solely responsible for them so that I am left free.” When I asked my students their thoughts on Bradshaw’s essay, my question was immediately met with grins and comments about how the article seemed a bit cheesy with its hyperbole. It doesn’t happen often, but this blew my mind. In just the few years between when Bradshaw wrote her essay and today’s society, young people have no concept of how limited women were in their options as recently as the 1970s. In their privileged world of seeing girls as capable of doing whatever they want, they honestly had no idea how different things were just one generation ago. They have no idea how hard women fought to obtain rights or how much women were subjugated.
I was born in 1968 in the midst of great turmoil–the Vietnam War and Civil Rights were both major wars at the time. Young men were shipping out to fight in an unpopular war, protests were taking place on college campuses across the country. The summer of 1967 was termed the summer of love, and two years later Woodstock took place. I was oblivious to it all. In my small rural, white community, I was raised by my stay-at-home mom and a largely absent at work father. I was insulated from all the turmoil. Through the luck of the draw, my father never had to go off to war. My community never saw any civil unrest because there was hardly anyone but white people living there. I was just happy playing in the yard and allowing my mother the privilege of taking care of my sister and me. I was oblivious to the fact that she was required to give up her employment, a career that payed better than my father’s job, when she got married. She ran a small grocery store while my dad worked. At times, she had a job to pay the bills so my father’s paycheck could be used to invest in property. Her health was at times precarious from serious asthma, made worse by my father’s smoking habit, but for the most part life was pretty awesome.
In 1972, I was completely unaware of the momentous passage of the Equal Rights Amendment by Congress. First introduced in 1923, just three years after women gained the right to vote, it was another forty-nine years before Congress agreed women should be considered equal to men. And there it sat. The states failed to ratify it. I don’t remember any of this, however, because I was still playing with my dolls. When I first heard of the ERA, it was 1982. The deadline for ratifying the amendment to the Constitution was approaching. States were voting. It was news, and I was old enough to be shocked to find out that I was not equal to men. I hadn’t known it before then, and I was crushed when equality for women failed.
It’s not really a surprise it failed. With all issues, if women united as a majority of the population, they could effect change. But women are divided. By class. By race. By social status. By religious belief. Divided women keep themselves relegated to that position of a second class citizen. This country has a long history of breeding resentment between groups of women. This divide is a side effect of the exploitation of women. This is most clearly seen in Antebellum America within the institution of slavery. White women were below their husbands in status, in effect losing their own status. He was the master of the plantation, and she was completely under his control. Rather than joining with slave women to resist the control of white landowners, they remained divided by class and race and expectation.
I didn’t have long to think about this complex history, however, because as a teenager, I was learning what it meant. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I still had no idea how to be a woman as an adult, and I was floundering my way through the world and trying to figure out how to navigate life as an unequal member. My idyllic youth had not prepared me for the craziness I encountered: women cutting me down and being catty; men not understanding the word no; being cat-called and grabbed; getting asked, “Can I lick you where you pee?” It was a struggle, and I fell down a worm hole of not liking myself because I was completely unprepared for being treated as either an adversary or an object. I had not known I was either of those things, and it was exhausting.
Before I knew it, I was pregnant. It was shortly after my twenty-first birthday when I found out I was going to become a mother. I told my casual lover that I was pregnant, and the young man from an upstanding Catholic family suggested I should have an abortion. I walked out the door of his apartment and never looked back. He had made his choice, and I had made mine. I would become a single mother in 1990. It wasn’t long after people found out that I was pregnant that the talking began. Because I had respected his desire not to be a parent, it was soon rumored that I didn’t know who the father was. I worked in a pool hall, and one older man came to me completely upset, nearly in tears, because he had been told during a billiards match that his son was the father–as a way to put him off his game. It was a tough time, but I had a supportive family. I did rely on government help for medical coverage, but my family was my main support. They continued to be my rock after the birth of my son.
Ironically, the way life tends to fold around and connect in strange ways, I had another connection to my son’s family on his father’s side. My mother was helping his grandmother after a surgery. I didn’t realize it at the time, but as my mom talked with her employer, we figured it out; however, we did not reveal this to a kind, elderly woman. At one point, my mom shared that I was expecting, and my baby’s great-grandmother opened up with a story from her own family. Her daughter, my son’s grandmother, had become pregnant and had a baby before she was married. This was a little over ten years before Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion. Now I’m not suggesting she would have aborted her baby, but she did not have a choice. Her voice still carried the hurt of judgment passed on to the entire family nearly thirty years before as she spoke of her daughter’s experience.
Not all were so lucky to have a supportive family. Some young women were secretly shipped off to homes for girls who had found themselves in a family way. Almost 1.5 million girls found themselves in homes for unwed mothers between 1945 and 1973. They stayed there until they delivered their babies and they could return home to family, their shame sleeping in an orphanage. Many of these girls were teens; some were very young teens. Excuses would be made as to why the daughter disappeared for months. Some managed to have abortions that were illegal, often with horrible complications because of the unsanitary conditions and unqualified person performing the procedure. Before Roe vs. Wade the choices were to risk life to abort, secretly have a baby and give it up, get married, or be branded a slut. For many young girls, the choice was made for them if their family refused to support them and their baby.
After my son was born, I became interested in family history. My great-aunt helped me find family by telling me about the ones she knew, and she recounted the story of her mother’s sister who had had a baby out of wedlock. Step back in time to 1907 in southern Missouri. It was well before a woman could vote. A seventeen-year-old girl gives birth. She bears the sole responsibility and shame of this child, and everyone whispers about her because such things are not openly discussed. Even by family, she was referred to as a loose woman or a hussy. When my great-aunt finally visited the relatives in Missouri and met her aunt, she was surprised. She was nice.
Of course, as a young single mother, I romanticized this aunt’s life, picturing her as a strong minded woman that refused to follow society’s expectations. She was jilted by her lover. He had somehow died tragically before he could marry her. Now that I am older, I know the reality is much more likely to be that she was raped. There is a long history of women being treated as a man’s property. A woman had no control over her own body, and there was no recourse to speak up if you were raped. A woman was blamed for being a victim. Women would treat her as though she had somehow brought it upon herself. Men accused her of being too much of a temptation to them. It’s the same excuse we’ve heard since the Garden of Eden. Women are inherently evil, sexual creatures attempting to lure men to the devil with their bodies.
Even when a woman was in a loving relationship with a caring husband, being a woman still held a heavy burden. Before birth control was possible, my great-great-great grandmother commented that she thought all her husband had to do was walk past her bed post for her to become pregnant. She gave birth to fourteen children. Of those fourteen, only six lived to adulthood. Two of her children suffered mental disabilities. I cannot image how she felt to have so many children and lose so many. It’s not a surprise that the leading cause of death for women was childbirth. It was an extremely dangerous proposition to have a baby not too long ago.
I feel the pain of the women who came before me, the pain of restrictions and blame, the pain of too many pregnancies and losses, the pain of constantly fighting to be equal. Their tears flow through me and spill to the ground, as I think of a history of objectification, blame and shame. Women fought with their lives to provide women a voice and rights. Women fought with their lives to live a life without fear of becoming a victim. Women fought with their lives to help other women stand up for justice when they were victims. Women fought with their lives to have a choice of how to live their lives. I weep to think that our daughters and granddaughters might have to fight this fight again.