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.
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
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
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 #4)
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 #6)
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
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.
1. The Ethnic Moment, By P.L. Fetzer. Page 57
2. Constitutional Law Cases & Essays, By S. Goldman. Page 205.
3. A People’s History Of The United States, By Howard Zinn. Page 499.
4. Beyond Black And White, By M. Marable. Page 40-41.
5. Constitutional Law Cases & Essays, By S. Goldman. Page 767.
6. The Ethnic Moment, By P. L. Fetzer. Page 234.
7. Constitutional Law Cases & Essays, By S. Goldman. Page 784.
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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:
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