It's a woman's world

Reflecting on the anniversary of woman suffrage in America

Happy anniversary, women of America! Happy anniversary to us. Hasn't it been fun to hear all the wonderful foremothers quoted and to see all the doughty old dames marching in the demonstrations of 75 years ago?

Abigail Adams, of course, is always quoted on the famous letter to her husband: "I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation."

Actually, I'm much fonder of another Adams statement: "Deliver me from your cold phlegmatic preachers, politicians, friends, lovers, and husbands." Our First Feminist was such a spirited lady. But her strongest arguments were for women's education: "If we mean to have heroes, statesmen, and philosophers, we should have learned women."

Our Martin Luther King Jr. was Sojourner Truth, and reading her equivalent of King's famous "I Have a Dream" speech will give you exactly the same kind of chills:

"That man says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud puddles, or gives me any best places, and ain't I a woman?...I have plowed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me--and ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man (when I could get it) and bear the lash as well--and ain't I a woman? I have borne 13 children and seen them most all sold off into slavery, and when I cried out with a mother's grief, none but Jesus heard--and ain't I a woman?" (Second annual convention of the women's rights movement, Akron, Ohio, 1852.)

Historically, the women's movement in this country has followed other movements to end oppression, tagging along as a bit of an afterthought, and always subjected to ridicule. The early suffragists were also abolitionists. After the great war to end slavery (well, arguably to end slavery), the women's movement also lost steam. Those who continued that long struggle probably deserve even more credit than the pioneers of the movement. In the 1960s, the civil-rights movement inspired a new women's movement, in part because women got tired of fetching the coffee while men held strategy sessions. Equal pay for equal work is not quite so grand a struggle for justice as was suffrage, but, by George, it's a good idea.

We are paying more attention now to the World War II period when Rosie the Riveter was encouraged to get out and work and no one accused her of being an unnatural mother for putting her kids in day care, or of neglecting her family in favor of "self-fulfillment."

Our society has now reached a point of pluperfect confusion on the subject of working mothers. In 1988, Marilyn Quayle, a lawyer, spoke against women who put their careers ahead of their families; apparently the fact that most mothers work because they have to had not made it onto her radar screen. They don't have careers; they have jobs.

On the other hand, mothers who stay home with their children are viciously condemned if the word "welfare" precedes the word "mother." It's enough to confuse a girl.

While working in the Mountain West, I ran across the curious fact that in the late 19th century, the majority of doctors in Utah were women. When I looked into it, I found that Mormon wives--so often pitied in those days before polygamy was outlawed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints--actually had a wonderful, built-in system of child care. They could travel back East and study at the few medical schools then open to women, because they could leave their children with their "sister wives." Having read many of the journals of those remarkable women (to this day, the Mormon Church encourages the wonderful habit of keeping journals), I cannot report that polygamy was a happy solution for women. Still, it does give one some idea how much this society needs to change both its structures and its attitudes.

Unfortunately, because mobility of labor is so important to American capitalism, extended families--where child care is built-in--are less and less common, and the mom-dad-and-two-kids family is under increasing strain. While we pay lip service to the idea that both parents should get more time for family matters (thanks to Bill Clinton for family leave), in fact, most workers are working longer hours today than even 10 years ago.

Because it is so expensive for employers to pay benefits (alas for health-care reform), they prefer to pay overtime rather than hire additional workers. Ergo, two exhausted parents, two neglected kids. The partial solutions--job sharing, flex time, shorter work weeks--are more honored in the breach than the observance.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

 
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