Most days, I pride myself in being an early feminist. I subscribed to Ms. Magazine, I joined the National Organization for Women, I voted, and I sneered dutifully when a man tried to open a car door for me, because I had witnessed first hand how easy it was for a man to get more pay per hour than me and I wanted that to stop.
It was so refreshing to be able to step out the door in the morning in the early 1970s, imagining a brave new world where I would have the same chance at a job, the same chance for my voice to be heard at the table, or to take responsibility for my own actions. I thought when everyone started using “Ms.,” in place of the former marriage identifiers, Miss or Mrs., that we’d won. I thought we’d continue to make progress and I thought we were on firmer ground.
How could I have been so wrong?
When did I stop paying attention?
What was I doing when I should have been tending to the collective feminist garden?
The simple answer is: I just don’t know.
When I was in college, I had a part-time summer job in my home town at a dress pattern company. I was hired to work the third shift which started at 11:00 p.m. and ended close to dawn. I didn’t have a car, so my dad would pick me up on his way to work in the morning and I sobbed all the way home every day. The work was demeaning, mindless, repetitive, demoralizing. I folded cardboard boxes for eight hours a day. And as if that wasn’t enough, I was shunned and ostracized by my co-workers because while they were facing a lifetime of folding boxes, I would go back to college in September.
I was hired at $2.00 per hour. All of the girls hired with me made $2.00 per hour. All of the boys hired with me made $2.25 per hour. When I asked my supervisor how it was boys started at the same time, had the same experience, were the same age, lived in the same town and still they made a whole extra dollar every four hours they worked, I was told, “Boys can climb ladders.” But, I countered, you don’t need to climb ladders in this job and I climb ladders at home with no problem. The answer was, “Here, girls don’t climb ladders. You could get hurt.”
So, I embraced the so-called “Women’s Movement.” I knew this behavior by the supervisor at the pattern company was being replicated everywhere in America and I wanted to be part of whatever it took to make it stop. It cheered me no end that the valedictorian from the first co-ed class at the University of Notre Dame was a young woman. It felt tremendous.
But then, something happened while we were all enjoying these first fruits. Did we blink? Why were we so sure of ourselves?
It’s 40 years later and we are still not making equal pay. The best guess is that it will take another two generations for that to happen, assuming we are naïve enough to believe that it will happen if we don’t do something.
It’s 40 years later and the abused woman in Florida who was just sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot over the head of her abuser is identified in the news by her reproductive history. She’s a “mom.” If that was meant to elicit sympathy, it just backfired. No woman should be identified by whether or not she has children unless that was the reason she was in the news for the first place.
Forget what’s happening in Texas because that’s child’s play compared to what happened while I was in Ireland last week. I watched as busloads of men came into Dublin to protest the vote that took place in the Irish Parliament. They shouted into microphones and megaphones, followed by some women and a few children, and they carried red and white signs that read “Keep abortion illegal.” They wanted to maintain the status quo, which was that women who terminated pregnancies could be sentenced to life in prison. In all but three counties in Ireland, up until the vote on July 11, women faced life in prison. And remarkably, they all said they wanted to protect women. In fact, they had roughly 30 people praying the rosary last Tuesday night at the gates to the Parliament building because they wanted to protect women.
So, you would imagine, as I did, that they were about to legalize abortion in Ireland. As it turned out, and after much debate, they did reduce the penalty from life in prison to a maximum sentence of only 14 years but the lengthy debate that actually delayed the vote by a day, centered on something much more disturbing to me. The massive document had a suicide clause. Abortion would be legal when the woman’s life was in imminent danger or when the woman was likely to kill herself. Two psychologists plus one obstetrician must agree now that a woman who is intent on terminating a pregnancy is certifiably intent on taking her own life if an abortion is denied to her.
I thought we were past this. I thought we had won the right to take responsibility for our own lives so many years ago. And I never thought I would be teaching my own daughters now about “women’s lib.”
Imagine identifying a man in a media report as a “single dad.” Imagine if the woman in Florida were a man, firing a warning shot over the head of his wife. Would he be referred to as “Florida dad gets 20 years?” Imagine if the jury in the Zimmerman case were all male. The news outlets would have mentioned it once, when they were selected.
Women who are tennis superstars are bullied for their looks. Women who are in business are criticized for wanting to “have it all.” Women who want to serve their country in the armed forces are just now being offered combat roles.
Why is it we have to fight this battle all our lives?
I’ll tell you why. Because if we don’t keep fighting, some guy is going to keep trying to protect us. Get up and grab a ladder. Seriously, you’re not going to hurt yourself.
Anne Born has been an editor and writer all her life. She writes poems, short stories, and personal essays on family history and her view of living in a big city after growing up in a small one. She likes an audience or she would keep her writing in her personal notebook. This embarrasses her children. She lives in the South Bronx and writes on and about the MTA – the New York City system of buses and subways. You also find her at Open Salon and Red Room, and you can follow her on Twitter at @nilesite.