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 the nineties.
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
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
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
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 social role
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.
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2. Constitutional Law Cases & Essays, By S. Goldman. Page 205.
3. A People’s History Of The United States, By Howard Zinn.
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.
Fetzer, Philip L. The Ethnic Moment, The Search For Equality In
The 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
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Feminism And Gender Equality In The 1990’s
Overall, the rights and status of women have improved