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Feminism And Gender Equality In The 1990's

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Social Issues

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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
Endnote #1)

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 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 ...

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