Look How Far We’ve Come


“Surely it must be one of history’s deftest ironies that oppressors have always sought to rationalize their oppression by blaming the oppressed for the state to which it has reduced them.”  – Sidney Mintz

I am currently reading a very good book entitled “A History of Women in America.”  It is full of things that I never learned in history class — specifically pertaining to the role of women in historic events, of course.  It has been a bit eerie reading, though, as I’m discovering that the methods used to oppress women have not changed much over the years.  They are, perhaps, used more subtly now — but not by much.

There are numerous ways that this manifests throughout the book.  The first I’d like to discuss was in reference to the treatment of female slaves.

Southern white men abused black women and then proclaimed that black women were wanton, immoral, and sexually degraded.

This idea — that women who have been abused are somehow immoral or damaged, and that is why they were abused — still permeates our culture, although now it is not limited by race.  If you have ever heard (which I know you have) “She deserved it because…,” you have witnessed this in action.  (She deserved it because she went to the party.  She deserved it because she was drinking.  She deserved it because she dressed like a “slut.”  She deserved it because she acted interested in him.  She deserved it because she kissed him.  She deserved it because she slept around anyway.)  Women who are “pure” (virgins, not remotely interested in sex, do not dress provocatively, waiting till marriage, etc, etc) do not deserve assault.  Women who are “wanton” (not virgins, enjoy sex, enjoy their sexuality, enjoy provocative dress, etc, etc) were just asking for it.  The blame does not lie on the man for assaulting, it lies on the woman for “asking for” assault.

Then there is the reasoning that women just don’t like sex (which helps to fuel the idea that women who do like sex are fucked up).

Dr Alcott wrote, “Woman, as is well known, in a natural state…seldom if ever makes any of those advances, which clearly indicate sexual desire and for this very plain reason, that she does not feel them.”

The way this works is so insidious…women are considered immoral if they enjoy and seek out sexual activity.  Therefore they do not make sexual advances, lest they be shunned from society.  Because women do not make sexual advances, they must not enjoy sex.  We are still constantly fighting this battle.  There is a stereotype that is incredibly prevalent (and that women are taught that it is right to embrace) that women are seeking love, while men are seeking sex.  This where that oh-so-lovely phrase, “Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” originates.  This stems from the idea that the only use women have for sex is to trap men into marriages.  Of course, that’s preposterous — women enjoy sex just as much as men, but the fact that they are taught that they are not supposed to breeds all these harmful ideas about the way relationships work.

Twenty years before the first women’s rights convention women workers were protesting in public.  “It required some courage,” wrote one observer, “for Yankee ‘young ladies’ to brave public opinion and develop strike tactics at this early period…It was felt that young women should not march about the streets, making a spectacle of themselves…whether it was conventional or not.”

I’ve discussed it before, and imagine I will again, but women are still expected not to “make a spectacle of themselves.” Women are expected to be meek, silent, subservient.  Any display to the contrary often brings scorn upon them.

If feminists rashly insisted on the vote for themselves, abolitionists stated, they would only jeopardize the hard-won chance of black men.

Oh dear, where do I start?  Perhaps with the fact that a large number of the people who fought for the freedom of said black men were, in fact, women?  And that they were still expected to be self-sacrificing and put their needs second?  Yeah.  (Of course not meaning that black men did not deserve freedom and the vote, which I imagine goes without saying, but will say anyway.)  Of course, this still persists today…a woman is told that in order to be “good,” she must be self-sacrificing.  She must put the needs of her family before her own.  She must put the needs of her colleagues before her own.  She must put the needs of her romantic partner before her own.  She must put the needs of her friends before her own.

That is all I am going to quote for now, but I would also like to discuss a bit the idea that women and men have their own “spheres” that are “complimentary” (as in, women are meant to do housework, care for children, and be the more moral “fairer sex,” while men are expected to go out, labor, be ruthless in business, and rely on women to enforce their morality — which, by the way, has a great influence on the way sexual assault is viewed).  There is a reasoning used here much like the one used to enforce the idea that women don’t like sex — women have traditionally done the housework and cared for children, so it must be what they all want.  This is, of course, ridiculous.  Colonial women did a great deal of “man’s work” while the colonies were being founded — their labor was needed, so they were allowed to step outside their “sphere.”  Once the colonies were on their feet, men pushed women out of these roles by requiring official training and apprenticeships, and barring women from participating in these things.  This is not meant to be an “all men are evil!” diatribe, but to illustrate the fact that women have historically wanted to leave their “sphere,” but were not allowed to do so.  The idea that women have always done this, so this must be what they naturally want and are capable of is ridiculous.  This has gotten better in modern times, of course, but the idea of spheres has carried over, and women are still expected to want marriage, children, and domestic life.  Women have just as many complicate needs, desires, and goals as men.  Some do want domesticity — as do some men.  And some do not.  I find it startling and frightening that ideas like this are taken as “the way it is” now, when the “spheres” were forcefully established, not due to natural inclination.

That is enough ranting for now…coming soon, Things Women Did That You Probably Did Not Hear About In History Class!  (Title to hopefully be shortened later.)

(All quotes are, of course, from A History of Women in America by Carol Hymowitz and Michaele Weissman.  Buy it.  Read it.  It’s good stuff.)

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