We were both born in 1970, the baptismal moment of a decade that would change dramatically the lives of American women. The two of us grew up thousands of miles apart, in entirely different kinds of families, yet we both came of age with the awareness that certain rights had been won by the women’s movement.
We’ve never doubted how important feminism is to people’s lives — men’s and women’s. Both of our mothers went to consciousness-raising-type groups. Amy’s mother raised Amy on her own, and Jennifer’s mother, questioning the politics of housework, staged laundry strikes.
With the dawn of not just a new century but a new millennium, people are looking back and taking stock of feminism. Do we need new strategies? Is feminism dead? Has society changed so much that the idea of a feminist movement is obsolete? For us, the only way to answer these questions is to imagine what our lives would have been if the women’s movement had never happened and the conditions for women had remained as they were in the year of our births.
Imagine that for a day it’s still 1970, and women have only the rights they had then. Sly and the Family Stone and Dionne Warwick are on the radio, the kitchen appliances are Harvest Gold, and the name of your Whirlpool gas stove is Mrs. America. What is it like to be female?
Babies born on this day are automatically given their father’s name. If no father is listed, “illegitimate” is likely to be typed on the birth certificate. There are virtually no child-care centers, so all preschool children are in the hands of their mothers, a baby-sitter, or an expensive nursery school. In elementary school, girls can’t play in Little League and almost all of the teachers are female. (The latter is still true.) In a few states, it may be against the law for a male to teach grades lower than the sixth, on the basis that it’s unnatural, or that men can’t be trusted with young children.
In junior high, girls probably take home ec; boys take shop or small-engine repair. Boys who want to learn how to cook or sew on a button are out of luck, as are girls who want to learn how to fix a car. Seventeen magazine doesn’t run feminist-influenced current columns like “Sex + Body” and “Traumarama.” Instead the magazine encourages girls not to have sex; pleasure isn’t part of its vocabulary. Judy Blume’s books are just beginning to be published, and Free to Be…You and Me does not exist. No one reads much about masturbation as a natural activity; nor do they learn that sex is for anything other than procreation.
Girls do read mystery stories about Nancy Drew, for whom there is no sex, only her blue roadster and having “luncheon.” (The real mystery is how Nancy gets along without a purse and manages to meet only white people.) Boys read about the Hardy Boys, for whom there are no girls.
In high school, the principal is a man. Girls have physical-education class and play half-court basketball, but not soccer, track, or cross country; nor do they have any varsity sports teams. The only prestigious physical activity for girls is cheerleading, or being a drum majorette. Most girls don’t take calculus or physics; they plan the dances and decorate the gym. Even when girls get better grades than their male counterparts, they are half as likely to qualify for a National Merit Scholarship because many of the test questions favor boys. Standardized tests refer to males and male experiences much more than to females and their experiences. If a girl “gets herself pregnant,” she loses her membership in the National Honor Society (which is still true today) and is expelled.
Girls and young women might have sex while they’re unmarried, but they may be ruining their chances of landing a guy full-time, and they’re probably getting a bad reputation. If a pregnancy happens, an enterprising gal can, get a legal abortion only if she lives in New York or is rich enough to fly there, or to Cuba, London, or Scandinavia. There’s also the Chicago-based Jane Collective, an underground abortion-referral service, which can hook you up with an illegal or legal termination. (Any of these options are going to cost you. Illegal abortions average $300 to $500, sometimes as much as $2,000.) To prevent pregnancy, a sexually active woman might go to a doctor to be fitted for a diaphragm, or take the high-dose birth-control pill, but her doctor isn’t likely to inform her of the possibility of deadly blood clots. Those who do take the Pill also may have to endure this contraceptive’s crappy side effects: migraine headaches, severe weight gain, irregular bleeding, and hair loss (or gain), plus the possibility of an increased risk of breast cancer in the long run. It is unlikely that women or their male partners know much about the clitoris and its role in orgasm unless someone happens to fumble upon it. Instead, the myth that vaginal orgasms from penile penetration are the only “mature” (according to Freud) climaxes prevails.
Lesbians are rarely “out,” except in certain bars owned by organized crime (the only businessmen who recognize this untapped market), and if lesbians don’t know about the bars, they’re less likely to know whether there are any other women like them. Radclyffe Hall’s depressing early-twentieth-century novel The Well of Loneliness pretty much indicates their fate.
The Miss America Pageant is the biggest source of scholarship money for women. Women can’t be students at Dartmouth, Columbia, Harvard, West Point, Boston College, or the Citadel, among other all-male institutions. Women’s colleges are referred to as “girls’ schools.” There are no Take Back the Night marches to protest women’s lack of safety after dark, but that’s okay because college girls aren’t allowed out much after dark anyway. Curfew is likely to be midnight on Saturday and 9 or 10 p.m. the rest of the week. Guys get to stay out as late as they want. Women tend to major in teaching, home economics, English, or maybe a language — a good skill for translating someone else’s words. The women’s studies major does not exist, although you can take a women’s studies course at six universities, including Cornell and San Diego State College. The absence of women’s history, black history, Chicano studies, Asian-American history, queer studies, and Native American history from college curricula implies that they are not worth studying. A student is lucky if he or she learns that women were “given” the vote in 1920, just as Columbus “discovered” America in 1492. They might also learn that Sojourner Truth, Mary Church Terrell, and Fannie Lou Hamer were black abolitionists or civil-rights leaders, but not that they were feminists. There are practically no tenured female professors at any school, and campuses are not racially diverse. Women of color are either not there or they’re lonely as hell. There is no nationally recognized Women’s History Month or Black History Month. Only 14 percent of doctorates are awarded to women. Only 3.5 percent of MBAs are female.
Only 2 percent of everybody in the military is female, and these women are mostly nurses. There are no female generals in the U.S. Air Force, no female naval pilots, and no Marine brigadier generals. On the religious front, there are no female cantors or rabbis, Episcopal canons, or Catholic priests. (This is still true of Catholic priests.)
Only 44 percent of women are employed outside the home. And those women make, on average, fifty-two cents to the dollar earned by males. Want ads are segregated into “Help Wanted Male” and “Help Wanted Female.” The female side is preponderantly for secretaries, domestic workers, and other low-wage service jobs, so if you’re a female lawyer you must look under “Help Wanted Male.” There are female doctors, but twenty states have only five female gynecologists or fewer. Women workers can be fired or demoted for being pregnant, especially if they are teachers, since the kids they teach aren’t supposed to think that women have sex. If a boss demands sex, refers to his female employee exclusively as “Baby,” or says he won’t pay her unless she gives him a blow job, she either has to quit or succumb –no pun intended. Women can’t be airline pilots. Flight attendants are “stewardesses” — waitresses in the sky — and necessarily female. Sex appeal is a job requirement, wearing makeup is a rule, and women are fired if they exceed the age or weight deemed sexy. Stewardesses can get married without getting canned, but this is a new development. (In 1968 the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission — EEOC — made it illegal to forcibly retire stewardesses for getting hitched.) Less than 2 percent of dentists are women; 100 percent of dental assistants are women. The “glass ceiling” that keeps women from moving naturally up the ranks, as well as, the sticky floor that keeps them unnaturally down in low-wage work, has not been named, much less challenged.
When a woman gets married, she vows to love, honor, and obey her husband, though he gets off doing just the first two to uphold his end of the bargain. A married woman can’t obtain credit without her husband’s signature. She doesn’t have her own credit rating, legal domicile, or even her own name unless she goes to court to get it back. If she gets a loan with her husband — and she has a job — she may have to sign a “baby letter” swearing that she won’t have one and have to leave her job.
Women have been voting for up to fifty years, but their turnout rate is lower than that for men, and they tend to vote right along with their husbands, not with their own interests in mind. The divorce rate is about the same as it is in 2000, contrary to popular fiction’s blaming the women’s movement for divorce. However, divorce required that one person be at fault, therefore if you just want out of your marriage, you have to lie or blame your spouse. Property division and settlements, too, are based on fault. (And at a time when domestic violence isn’t a term, much less a crime, women are legally encouraged to remain in abusive marriages.) If fathers ask for custody of the children, they get it in 60 to 80 percent of the cases. (This is still true.) If a husband or a lover hits his partner, she has no shelter to go to unless she happens to live near the one in northern California or the other in upper Michigan. If a woman is downsized from her role as a housewife (a.k.a. left by her husband), there is no word for being a displaced homemaker. As a divorcée, she may be regarded as a family disgrace or as easy sexual prey. After all, she had sex with one guy, so why not all guys?
If a woman is not a Mrs., she’s a Miss. A woman without makeup and a hairdo is as suspect as a man with them. Without a male escort she may be refused service in a restaurant or a bar, and a woman alone is hard-pressed to find a landlord who will rent her an apartment. After all, she’ll probably be leaving to get married soon, and, if she isn’t, the landlord doesn’t want to deal with a potential brothel.
Except among the very poor or in very rural areas, babies are born in hospitals. There are no certified midwives, and women are knocked out during birth. Most likely, they are also strapped down and lying down, made to have the baby against gravity for the doctor’s convenience. If he has a schedule to keep, the likelihood of a cesarean is also very high. Our Bodies, Ourselves doesn’t exist, nor does the women’s health movement. Women aren’t taught how to look at their cervixes, and their bodies are nothing to worry their pretty little heads about; however, they are supposed to worry about keeping their little heads pretty. If a woman goes under the knife to see if she has breast cancer, the surgeon won’t wake her up to consult about her options before performing a Halsted mastectomy (a disfiguring radical procedure, in which the breast, the muscle wall, and the nodes under the arm, right down to the bone, are removed). She’ll just wake up and find that the choice has been made for her.
Husbands are likely to die eight years earlier than their same age wives due to the stress of having to support a family and repress an emotional life, and a lot earlier than that if women have followed the custom of marrying older, authoritative, paternal men. The stress of raising kids, managing a household, and being undervalued by society doesn’t seem to kill off women at the same rate. Upon a man’s death, his beloved gets a portion of his Social Security. Even if she has worked outside the home for her entire adult life, she is probably better off with that portion than with hers in its entirety, because she has earned less and is likely to have taken time out for such unproductive acts as having kids.
Has feminism changed our lives? Was it necessary? After thirty years of feminism, the world we inhabit barely resembles the world we were born into. And there’s still a lot left to do.
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