Why you are not a feminist — the untold history of American women
It is important to see history with an economic lens. The industrialization of the U.S. was not only a revolution of innovation, but a major economic turning point. Prior, families worked together, and relied on agriculture through a barter economy. The industrialization turned the barter economy into a money economy. Women and children continued to labor on farms, while men worked in factories. The separate work spheres between women and men had one big difference: women were not paid. This economic shift where men were now the sole breadwinners was the first change to the U.S. family structure.
In 1851, Sojourner Truth, a former slave, changed history through her famous improvised speech “Ain’t I a Woman?” When an audience tried to denounce her womanhood, she flashed her breast for proof. Before taking my Women’s Studies course, I never heard of Sojourner Truth. Studying U.S. women like Truth, I was able to see how race and sex are a double whammy for African American women. But Truth never let those two things stop her. She was bad ass!
Women were not economically independent from men since they were not given the right to vote, hold property, or receive an education. Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the Declaration of Sentiments in response to the Declaration of Independence. In 1848, Stanton helped organize the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women’s rights convention, where hundreds gathered to address their rights. Stanton founded NAWSA (Nat’l American Woman Suffrage Association) for elite, white women. Not all women were fighting for the same equality. Stanton did not see how excluding women of color would only hinder the women’s movement. The more I was able to study women’s rights in America, the more clearly I was able to see how all inequalities are connected. Fighting for one and not another will only take you one step forward, and two steps back.
But another party arose, NWP (National Women’s Party) founded by Alice Paul. This was a party for black women and the working class. This party was ruthless. Standing in front of the White House demanding equal rights they were arrested as as political prisoners. In jail, they went on hunger-strikes to retaliate against the false imprisonment. These women were starved, and forcibly fed for our right to vote. Why was this history lesson barely touched, if not completely left out of our textbooks?!
In 1920, women were given the right to vote with the 19th Amendment. It took seventy two years of blood, sweat and tears to get women’s suffrage... But with any great movement comes backlash. The first backlash against suffrage came with the Great Depression. Instead of blaming the economic crash on the banks and Wall Street, women were accused of taking over the workforce.
Another economic economic shift came during World War II. Women took over the “men’s work” in the factories. In fact, women were given free child daycare because their work was so needed. But in 1944 when the U.S. victoriously knocked out the German barricade, Americans were thrilled to bring their men home. Their homecoming required firing all the women in the factories. So quick to forget about the women back home in factories who built the ships and airplanes for the men to use in war.
With lack of a family structure during the war, the U.S. needed to re-define the “American family”. So the U.S. war department teamed up with Hollywood. They made shows like Leave It to Beaver. This show portrays the “breadwinner” and “home-maker” era from 1945–65. They wanted to show Americans what a “true” family looks like.The show I Love Lucy had recurring story lines where Lucy, Ricky’s wife, would attempt to be independent, but the show would always conclude that women’s independence from men is short-lived and unattainable in the long run.
By the early 1960s, women did not want their daughters to follow in their footsteps as homemakers. Women abused Valium to cope with their purpose only being found in the home, while men abused alcohol to cope with their purpose only being found at work (think Mad Men). Men were excluded from the family life, and women were excluded from paid labor. The lack of economic independence kept women financially dependent on their husbands for the well-being of their children. The “breadwinner” and “homemaker” was the shortest lived family and gender era in U.S. history, yet the ghost of this epoch still haunts us today.
This past year, some fellow classmates and I did a #metoo silent protest at our university. Many peers came up and thanked us, but there was one student I cannot forget. I vividly remember him calling me over with a hand gesture that a king would use to summon a servant. He told me that he could not conceive how a woman could be raped. When I asked why, he started spitting out biology jargon about the difference between male and female neurology, which he believed was also a just reason for gender roles. Although I did not convince him that rape should be taken seriously, and that I don’t believe gender roles are rigid, that conversation did not go to waste. As the year moved forward, I would see said individual on campus and he would walk with his head high, and give me a little demeaning nod. I responded with a warm smile and eye contact, giving him respect but not showing any inferiority in our interaction. Slowly, over time this person began to say hello and speak to me as an equal. His air of superiority faded.
Our modern U.S. is still divided by race, class and sex. We cannot open our eyes to one, and not see the others. This is irresponsible. This is blindness. Although we cannot change the world, we can do our best to change the lives around us. We can shed light on the truth, and be lights of hope and justice. Otherwise, what is our purpose…