The History Behind how Women are Treated in Present-Day Society
This time last year, I was volunteering at my local hospital. One dreary Monday morning, I came in and saw that I was assigned to the hospital gift shop. I headed over and immediately got to work manning the cashier while the other woman who was working with me that morning was restocking newspapers. All of a sudden, I hear a gasp.
“Oh Amy, come here and look at this awfulness,” she said. “This man just committed suicide in his jail cell. He sexually assaulted so many young girls or something…absolutely disgusting.”
I went over and took a look at what she was referring to. Sure enough, in big red letters, the headline screamed: “Jeffrey Epstein Dead in Suicide at Jail, Spurring Inquiries.” At this time, I had no idea who this man was, and I didn’t even remember his name until a few weeks ago.
But let’s backtrack a bit in history. Women- what role did they play in history and how did this lead to where we are now in society?
Women, as we have all learned in our high school history classes, have always had limited rights and were seen as inferior to men. They couldn’t vote, own property, get a divorce, and were basically the property of their husbands. This was a recurring theme everywhere- in Europe, in America, and in most places in the world. Girls weren’t allowed to go to school, so many girls in colonial times were uneducated. Even if they were educated, an educated woman could not gain the same status and respect as a man with the same qualifications would get.
Then came the American Revolution, which redefined the roles of women in society. A women’s new role was centered around the concept of Republican Motherhood- the idea that women were expected to educate their children about republican ideals so that they could be the “perfect citizens of the new nation.” Other than Republican motherhood, it was also expected women stay in what they called the “cult of domesticity”, where society’s perception of women was that women should only stay in the domestic sphere involving children and family while avoiding the larger sphere of business and politics. So, basically, women were expected to be stay at home mothers with no rights or say in government or society. During the Revolutionary era, Abigail Adams, the wife of future President John Adams, urged her husband in a series of letters to “remember the ladies”- to not forget about the nation’s women when fighting for America’s independence from Great Britain. Of course, John Adams brushed this aside, as did the other founding fathers, and the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution only had the pronoun “he” and was not inclusive of women. This meant that women had virtually no rights in the new nation, as the Declaration and Constitution had no indication to include women. For a nation that was built on the ideals of freedom and liberty, how hypocritical was it to not even include women?
Then, the role of women changed drastically a few decades later with the rise of the Market Revolution. The Lowell Mills was the first example of a factory that hired young women to work instead of children or young men. For the first time in the United States, these mills combined the textile processes of spinning and weaving under one roof, essentially eliminating the “putting-out system” in favor of mass production of high-quality cloth. It was the ideal example of what a factory should look like, and factories in Europe began to model their factories after the Lowell mills. The young women who worked in the Lowell Mills, known as the “Lowell Mill Girls”, gained national fame when they organized, went on strike, and mobilized in politics in a time when women couldn’t even vote — and created the first union of working women in American history. This paved the road to labor unions, worker’s rights, and strikes that became prominent in society almost half a century later.
The first half of the 18th century also marked an important change for women with the emergence of the Second Great Awakening, which set off multiple reform movements to better American society. These included the abolition movement, education reform, temperance movement, and the early feminist movement. Although you expect women to be only closely associated with the feminist movement, there were involved in almost all of the reform movements that were happening in the 1840s, especially the temperance movement. During the early women’s movement, the most well-known event was the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott, the Seneca Falls Convention was the first attempt by women to protest their rights and come together as a group. At the convention, members drew up the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which was the Declaration of Independence that Thomas Jefferson had written half a century early, except all the pronouns of “he” was replaced with “she” to state that all men AND women are created equal. The right to vote was included in the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, but was the most radical idea and was made fun of by the press.
The feminist movement took a backseat as tensions about slavery led up to the Civil War and the country exploded into battle. However, after the Civil War, controversy emerged when the 15th amendment was passed, which gave all men, including African-Americans, the right to vote. Women were angry because Africans were given the right to vote, but women weren’t. Keep in mind that most women involved in the feminist movement were racist and saw them as separate from women of color- most were only advocating for white women. As a result of the controversy, the women’s movement split into two main groups: the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and the American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA). NWSA was the national group led by Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who voted illegally under the 14th amendment!) to try and get a national amendment for women’s suffrage. AWSA was the state by state group led by Lucy Stone that was trying to gain suffrage by going from state to state and encouraging individual states to put women’s suffrage into their state constitutions. However, in the late 1800s, these two groups combined to create the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) led by Carrie Chapman Catt. NAWA regularly hosted parades and tried to talk to important politicians to bring about change in suffrage. The main difference between the early and late women’s movements was that the 1900s women’s movement specifically pushed for women’s suffrage. A more radical group- The Silent Sentinels” soon emerged with Alice Paul as their leader. These women used the protesting technique from Britain called picketing, which meant they congregated outside a building or business until their voices were heard. The “Silent Sentinels” picketed in front of the White House and put immense pressure on President Wilson to bring about change. However, these women were soon violently thrown into jail. In jail, Alice Paul began “hunger strikes”- which meant women refused to eat anything in jail and had to be force-fed. The press got a hold of these stories and the public was horrified at what was happening to the women, putting even more pressure on Wilson. Soon enough, in 1920, President Wilson passed the 19th amendment (mostly to help the war effort for WWI) by rewarding women with the right to vote. It was a huge victory for women- but it was not the end of the feminist movement.
In the 1920s, America saw many new cultural changes following World War I. After the war was over, Americans rejoiced and the economy boomed. This prosperity allowed many Americans to focus on more leisurely activities, such as attending sporting games or going clubbing. It also led to new roles of women- during the “Roarin’ 20’s”, flappers emerged in American society. Flappers were young women who wore short skirts, bobbed their hair, listened to jazz, and flaunted their disdain for what was then considered acceptable behavior. Flappers wanted to change society’s view of women. By wearing shorter skirts and bolder makeup, they expressed themselves and proved they could be as diverse as the men. They did things men did, to prove they could do anything a man could do. More conservative Americans were shocked by the behavior of flappers and were offended by their behavior. This was the first time in society where young women were trying to break out of social norms that America had created for them.
New economic opportunities were open to women during the 1930s and 1940s, as America was mobilizing supplies, troops, and weapons to prepare for World War II. Because most men were drafted to fight in the war, women had to take over many of the jobs men were working before the war- such as working in factories, producing automobiles, and working in defense plants. These jobs provided unprecedented opportunities to move into occupations previously thought of as exclusive to men, especially the aircraft industry, where a majority of workers were women by 1943. A new symbol of working women emerged in American culture- Rosie the Riveter. Rosie the Riveter was a cultural icon of World War II, representing the women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II, many of whom produced munitions and war supplies. Thanks to the hardworking women on the homefront, America churned out thousands of airplanes, tanks, and guns to use in the war effort, successfully helping the Allies win the war. However, after WWII, when men came back from war, women refused to go back into the domestic sphere and wanted to keep their jobs, since they did a great job proving to society that they could handle it. Unfortunately, the 1950s saw a reversion back to women being housewives and stay-at-home mothers. Books such as Child and Baby Care by Dr. Benjamin Spock reaffirmed in the mass media the role of women in the household. Women were supposed to present her family in a way that was acceptable to society, and her main role was to please her husband. The men of the families were the breadwinners, meaning they were the ones with the jobs, which provided money for their families. Women were expected to care for the children, cook, clean, shop, all those great domestic household duties. Even though men coming back from the war took their jobs back, many women still had jobs, most of which held clerical positions, assembly lines, or service jobs, but these jobs required almost little or no effort.
Many women were unhappy with their role in society. Using her unhappiness to spark and inspire change, a woman named Betty Friedman wrote her book The Feminine Mystique, which discussed the frustration of many women in the 1950’s and 1960s who felt they were restricted to their roles of mother and homemaker. Friedman also refers to the metaphor of a “glass ceiling”- alluding to the invisible barriers that prevent minorities and women from being promoted to top corporate positions. Her book successfully started the “second wave of feminism” in the 1960s, which was also closely intertwined with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. This movement, instead of focusing on suffrage, sought for equal rights and opportunities and greater personal freedom for women. Women desperately pushed for the Equal Protection Amendment (ERA) which was a Constitutional amendment passed by Congress in 1972 that would require equal treatment of men and women under federal and state law. Facing fierce opposition from the New Right and the Republican Party, the ERA was defeated as time ran out for state ratification in 1982 and still hasn’t been ratified. Unfortunately, this new feminist movement wasn’t the most successful.
And here we are today, nearly 250 years later. America now has legislation that states women have the same rights as men, but in society, we must still break through the social norms that we have about women. With the long history of women’s rights being oppressed, it’s not surprising that some ideas about “women being inferior” or “women are just meant to bear kids, cook, and clean” are still present in society. Women are more likely to be slut-shamed and harassed for a clothing choice or just by the way she acts. Many people still see women as inferior to men in many fields, despite many women’s successes in higher levels of education and jobs. Most higher education majors, such as STEM, engineering, and computer science, are still almost all male-dominated. Nearly 1 in 5 women have experienced completed or attempted rape during her lifetime. 77 percent of women have experienced verbal sexual harassment, and 51 percent have been sexually touched without their permission. How many of these cases go to court? Only 37%. How many of these cases are convicted guilty? 18%. How many rapists ever spend a day in jail? 6%. How much time do these offenders serve time in jail? Under 14 years, and many offenders get released early on probation.
Look at the case of Brock Turner: a seemingly bright young Stanford student who was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. He was sentenced to a measly six months in jail. The outcry was so widespread that it inspired California legislators to pass a bill that would require at least three years in prison for those convicted of sexual assault against an unconscious or intoxicated person. One of the biggest problems women face is sexual assault and rap- just look at the statistics! It is such a big problem but doesn’t get nearly enough attention. Only a small percentage of victims ever get justice. The fact that almost half of rape victims are too scared to go to the police and report their attack just because they’re afraid of what society will think of them and if people will believe them. Another huge problem is how police deal with these cases. One problem federal investigators uncovered how departments don’t take sexual assault allegations seriously, with an officer even describing one victim as “a conniving little whore” and one detective allegedly claiming that “all our cases are bullshit.” A few months ago, I watched the limited series Unbelievable on Netflix, which is based on a true story about a girl who was attacked and raped in her own home. When she goes to the police to report it, the officers taking her statement somehow end up convincing her that it never happened and she dropped the accusations. However, two detectives from the other side of the country were investigating a string of rapes and pinned it to one person, and that person was the girl’s rapist. Now with new, physical evidence, the police had no choice but to apologize to the girl, who sued the police department and won a great deal of money, which she used to start a new life. It was the most beautiful story I have ever witnessed, but it just shows how the actions of authority can affect someone’s life so negatively.
Back to Jeffrey Epstein- recently, I watched the Netflix series Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich. I hadn’t made the connection that the man in the newspaper shown to me almost a year ago was the same person in that series, but once I saw his face, that dead, cold, look in his eyes, instantly knew that it was him that I had seen in that headline. The series horrified me- the fact that money and power of a single, pedophilic man could silence dozens of brave young women who had to live in pain and silence for years before justice was served is a complete failure of the justice system. And justice wasn’t even served- the coward killed himself before he was supposed to face his victims. The fact that these women have had to learn to live with the weight of what Epstein did to them is beyond me; I would not be strong enough. It’s sad to see what money and power can get you in this country- it can silence thousands and can get anyone away with anything.
Today, the controversy is centered around Ghislaine Maxwell, the British socialite who was the long-time girlfriend of Jeffrey Epstein. She helped Jeffrey obtain his victims and cover it up for him- they worked as a team. She’s currently being arrested and charged on multiple counts of child trafficking, and in my opinion, she’s worse than Jeffrey. She’s a woman herself, yet she exploited and preyed on young girls’ innocence just to give them straight into the hands of a monster. Girls are supposed to support girls, to come together as one, but she’s just as bad as Epstein, if not worse. My heart aches and goes out to any woman who has had to endure the pains and sufferings of rape and assault. I hope that society and the criminal justice system will shine more light on this subject and serve more justice because we girls deserve it.
When will society look at women the same way as they look at men? When will justice be served for millions of rape and sexual assault victims? When will the Equal Protection Amendment be passed? When will it be normal to see a woman in a high ranking position that men usually hold? Hell, we haven’t even had a woman as president in this country’s two-hundred-something year existence. Time’s up. We need to change and educate each other, ourselves, and the future generation to see all genders as equal, and bring light to the injustices that women have faced in the past and the present. We should bring voices back to the women whose voices have been silenced. We should spread the knowledge that feminism is not about making women superior to men, but women EQUAL to men.
I’m sorry to all the women who have been raped or assaulted and haven’t gotten justice served for them. I’m sorry if somebody ever told you that you couldn’t do something because of your gender. I’m sorry to all the women who have been called a slut or a whore. I’m sorry to all of the women who have been dress coded in school just because some boy gets ‘aroused’ by bare shoulders. I’m sorry to all of those who have been put down and made small by men. But keep in mind, we are women. We make up more than 50% of the population. We bring the miracle of life into the world. We are strong. We are brave. We can change the world, one step at a time.
Thank you for reading.