How Our Feminist History Can Help Our Feminist Present & Future

June 11th, 2019

Movies like Suffragette, Hidden Figures and The Battle of the Sexes may inspire us with their exhilarating depictions of our historical comrades in feminist arms, but too often they oversimplify, if not overlook entirely, the key factors that have forged feminist progress in the course of history. It’s important to recognize and examine what has, and hasn’t, worked in the past to streamline our efforts in the here and now. So, for starters, let’s examine 3 key points of contention regarding feminist history of the past 150 or so years

1. Societal permission to wear looser, more comfortable clothing:

Women fought for over a century, likely much longer, for the right to wear less restrictive clothing that not only caused them discomfort but also threatened their health, disrupting blood flow, damaging their ribs and compromising their lungs. Those Victorian ladies weren’t swooning due to their delicate sensibilities but rather society-imposed sadism.

Yet their protests were met with ridicule from the press, and those who did not conform to acceptable attire were harassed on the street. It was not until the introduction of the bicycle that demanded looser clothing when women were freed from their previous sartorial bondage.

None too surprisingly, there was also much controversy regarding the appropriateness of women riding bicycles, but as often happens in our society, capitalism won out. There was money to be made in the selling and maintenance of bicycles, and as a result, women were finally permitted to wear looser clothing.

2. Access to Education:

Similarly, women’s fight for access to education did not meet with success until prompted by an urgent societal demand for educated women. Marlene Le Gates, author of In Their Time, writes:

“In most countries, the expansion of public schooling created a demand for the women teachers who would replace men at lower wages. Financial pressures led universities in the American Midwest to admit women. European reformers dramatized the plight of “surplus” women, those unable to find suitable marriage partners eligible men either delayed marriage or emigrated to the American West. These women needed new job opportunities and adequate job training if they were to earn their own livelihoods, feminists pointed out.”

In other words, women didn’t earn the access to education based on the right to first class citizenship. Rather, more men needed to be educated, prompting the need for more educators, so to keep costs down, they permitted women to become those educators as a means of providing cheap labor.

Incidentally, the career of schoolteacher remains female-dominated and continues to be grossly underpaid, much like other occupations that have been “feminized” over time. Author Estelle Freedman in her book, No Turning Back: The History of Feminism and the Future of Women explains:

“Once women outnumber men, a profession loses prestige and pay rights deteriorate. At the same time, gender hierarchy persists, for the men who remain hold the best paid and most prestigious positions as supervisors and managers.” She notes how this happened with teaching, nursing and librarian positions in the late 1800s and in the 1900s with clerical, sales and bank teller positions.

3. The Right to Vote:

And while we undeniably owe much to the Suffragettes for a woman’s right to vote, lamentably we can also, in part, attribute this right to the last people you might imagine. Freedman writes:

“In the United States racial prejudice incited fears that White Anglo-Saxon protestant women were committing ‘race suicide,’ given higher birth rates among Catholic and Jewish immigrants to the United States as well as African Americans. Elite classes worried that the country would come to be dominated by voters from the masses, whom they considered of inferior genetic stock.”

As such, these men took several measures to counter this concern. For one, they changed their position on a woman’s right to vote. By now supporting this measure, the men’s wives would be enabled to vote for their husbands’ preferred candidates, assuring their white power to endure.

I cite these (highly oversimplified) examples not to undermine the valiant women who’ve contributed to our progress throughout history, nor to suggest that feminist activism is ineffective. Rather, I aim to illustrate some important historical trends we’d be wise to exploit in our contemporary efforts to make positive change.

Sadly, it is not enough to expect reform to emerge based solely on the grounds of achieving social justice. There are too many folks in power who do not prioritize, or even recognize, justice for the majority. Naturally, we need to remove such people from their positions, but to do that we had best consider how we can all help to be part of the solution.

Next up from me: 7 Feminist Calls to Action!




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