Thursday, May 19, 2011

What We Can Do For Feminism

I find myself in a church, crowded with people dressed in heavy 1800s garb, despite the extreme heat.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal!” I look towards the front of the room and see one of the mothers of the women’s rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, reading from a document. I realize this is the Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, and that Stanton is reading from the Declaration of Sentiments.

“In the covenant of marriage,” Stanton continues, “she - that is, woman - is compelled to promise obedience to her husband, he becoming, to all intents and purposes, her master - the law giving him power to deprive her of her liberty, and to administer chastisement.”

The room begins to fade again. When my sight clears, I am in a modern-day living room. A woman is lying on the floor, bruised and crying, a ring on her finger. Her husband is standing above her and screeching, kicking his vulnerable wife in the stomach. She keeps her eyes shut, helpless. After several minutes, he stops the abuse and stalks out of the room. A girl about my age tiptoes into the living room and helps her mother sit up, wiping away her tears.

“Why don’t you leave him?” the girl asks, her words barely audible.

“I can’t,” she says, her voice equally quiet. “I have no one other than him, nowhere to go, no money to leave with. I have no freedom, no…”

“Liberty,” her daughter says. “This isn’t fair.”

“Tell me about it,” the abused woman says, laughing hollowly.

* * *

I am transported from the unhappy home back to the Seneca Falls Convention. “He has created a false public sentiment by giving to the world a different code of morals for men and women, by which moral delinquencies which exclude women from society, are not only tolerated, but deemed of little account in man,” Stanton calls out.

I find myself back to my own era again, this time in a school hallway. A group of girls stand against their lockers, ogling at a football star as he walks past them.

“He is so cool,” one of them says. “That he’s so good at football and wins all those games, he’s so tough and manly. That’s so awesome.”

“Isn’t it?” another girl swoons. As she says it, a girl with a stubby ponytail wearing a pair of loose jeans and a basketball jersey passes the group. The girls roll their eyes.

“She’s such a tomboy,” one of them says.

“Does she even own a skirt?” a miniskirt-clad girl asks sarcastically.

“Probably not, she’s so butch,” another says, and the group laughs. I stay silent, horrified at the double standard these girls are applying. How can they applaud a boy for being tough and sporty while they criticize a girl for being the same way?

* * *

After the room finishes spinning and my sight is cleared, I find myself in a conference hall rather than the Seneca Falls Convention. I see the distinctive Betty Friedan at the front of the room, speaking to about three hundred women, and figure out that this is the first NOW National Conference, of 1966. Friedan reads a document out loud. “We reject the current assumptions that a man must carry the sole burden of supporting himself, his wife, and family, and that a woman is automatically entitled to lifelong support by a man upon her marriage, or that marriage, home and family are primarily woman’s world and responsibility - hers, to dominate - his to support.”

As she utters the last syllable, I am brought back to a law office in the present day. A woman sits at her desk, clacking away at her computer.

“Paycheck,” a clerk says as he passes her desk. She swivels around and takes the envelope he offers her, and then continues working. After a few minutes she opens the envelope and looks at the check. She notices the name of one of her male coworkers and realizes she was given the wrong envelope. She also notices that his salary is significantly higher than hers, despite the fact they started working at the same time.

Numb, she goes to her boss and shows him the check. “Why is Mike’s salary higher than mine if we’ve been working her for almost the same amount of time?” she asks him.

He chuckled. “Mike’s got a family to support,” he says. “You’re just a woman.”

“I’m supporting my family too!” she exclaims, protesting his conclusion. “I’ve got two kids just like Mike does!”

The boss laughs her off, ignoring her protests for equal pay for equal work. Enraged and embarrassed, she walks out of his office and back to her cubicle, face burning.

* * *

Once the scene fades, I am brought to a conference hall filled with women. As speakers on the stage rally the crowd, I realize this is a NOW conference in 1998, 150 years after the original Seneca Falls Convention. They read a new Declaration of Sentiments. “We envision a world where women have equal representation in all decision-making structures of our societies,” a woman onstage says.

After the 1998 NOW conference fades from sight, I find myself inside the Capitol during a vote. I scan the rows of congresspeople and see just 71 women from the House of Representatives, 16.4% of the total, while women are 51% of the population.

“This bill is imperative for battered women across the nation,” one congressperson says, giving a heartfelt speech in its defense. Both male and female congresspeople discuss the advantageous nature of the bill. Despite the passion of its supporters, the bill is easily defeated.

“It’s not fair!” one congresswoman says to another as they leave the building after the vote. “If there were more women in Congress, that bill would have gone through. It’s not right. Women are half the population. We should be half the Congress, half of all lawmaking bodies.”

Her friend shrugs. “Tell that to the constituents, not me,” she says.

We have to raise awareness of the issues, donate our time and money to worthy causes, call out inequality and unfairness when we see it, and encourage others to do so, too. We can vote for the candidates who we know will help solve the problems we see as major issues. If we don’t, we are absolutely lost.

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