Recently, in response to a photo of Air Force women breast-feeding their babies, I commented on Facebook that times had certainly changed for the better since I was in the Air Force. Back then women were summarily kicked out of the service if they got pregnant. To which a young FB friend expressed utter astonishment that such an “unfair” policy could ever have existed!
Oh my dear(I wanted to say to her), the perils of forgetting how far we’ve come as women! We fought tooth and nail to get what rights we now enjoy, rights increasingly taken for granted by women under the age of 40 – women like my young friend who has never lived in a world where women weren’t free to hold down a job if they were pregnant. Women who have never known a world when the only “decent” jobs open to them were housewife, schoolteacher, librarian, or nurse.
Fifty years ago newspaper classified ads listed jobs by “Help Wanted Men” and “Help Wanted Women”. Women weren’t allowed to apply for men’s jobs. And women’s jobs paid a fraction of what men’s jobs paid. Those were dead end jobs you were expected to give up once you were married – and during the interview you were quite likely to be asked if you were or intended to become pregnant. If you answered yes you would not be hired in the first place since employers wanted long-term employees. And my friend, there was no such thing as maternity leave – if you were pregnant you were terminated.
The only place women were supposedly equal to men was in the military (which was one of the reasons I enlisted) – but even there, things weren’t perfect. Women’s quarters were separate and off limits to male personnel – there were few occupations open to females – mostly clerical or medical. Certainly women were banned from combat positions. And, yes, if they got pregnant they were discharged immediately, married or not.
And should a woman serve out her enlistment and be honorably discharged she soon discovered that her promised veteran’s benefits were far from equal. For example: when I got out in ’67 and started college on the GI Bill I learned that since I was married I was eligible to claim a dependant’s allowance for my husband. However there was a catch: first I’d have to have him declared mentally or physically disabled, at which time he would be officially reclassified a “wife” and I would be granted a few more bucks in my check. (Which of course meant that according to the United States of America a wife was defined as a physically or mentally disabled male!) A male veteran had only to prove he was married to receive a dependant allowance.
It took suing the Veteran’s Administration to overturn that policy and receive my benefits – though it took five years, since it kept getting thrown out of court. The Supreme Court and President Ford at long last signed off on it, assuring female veterans that they no longer had to jump through such silly hoops to get their benefits but by that time I was out of college and divorced so I didn’t actually benefit myself.
TV shows like Mad Men glamorize the ’60s but, trust me, there was little to love about those times. Our country was on the edge of a brutal war, racism was rampant, and women were not equal to men in our society. Behind the carefully groomed hairstyles, the nipped-waist dresses, and the bright red lipstick was the unspoken knowledge that fashion wasn’t for fun; it was for marketing yourself. It was about attracting a man who would marry you and provide for you – because (unless you were extremely talented or lucky) the reality of the times was that a single woman had little chance of adequately supporting herself. That whole bra-burning thing wasn’t about the discomfort of structured underwear – women were in part protesting against the necessity of marketing themselves like prize cattle.
Let’s be real, we women got all dolled up as a matter of survival. We knew at an early age that we had to attract men because men held the power. We bought the whole Disney lie that we needed to be rescued by a prince to live happily ever after. Face it, in the final analysis it’s always about power. Right now there are a bunch of troglodytes who would like nothing better than to turn back the clock to when women were kept barefoot and pregnant, at the beck and call of the men (and I use the term loosely) in their lives. Young women like my FB friend need to be aware of what we faced not so long ago because ignorance is dangerous. The past we don’t remember is the past we are destined to repeat.
Men (it’s usually men) who say they want to protect women from themselves by revoking their rights to make health decisions about their own bodies couldn’t care less about “life” (Otherwise they’d work harder to ban guns and war and capital punishment, right?). They don’t care about babies (most don’t even like babies). They don’t really care about marriage or what other people do in the bedroom. What they do care about is power. They see their control over society slipping away. They see their little empires crumbling and they will stop at nothing to retighten the bonds of servitude. The point is, rights are only yours if you exercise them and refuse to let them be taken away. Every tiny encroachment on a woman’s personal freedom is a threat that must be recognized and addressed because rights aren’t swept away so much as they are silently eroded until nothing remains – and you are left standing in the rubble of your life wondering what the hell happened.