This Time, Women Are Here To Stay

Back in 2008, when Hillary Clinton was running for president, I came across an old black and white pictorial book on American women from the late 1940′s at a used book fundraiser.  Since I was feeling more than a little dispirited over the fate of women at the time, I bought the book hoping for inspiration from the “Rosie the riveter” generation of women.  The book was Women Are Here to Stay: The Durable Sex in its Infinite Variety Through Half a Century of American Lifeand I have to confess, that the title intrigued me.  The author, Agnes Rogers (Allen), denied creating a catalog of womanly accomplishments in her introduction:

“It is my intention to demonstrate that there are a great many different kinds of women…I am not trying to summarize ‘women’s accomplishments,’ since that seems to imply that women have a life of their own apart from the rest of the body politic.” 

Uniformed US Army Nurse Corps, US Navy Nurse Corps, Women Assigned to Voluntary Emergency Services (WAVES), and Women's Army Auxiliary Corps

(Photo of Uniformed US Army Nurse Corps, US Navy Nurse Corps, Women Assigned to Voluntary Emergency Services (WAVES), and Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.)

And yet, it is hard not to come away with the impression that the author was reassuring women, at least subtextually, of the validity of their achievements. After all, why wouldn’t women be here to stay?  And did anyone seriously question our durability?  Even a hundred years ago,women lived longer than men on average.  So why, despite her protest, did Ms. Rogers seem to be laying down markers and staking claims on as much territory gained by women in the arts, sciences, sports, military, business and politics as possible with the photographic documentation in her book?

“Women Are Here To Stay” was published during an unusual period in American history for women.  By the end of World War II, for the first time, a large portion of middle and upper class women had experienced at least temporary employment outside the home and many in previously traditional male jobs.  Working for pay was nothing new for poor women, of course.  They had always worked outside the home, usually starting at a young age, whenever the need to support themselves and their families arose.  But for leisure class women this was new and difficult territory.

To work outside the home went against the expectation and upbringing, let alone the comfort zone of these women.  But the demands of the times — the Stock Market Crash, the Great Depression, World War II, and the needs of their family required that they work.  So they rose to the occasion and adapted.  But then, having learned to flex their mental muscles and harness their intelligence, creativity, and endurance in support of  their families’ survival and their nation’s war efforts, they were then forced back to the narrow confines of tending hearth and home when family fortunes were regained or when marriage and family demands took precedence or when service men returned home following the end of WWII needing jobs.

But these women had gained a new found knowledge of their own capabilities and their could be no going back to the old ways.  The sudden loss of freedom left many with an increasing restlessness to produce something other than just off-spring.

(Detroit policewomen 1942) 

“As job-holder, salary-earner, wage-earner, woman has definitely arrived.  In 1900, there were only a little over 5 million ‘gainfully employed’ women in the United States (of whom about one in seven was married); by 1946 the number had swelled to over 16 million (of whom something like a third were married).  Not only is it virtually taken for granted today that even the daughter of the rich, on graduating from college, will take a job — until she marries…”

And if she didn’t marry?

Ms. Rogers quotes The Ladies’ Home Journal (Sept. 1916):

” …the ambition of every girl who goes into business as a stenographer — provided she has a goal and does not merely regard her position as a means of filling the interim between school and matrimony — is to be come a private secretary… it is about the most agreeable and lucrative kind of position one can hold…”

Sadly, becoming a private secretary was still considered a high level business career path for women in the 1960′s and 1970′s, decades after women had achieved laudable heights in many areas of sports, arts, business and science.

Strangely, the political arena has always gotten short shrift from American women.  Even in 1949, a mere twenty-nine years after American women were granted the right to vote in all national and state elections with the ratification of the 19th amendment, women were struggling to come to terms with the expectations and promise of their vote.

As the author complains:

“The suffrage victory failed to infuse American politics with a new righteousness, as many ardent suffrage orators, in their conviction that women were morally superior to men, had predicted it would.  Nor, for that matter, has there ever been such a thing as ‘the woman’s vote.’  But it was an essential step toward complete recognition that women were people, with all the rights and responsibilities thereof. It failed to fill the country with swarms of professional women politicians, as others had foretold…”

How had such a hard-fought decades long battle for suffrage wrought so little in the political arena?  Why hadn’t a swarm of professional women politicians filled the country?  What went wrong then?  And why has it remained virtually unchanged in the last 60 years?  Did we women have greater fortitude then?  Unity?  Perseverance?  Maybe not as a voting block, but in our determination to make changes?

How can it be that ninety-one years after women got the right to vote in the United States, we still have seen no woman in the office of President or Vice-President of the United States?  No where near equal representation of women in Congress or the judiciary.  No equal opportunity for women at the highest levels of business.

Ms Rogers didn’t offer any answers in “Women Are Here To Stay” as to what went wrong politically for women.  And such was my mood  in 2008 and 2009 as first Hillary Clinton then Sarah Palin were mercilessly attacked and vilified (along with their supports) in such misogynistic terms for daring to reach for that highest level in American politics — the White House, that all the other areas of womanly achievement left me with cold comfort.

But strangely enough events in the last year have given me a glimmer of hope and got me thinking that Ms. Rogers may have been right to boldly remind everyone of the seemingly obvious.   We are not going to slip quietly back into the shadows.   

– When nations representing 30% of the world’s population, the likes of  Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Jamaica, Antigua and Barbuda, the Bahamas, Barbados, Grenada, Belize, St. Christopher and Nevis, St. Lucia, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Papua New Guinea, come to realize that the dictates of tradition just don’t cut it any more.  

Royal succession gender equality approved by Commonwealth: Leaders of 16 nations agree change to allow eldest child to become monarch irrespective of sex.  And that putting women in equal positions of power and leadership is not just morally right, but a way to strengthen and empower their nation…

– And when those nations are willing to amend the 1701 Act of Settlement, the 1689 Bill of Rights and the Royal Marriages Act 1772 to give women equal opportunity…

– When three women — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman – jointly win The Nobel Peace Prize in 2011   “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work”…  

– When three girls – Shree Bose, Lauren Hodge, and Naomi Shah — win the top prizes in their age category at Google’s global science fair in 2011…

It does seem like concrete proof that women will no longer be held “apart from the rest of the body politic.”

And I take heart that the coming decade will be a challenging one.  Because I am betting on the staying power, durability, versatility, adaptability and perseverance of women.   And I think the smart money is betting on us too!

Yes I do believe.  This time, women are here to stay if we want to...

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Have you seen proof that the progress women have made in the last 50 years is here to stay?

Recent Posts by Linda Anselmi

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