Women’s History Month: Does Being a Mother Count?

I should have written this post at the beginning of the month instead of at the end, but somehow the fact that March was Women’s History Month got pushed into the background of my mind. And isn’t that what usually happens to women’s history? It’s always getting pushed into the background. It’s always been that way and I fear that it always will be.

Sure, more women are being recognized for their accomplishments these days. But will they be considered noteworthy in the future? Will Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin receive as much attention among biographers and historians as Barack Obama, for instance? (How many women know that Geraldine Ferraro—who just died the other day—was actually the first woman vice-presidential candidate?)

And even though women’s studies has become a staple of almost every university’s curriculum, how many people really know anything about women’s history? Or even care?

What I find amazing is how little women know about their own history. Naturally, feminists and women’s studies majors know a lot. But what about the average woman? Does she know how many women we have in Congress? Or who was the first female candidate for president? (Hint: it wasn’t Hillary Clinton.) Or what role women have played in war and peace?

What about this little tidbit?

On November 11, 1865, Dr. Mary Edwards Walker was awarded a Medal of Honor for her service as a surgeon during the Civil War. She was the only woman to receive such an honor, the country’s highest military award. Unfortunately, in 1917, Dr. Walker’s medal was taken away, along with 910 others, when Congress changed the rules of the award to include only “actual combat with an enemy.” Dr. Walker, however, refused to give back the medal and wore it every day until her death in 1919. After her death, she was re-awarded the Medal of Honor in 1977.

Too many people reduce women’s roles in life to that of wives and mothers. For example, Susannah Wesley is known as the “Mother of Methodism” not because she was a preacher or minister, but because two of her 19 children went on to found Methodism.

Probably the most revered woman in the world is Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is known for her faithfulness and obedience to God in her role  as a mother.

These examples aren’t meant to diminish women who are mothers. I happen to believe that being a mother is an incredibly difficult job and that women who are mothers deserve even more credit than they are given. (Ironically, though we put mothers on a pedestal, we do little to support them. America in particular is notorious for not being mother-friendly. )

Ever since  Louise Story’s article appeared in The New York Times about college-educated women choosing to stay home with their children, feminists have raised the question of whether or not being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) is the best use of a woman’s talents and education.  And recently, when Natalie Portman announced at the Academy Awards that being a mother will be the greatest role of her life, she was castigated by some feminists for implying that all of her personal accomplishments paled in comparison with being a mother.

I think some feminists look down on SAHMs because they think of motherhood as something that just happens to you, not something you had to work at to accomplish. Perhaps that’s true of the pregnancy, but there’s nothing passive about being a mother. Perhaps Portman was thinking of the awesomeness of motherhood when she called it the greatest role, but she will soon find out that it is possibly the hardest role to execute satisfactorily.

Feminists who put down motherhood are wrong on two counts:

First of all, being a mother does not mean that you can’t still accomplish things other than motherhood. Elizabeth Cady Stanton had seven children and she is known as one of the most important First Wave feminists.

Although she enjoyed motherhood and assumed primary responsibility for rearing the children, Stanton found herself unsatisfied and even depressed by the lack of intellectual companionship and stimulation in Seneca Falls. As an antidote to the boredom and loneliness, Stanton became increasingly involved in the community and, by 1848, had established ties to similarly-minded women in the area. By this time, she was firmly committed to the nascent women’s rights movement and was ready to engage in organized activism.

Secondly, a woman can be extremely influential as a mother. Not only can she shape the values of her children, she can also leave her mark on their world by working for causes that impact her children. Most of the women in the book The Maternal is Political write that they became politically motivated precisely because they are mothers.

Wouldn’t it be revolutionary if women went down in history as being as influential as men, not in spite of the fact that they were mothers, but because of it? Cindy Sheehan is a good example. When her son was killed in Iraq, she found her mission in life and became an extremely vocal anti-war activist. However, the fact that she is a woman and mother has diminished her influence in some people’s eyes: they’ve pegged her as some kind of crackpot. Will she be remembered in history as a famous mother? Only time will tell.




Jane Addams: Woman For Her Time

It’s so easy to think of history as something stuffy and irrelevant.  This is nowhere more true than when we’re reading about people who lived and died before our lifetimes. But if these same people were somehow transported into today’s reality, we would see more clearly how much influence they had in their own time.

Jane Addams is one of those people. She was born in 1860 and died in 1935. If she had been born a hundred years later she would be considered a Third Wave feminist. But she was much more than that. She started the settlement house movement* here in America.  Besides her charitable work, she became a mover and shaker in politics. She was the first vice president of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association,  a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and a charter member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She organized the Women’s Peace Party and the International Congress of Women. She was the first woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

With her accomplishments, if she were alive today, she would be more influential than all the present-day Third Wave feminists put together. She would be known internationally. And she would only be 50 years old. Her first book, Twenty Years at Hull House, was published exactly one hundred years ago this year and became a bestseller.

We still have the problems she worked so hard to combat: unemployment, lack of medical care and education for the poor, unfair and unsafe labor practices, discrimination against women, African-Americans and immigrants, and last but not least, war. But, unlike most of us, she would be doing something about them. About all of them.

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Women’s History Quiz

Ms. Magazine recently started its own blog (which is great, by the way), and in honor of Women’s History Month, I’m directing you to their Pre-1972 Women’s History Quiz. The quiz originally appeared in the 1972 issue of Ms. and was written by Gerda Lerner.

If you get more than 9 (out of 18) right, you’re a feminist genius. I got 13 right (frankly, I just guessed on several of them), but I was upset with myself that I didn’t know more. Why? Because the ones I missed were obviously important and accomplished women and I hadn’t even heard of them!

The author of the article, Alexandra Tweten, issues this challenge before presenting the quiz:

Can you name 10 women who have made important contributions to American history and development? (No presidents’ wives, writers or singers–and no one living today.)

If this was difficult, try naming 10 men. Easy?

One of the missions of Femagination is to introduce women whom we should have heard of, but whose accomplishments have been overshadowed by the accomplishments of men (even when theirs were greater). If there is a woman you have heard of, but know little about, comment below and I will research her life and write about it on this blog. (Even after Women’s History Month is over.)

Friday Videos: Bits of Women’s History

History.com presents the following short videos in honor of Women’s History Month:

Hillary Clinton

Barbara Jordan’s Keynote Address

Hillary Makes History

Women in Politics

Lucy Burns Photograph

Amelia Earhart

Maya Angelou on the Women’s Movement

Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps

The Pill Begins Sexual Revolution

Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials

What Happened to Amelia Earhart

Sandra Day O’Connor’s Roots

Salem Witch Trials

America Eats: Betty Crocker

Jackie Kennedy: Glamorous First Lady

Millvina Dean – A Titanic Survivor

Titanic: What Happened After

Thursday Thoughts: On Being a Young Feminist

Ah, to be a young feminist today! Wait, what would that look like? The 2010 National Young Feminist Leadership Conference that was held last weekend in Washington, D.C. provides us with one picture: 390 young feminist leaders came from 122 colleges in 30 states plus D.C. and Canada to learn more about what they can do as feminists to support abortion and reproductive rights, international family planning, the LGBTQ community, climate change, organizing on campuses, and feminist issues in general. (For a schedule of all events, see here.)

How does this kind of event compare with what was going on when I was a young feminist?

For one thing, there were no leadership conferences in Washington, D.C.  Instead, there were protest marches and consciousness-raising groups. Oh, the National Organization for Women (NOW) had just been formed, but its founders were older than women in my age group. I went to college in 1970, before Roe v. Wade, when abortion was illegal in every state except for a handful that allowed it in cases of rape, incest or the physical disability of the mother. New York became the first state to allow abortion for any reason up to the 24th week of pregnancy just a few months before I had my abortion in 1971. I was lucky, not because I was able to have an abortion (or because I needed one), but because I didn’t have to resort to an illegal abortion which might have jeopardized my health and future fertility.

Countless young women came to feminism via the same route I did. Finding ourselves pregnant and unable to obtain a legal abortion made us angry. Or if we had had abortions, it made us angry that we had to go through legal and medical hoops to get them (if we were able to get legal ones at all). The anti-abortion movement had not yet found its impetus; that would come with Roe v. Wade.  The mood was ripe in the country for a woman to have a right to privacy as to what she did with her own body. And that had a lot to do with the feminist movement.

Continue reading “Thursday Thoughts: On Being a Young Feminist”

The Equal Rights Amendment: Overdue or Overblown?

On this day in 1972, the United States Senate passed the Equal Rights Amendment by a vote of 84-8.  Good news, right? Not really, because an amendment to the Constitution has to be ratified by two-thirds (or 38) of the states before it can take effect and when the ratification period was up, it had only garnered the support of 35. Close, but no cigar.

Alice Paul, author of the ERA, 1921

Many people today don’t even know what the ERA is, let alone know that it was authored by the suffragist Alice Paul and originally introduced in Congress in 1923. In 1946 it was narrowly defeated by a Senate vote of 38-35. In 1950, the ERA is passed by the Senate with a rider that nullifies its equal protection aspects. (So, you may ask, what’s the point?) When it finally is passed in 1972, an arbitrary time limit of seven years was set for ratification.

Five years before, the new National Organization for Women (NOW) vowed to fight tirelessly for passage of the ERA and as the clock ticked, it threw itself into the campaign to get enough votes for ratification. At the same time, so did the opposition, headed chiefly by Phyllis Schafly‘s National Committee to Stop ERA.

I remember all the hoopla at the time: seven short and hectic years in which both sides made crazy assertions about what the effects of an ERA would be. Its opponents insisted that it would take away the protections that women traditionally enjoy, from almost always getting custody of the children in the case of a divorce to exemption from the draft. They also contended that there were already plenty of laws in effect that protected women’s rights.

Its proponents, on the other hand, contended that women needed such an amendment so that the protection of their rights would be consistent at all levels of jurisdiction, federal, state and local. They were concerned that the age of majority was different for women than it was for men and that women were routinely discriminated against when it came to gaining employment, establishing credit, buying or selling property or conducting a business.

As it has turned out, the opposition was right on many points. Over the years, many laws have been challenged in the courts and been changed to prevent discrimination against women. Joint custody is the norm. Either sex may be required to pay alimony to the other. Federally-funded schools and programs are required to have the same standards and facilities for women as for men. Women’s participation is up in politics, academia and traditionally male professions. (Not only that, but jobs are no longer allowed to be classified as specifically for men or women.)

But things are not that neat. Women still make only 77 cents to the dollar compared to men. They are often relegated to “pink ghettos”–jobs that are considered to be women’s work and which have fewer benefits and lower pay than traditionally “male” occupations. (A parking lot attendant who is a man, for instance, makes more than a child care attendant who is a woman–showing that we value our cars more than our children.) Laws that have been changed can be changed back. Crimes against women (sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence) are not prosecuted as vigorously as they should be. And a lot of laws on the books still discriminate against women.

The ERA, or the CEA (Constitutional Equality Amendment), has been presented to Congress every year since 1982. But it is apparently no longer even newsworthy. Is it a dead issue? Consider this: Even Afghan women have an Equal Rights Amendment. Why shouldn’t we?

Sources: Interview with Gloria Steinem in the Los Angeles Times, NOW’s Chronology of the ERA,  March 22, 1972 news story in the New York Times.

For more information, check out the University of North Carolina’s “Equal Rights Amendment Pathfinder.”