On this Fourth of July weekend in the midst of economic crisis, political unrest and social turmoil, I sit thinking about the cycles of life. As I drove on the highway, at a sedate pace due to the crowd of police vehicles zealously corralling people through speed traps, I listened to NPR. Early this morning, as expected on a Fourth of July weekend, the focus was on freedom.
The commentator asked immigrants why they wanted to go through the hassles (and believe me, there are a lot of hassles) to become US citizens. Apparently, the men weren’t talking because all of the people interviewed were women. Yet, instead of the expected comments about liberty and freedom, the segment truly highlighted aspects of our society that we might rarely think about. They did not mention freedom per se; they talked about the following common things. Anyone can call 911 to ask for police help. Women can drive. Not only can they drive, but they can also check into hotels without a male escort. And women can buy a house.
Those comments were why I thought back through the last 50 years. Listening to their answers reminded me of the Sixties. How the definition of freedom has changed in that time. How much has changed, and what hasn’t. But I’m getting ahead of myself. What about the freedoms those women mentioned?
In the early Fifties, women in the US certainly did not travel by themselves. They could not easily buy a house. Perhaps a widowed woman with a bit of money could manage to purchase a house, but certainly not a married one. If a couple purchased a home, the wife’s name was placed on the deed only if her husband insisted on it. That was considered acceptable in 1950.
Additionally, hotels refused to rent lodgings to US women for decades. They reasoned that “good” women wouldn’t travel by themselves and so a single female must have nefarious reasons for wanting wanting to stay in a hotel.
In fact, that prejudice was still alive in 1970 although I must mention that the reasons for their refusal had shifted by then. Prior to the Sixties, hotels did not want to provide lodgings for single women, but by the Seventies, they were concerned about women who traveled together. In Chicago in 1970, my girlfriend and I were refused a hotel room. We tried one hotel after another until we got the idea that one of us should hide: voila, success. Apparently, one woman asking for a room was a traveler but two women together were lesbians wanting a night of sinful sex.
Nowadays two women can rent a hotel room and no one cares. And thankfully, contemporary women purchase houses every day “without a man’s help” and no one thinks it strange. Those blessings are product of the Women’s Movement — feminism, if you will use that term.
The feminists of the last few decades were not neo-Nazi, man hating, baby-killing stereotypes now described by some parts of our culture. No, they were women who wanted to be more than property. They wanted to have the chance to study whatever field they chose, even attend college, and maybe become scientists, doctors and engineers. Yes, they wanted to control their bodies. Of course, that was part of the struggle. They wanted to be more than biological vessels of the future. They wanted it all: homes, families, jobs. They wanted to make their way in world as adults, standing on their own feet, making their own decisions and correcting their own mistakes, failing or succeeding, but having the chance to do so.
They followed in the capable steps of their female ancestors who had struggled for equal rights. They knew about women who lost their husbands, at the same time losing their homes and incomes, who had to face the future alone without the training to pick up the pieces of their lives. Just as the suffragettes wanted more than the right to vote, the feminists of the Sixties wanted to be able to go their own way.
So here we are just a few decades later and women want to come to the US, work to become citizens because they can drive a car or rent a hotel room — travel without a man — and because they can buy a house And yet no one on the radio says to them: women just got those rights in this country. And they got it because of the feminist movement, demonstrations, and a few men like my dad who insisted that his wife should also own the house they lived in together.
I’ll have more on this soon. For now, I’d like to ask you to remember that things have not always been the way they are now. In addition, for good or for bad, we get to decide if they stay this way.