How does oppression affect women right now? What can the Women’s Liberation Movement do? How can that movement wade through the quagmire of countless issues to define women’s oppression to others?
While it is true that all societies influence every individual and provide cultural expectations of behavior and social participation for each member, these influences and expectations do not automatically oppress those living within that society. The differences between social expectations and oppression can be vast and they can be obvious. If one citizen was expected to attend college while another was forbidden from learning how to read, and that differentiation was based on gender or on skin color, most individuals outside that culture (and perhaps many within the culture) would view the circumstances as oppressive. Although such a dichotomy has been accepted historically, we can easily see the lifestyle difference brought about by such a lack of education regardless of the basis of that denial. Based on caste, race or gender, clear prejudices obviously affect the lives of those forced to live under the rules (in this case, the uneducated), and the majority of people would recognize that as oppression.
Yet, it is substantially more difficult to pinpoint oppression in many real-life cases. Let me offer a few situations. Is the inner-city child oppressed when she attends a public school with unequipped classrooms and outdated texts, staffed by harried teachers? Does that restrict her educational choices? How does lack of opportunity play out in that child’s life? Can she overcome those limitations with hard work? If yes, then the situation does not meet the definition of oppression. Yet, if no amount of studying could lead to success for the student, then it would be a repressive situation.
However, it is simplistic to say that additional studying will solve all of the problems caused by educational discrepancies or sexist based teaching. If a school schedules a girl into cooking or typing classes instead of calculus or chemistry, is it recognition of her future vocational desires or simply shunting her into employment ruled by sexist expectations? Does abstinence-only education in the school influence a young woman’s behavior? Can she make informed medical choices or are those decisions based on guilt, shame and sin as implied by the Christian Radical Right?
In the nascent days of the Women’s Liberation Movement, it was simple to see the problems caused by sexism. Even after suffrage, women were encased due to their gender. They could not purchase cars or houses. When their husbands bought automobiles or house, they did not need to put the names of their wives on the deeds — nor on the bank accounts. In actuality, women could not even buy birth control. In many communities, ‘nice girls’ did not study science, attend college (a friend of mine was told, “why bother, you’re just going to get married and have ten children”), or live by themselves. Except for a few factory jobs, women worked as secretaries, day care providers (although the term had not yet been created), nurses or elementary school teachers.
To quote an old cigarette advertisement, women may have “come a long way, baby” (we can’t ignore the word baby). More women are attending college than ever before. Courses are unrestricted; they study science, engineering, and computer technology as well as teaching or nursing. The only thing influencing whether women can buy cars or houses is their incomes. Women even wear pants to church or work. In fact, that’s the predicament: contemporary women can do more than their mothers and grandmothers, but society still judges that they cannot do it as well as a man.
In fact, 60 years later, most women continue to work in the same field as their mothers and grandmothers did in 1950: they are secretaries. After blaming the loss of respect for the title “secretary” on the feminist movement, CNN claimed: “The good news is over the past 40 years, there are very few jobs in which women have not broken through…. The glass ceiling is cracking in all different directions, but the bad news is, there is still a sticky floor.” Yet, we cannot ignore the reality of sexism in employment.
This returns me to a major issue with the current state of the Women’s Liberation Movement. Even when faced with obvious sexism through belittling, undermining or limiting women, many people offer blithe rationalizations. My question is this: how can women still need liberation if their oppression is no longer as bad as it used to be? We know that many women are oppressed, but how can we explain that to others? How can we delineate when oppression occurs and why they need help?
 In this blog, I purposefully use the title “Women’s Liberation Movement” rather than “Feminism” in order to limit the scope. That is, I am attempting to focus on a problem that is one part of the broader social philosophy called “Feminism.”
 Annalyn Kurtz. CNN Money, “Why secretary is still the top job for women” (Jan, 31, 2013). http://money.cnn.com/2013/01/31/news/economy/secretary-women-jobs/ (accessed Feb. 5, 2013).