Fresh Ideas: Women still struggling for equality
In this column on March 7, I examined the history of sexual harassment, which is the overt expression of long-held social assumptions valuing men over women. It took three centuries for western women to achieve legal legitimacy and the vote. In World War II (1939-1945) women’s work in all fields should’ve proved the range of women’s abilities. But deep-seated, unconscious prejudices are stubborn.
On that war’s heels came the Cold War. Fear was endemic. Kids practiced crouching under their desks to hide from nuclear blasts, and communism threatened. Government leaders and businessmen of the 1950s promoted the nuclear family as a safe space in an uncertain world. Conveniently, it would be a prosperous economic unit that consumed products and purchased homes in the new subdivisions. But a home needs someone to run it, and many women who had enjoyed wartime gender-neutral lives were challenging pre-defined roles. The interest groups needed to lure women back into domesticity,
The entertainment industry became a cheerleader for the new idiom. While the female stars of 1930s and 1940s were beautiful, capable, sexual, and intelligent, such role models were no longer acceptable. Movie studios, which controlled their actors’ lives and careers, simply created new stars to suit current needs.
Consider Marilyn Monroe, the quintessential sex symbol. The studio changed her name, her hair, her smile. She acquired a lisp and a simple, childish air, suggesting she was vulnerable, weak, and needed protecting. Her sexuality is who she is. In “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” she finds happiness, but not necessarily love, married to a rich man, (and becomes a consumer). In roles where she’s not docile (“Niagara”), her character is killed. This isn’t a strong, independent woman.
Doris Day was the tomboy-next-door. Beautiful, wholesome and virginal, she’s a devoted daughter who gets transformed by love into a blissful wife (“On Moonlight Bay”). When she plays “one of the boys” (“Calamity Jane”), a new chorus girl charming Jane’s male friends makes her realize her own femininity, attracting true love. This paragon is smart enough for self-evaluation, clever enough to marry happily, and in love. Surely, Doris can’t be wrong.
But the paradigm didn’t fit smoothly. These 1950s role models only reinforced standing assumptions about women. By the 1960s, nationwide protests raged against political outrages and endemic hypocrisy, the Vietnam War, police bludgeoning people in the street, the House Un-American Activities Committee, segregation, and political assassinations.
Women marched alongside other protesters in the 1950s and 1960s seeking equal wages, abortions, child care, access to powerful careers, mostly still unavailable today. It seemed implicit freedom from objectification would surely follow.
But today we’re still fighting these same battles. Much of America’s society presumes freedom means no rules or limits, and having what we want now. Popular culture glorifies the entertainment and media industries, which still define women as objects. Sadly, women can be unwittingly complicit in their own debasement. We grow up knowing we should keep quiet and accept our “place,” yet display our “assets.” Some female stars claim they’re empowered by appearing nude on camera, and showing cleavage is commonplace on mainstream television. Nudity and provocative dress do suggest the woman views her body as her major attribute, tacitly accepting her objectification.
The Me Too movement gives me hope. Accusations are dangerous, because a powerful victimizer can destroy a woman’s career and that of any co-worker who might support her. But today’s women, demanding respect for their abilities and intelligence, may yet tip the balance, toppling outdated definitions of a “woman’s place.” Maybe someday we could even get equal wages, decent jobs, and child care.
Susan Stornetta is a retired archaeologist and a long-time Comstock resident.