A question of relevance: do we really need to celebrate Women's History Month anymore?
Women represent 51 percent of the American population and they contributed dramatically to Philadelphia's history, when it was the first capital of the United States. I've discussed the work of one of these women, Abigail Adams (wife of the second president of the United States, John Adams) in this column before, but there are plenty of other pioneering women who deserve attention this month.
Lucretia Mott is one. In the early 1800s, she was a leader of the abolitionist movement, of which Philadelphia was a vital center. Mott founded the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society and was one of the women who linked the first wave of feminism with abolitionism.
Two women I discovered in grade school are also good examples of the feminists we should be celebrating in March--Elizabeth Blackwell and St. Joan of Arc.
Blackwell was the first female doctor in the United States. The travails she endured to become a physician and to help other women become doctors were monumental. Her desire to practice medicine was sparked when a dying friend explained that if she had a female doctor, she would have suffered less. Indeed, Blackwell never wavered in her determination to stand up to the social conventions restricting women in her day.
The ranks of women deserving recognition stretch much further back, though. Those who are not Catholic may know of Joan of Arc only tangentially, but she is one of the five patron saints of France. She is credited with leading numerous important battles in the Hundred Years' War and also with driving the English out of Rheims--the traditional site of the crowning of the kings of France--in order to make the city safe for the coronation of King Charles VII
St. Joan was captured in a battle, turned over to an ecclesiastical court and burned at the stake as a heretic. (Incidentally, the ecclesiastical record shows that she also refused to wear women's clothes.) After St. Joan's death, the legend surrounding her grew so dramatically that although the Church killed her and Charles did nothing to stop it, both the king and the Church were forced to reinvent her as a saint, a martyr and a national hero. She was that powerful.
In St. Joan I see a model for living with integrity and purpose. Today, women are still forced to take a stand to challenge the authority of men. Last November, for instance, when health care reform was being debated hotly and heavily, the Women's Caucus in the House of Representatives was shouted down by male Republican Congressmen who refused to allow the female representatives to speak about how the bill would benefit women.
The debacle on the House floor is just one example of how women are still being silenced--in democracies as well as dictatorships and theocracies. In the United States, women are presented as a fringe or special interest group, when in reality we are the majority.
When the Stupak Amendment--named for its primary supporter, Michigan Representative Bart Stupak--was added to the House health care reform bill in the final hour of debate, women were silenced once again. This contentious amendment circumvents Roe v. Wade and places severe restrictions on the abortions that could be offered through a public health care option, as well as through private insurance purchased using government subsidies.
Even progressive men argued that the abortion battle wasn't worth fighting as part of health care reform. But if the lives of more than half the population aren't worth fighting for, what is?
In our web-based society, social issues have a short shelf life. Our interest wanes easily. We claim "compassion fatigue." We tire of people who demand equality. Isn't feminism "over"? Haven't we moved on? Why, in the 21st century, do we need to celebrate Women's History Month?
Because we can't become a postfeminist society if women are still earning three-quarters of what men make, rape is still one of the most prevalent violent crimes and discrimination on the job and in many aspects of daily life are all socially and culturally accepted.
Girls need strong, positive role models. From toddlerhood, they are bombarded by media images of women that are as fake as they are misogynistic. By the time girls are old enough to play with dolls, Barbie has become their role model. It doesn't matter that Barbie can now be a doctor, a teacher or a veterinarian. Her main purpose in life is still to wear trendy clothes and look pretty. She has a pink car and a Malibu dream house. She's not real.
The glass ceiling isn't often glass, but something far less permeable, something we cannot even see through, let alone break. As unequal members of society, the struggles we face are immense. Thus, we must gird ourselves for battle, as St, Joan did. If we find that, like Dr. Blackwell, we cannot get through a door, then we should create our own space, where the doors are always open to us.
Every day, locally, nationally and internationally, women are creating change that is altering their communities, their countries and the world. If we do not record and recount those achievements, they will be lost. Lesbian activist Del Martin said, "Nothing was ever accomplished by hiding in a dark corner." We have to shine a light on ourselves and our accomplishments. Really, we should celebrate our achievements every month of the year, but March has been set aside specifically to do so. Make it happen. Demand accountability from your communities and local media. Demand that the stories of our foremothers--and our own voices--are heard.
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|Author:||Brownworth, Victoria A.|
|Date:||Mar 1, 2010|
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