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What Have Feminists Done for Me?

What Have Feminists Done for Me?

It’s Women’s History Month and I’ve been seeing a lot of positive things about women making history in my feed. Women discovering that the sun is made of hydrogen, women charting stars, women writing the code that sent men to the moon, women leading the way in creating the COVID-19 vaccine. It has made me very proud. And yet. I know that there are women out there, black women out there, who think that feminism was just a bunch of white privileged women taking care of themselves, and not doing anything positive for women of color.

It is possible that because I am middle-class, the things that feminists fought for mean more to me. I don’t know. But I want to point some of them out.

  • The word “feminism” was first used in association with women’s rights in 1914. So, in addition to being called suffragists, the women who won us the right to vote were feminists. Their efforts started in 1948, and Sojourner Truth was part of the effort in 1951. (By the way, the “Ain’t I A Woman” speech we grew up on was made up, and the speech she gave was that of a very articulate woman.) When the suffrage movement started, husbands could imprison their wives, beat their wives, take their earnings, take their inheritances, and take their children in the case of divorce. Feminists addressed all of these issues, but it took them nearly 150 years. You may see pictures of the women marching for their rights, but you may not know that these women were beaten and jailed for fighting the status quo. It took suffragists 70 years of effort just to get the right to vote in 1920. By comparison, black men got the right to vote in 1870, 5 years after slavery ended.
  • Feminists got women the right to serve in the Armed Forces in 1948, and in combat in 2013. This has been an amazing job/career opportunity for thousands of women. It means access to pensions, access to education, access to training. My husband served in the military, and in his first fire fight, the men freaked out and the women stood fast and held their own. He never questions their place in the military, their ability to serve in combat units. It is very true that we do not have the same upper body strength, but with serious training, we make capable soldiers.
  • Feminists addressed, and continue to address, the conversation about rape culture. Before the 1970’s, rape was very difficult to prove, women frequently were not believed, and there was no definition of consent. If for whatever reason, a woman did not put up a fight, and have the cuts and bruises to prove it, a man would not be found guilty. If a woman had any sexual history, it was evidence in court that she was not raped, and many women were afraid to come forward. Laws about women’s sexual history were barred from court proceedings in the 1970’s. Because of feminists, there are rape kits, and female police trained to deal with rape victims, and laws that punish sex offenders. Interestingly enough, it was black women who began the crusade against rape, fighting the frequent rape of black women by white men in the South. In the 1800’s, a white man raping a black woman was not a crime at all.
  • Similarly, feminists addressed the conversation about sexual harassment, which was defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1980. It’s not just having the girlie posters removed, but more the touching, feeling, groping that was going on.
  • Feminists got Title IX passed in 1972, opening the way for women to access undergraduate and graduate schools, especially medical school and law school, on an equal footing with men. Most people think of Title IX as an act that forced colleges and universities to support women’s athletics, but it was a lot more. Back in 1971, when introducing the bill, Senator Birch Bayh said, “we are all familiar with the stereotype [that] women [are] pretty things who go to college to find a husband, [and who] go on to graduate school because they want a more interesting husband, and finally marry, have children, and never work again. The desire of many schools not to waste a ‘man’s place’ on a woman stems from such stereotyped notions.
  • Feminists made major gains when it came to women and money in 1974 with the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. Up until 1974, a woman needed a man to cosign on any loan, including a mortgage for a house. In 1974, for the first time, women could get credit in their own name.
  • And lets talk about birth control. Margaret Sanger was a racist pig, but she coined the word, opened the first clinic, and got people talking about it. Efforts to control birth go back over 5000 years. Slave women used African medical knowledge to try to prevent pregnancies from white rapists in the 1800’s. African-American women were having their own conversations about birth control in 1918, and the National Council of Negro Women endorsed birth control in 1941. But when the Pill came available in 1960, it took 5 years before married women were legally allowed to use it or any other form of birth control, even though people had been talking about it for 45 years. The original Pill was too strong, and it was feminists who forced the research to change the hormonal dosages so that the Pill would be safe. But unmarried women did not have the legal right to use birth control until 1972.
  • And then there is abortion. Abortion was normal in the US and the colonies up until 1821. Methods were published on how to do it, and the general limitation was that babies should not have quickened, i.e. started to move about, which happened at about 14-26 weeks, and was pretty much at the discretion of the woman. Women often helped other women have abortions, and sadly, the men were the ones who put a stop to it. Doctors started the “sanctity of life” movement, partly from more knowledge about fetal development, but also because they didn’t like the competition from unlicensed women abortionists. To give you an idea of how common it was, in the early 1800’s, between 15-35% of all pregnancies ended in abortion. However by 1900, every state in the US made abortion a felony. It took amazing effort to get this reversed, first, state by state in the early 1970’s, then with Roe v. Wade in 1973, turning over the law in 45 states. And now here we are in 2023, and abortion is illegal again in 13 states.

For me personally, having the right to vote, the right to a college education in a male-dominated field, the right to credit and the ability as a single woman to buy a home, the right to birth control, the right to an abortion, the right to work in a place where sexual harassment is illegal, these things are part of my existence as a black woman in America. I am a staunch feminist, and I appreciate the efforts of the women who came before me to secure these rights for me. Sadly, I know that there are men, and some women, in America who would love to see ALL of these rights taken away from me. So I know I must fight to ensure it doesn’t happen. Women who are willing to fight for women’s rights, in my mind, are feminists. Whether they like the label or not.

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