At a time when women in other countries like those in newly liberated Egypt, for example, are rising up to demand their rights, we women here in the United States are struggling to keep our hard-won gains.
We might ask whether there is a link between the moves in Congress to turn back the clock and what is going on in states like Wisconsin.
Beginning in the late sixties, the women's liberation movement succeeded in opening up the world of work to us women, demanding in the process, and in many cases getting, equal pay for equal work, allowing us a fragile economic independence. Many married women now had the choice of being a full-time homemaker or earning an income or even pursuing a career.
Critical to those of us who had paying jobs were preschool and after school childcare services. Now, House Republicans have deleted money for Head Start, a program that provides preschool daycare to children from families whose mothers out of necessity labor at minimum wage jobs outside the home. At the same time, middle-income families are hard pressed to pay for private preschool care for their children.
Perhaps our biggest victory was the 1973 Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade that paved the way for legalization of abortions. Upon his retirement in 1994, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority decision, commented that it was necessary “for the emancipation of women.”
The Republican-dominated House has passed legislation that limits our access to clinics and hospitals that offer the procedure that will terminate a pregnancy.
For some of us, control over our bodies and our lives is slipping away as Republicans have also stripped funding from Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides assistance to millions of low-income women in areas such as pregnancy counseling, sexually-transmitted diseases, contraceptive information, and other issues of concern.
In lock step with these measures, Gov. Scott Walker has launched a direct attack on working women in his state by taking away the collective bargaining rights of unionized public employees. He has exempted three unions – the police, firefighters and state troopers – that have a primarily male membership. That leaves professions that are dominated by us women – home health care workers, licensed childcare providers, employees of University Hospitals and Clinics, nurses and teachers to face the possibility of even lower wages and the eventual demise of their unions.
These actions haven't come out of the blue. The backlash began heating up during Ronald Reagan's two terms. One need look no further then the writings in the seventies and eighties of conservatives like George Gilder. Long-standing opposition to Aid to Families With Dependent Children, aka welfare, was rooted in conservatives' belief that women belonged in the home, taking care of husbands and children, family members with disabilities and aging parents. Welfare, they argued, tempted women to leave their husbands and live off the state.
In a figment from his overactive imagination, Ronald Reagan often spoke of those of us who received assistance as “welfare queens riding around in Cadillacs.” The right was able to chalk one up when Bill Clinton abolished “welfare as we know it” in 1996, pushing many of us deeper into the hole of poverty and hopelessness.
Reagan also blamed us for the 1981-82 recession that occurred during his first term in office. In his almost incoherent syntax, Reagan made his remarks at a White House session with editors and broadcasters (New York Times, 4/18/82), “Part of the unemployment is not as much recession as it is the great increase in the people going into the job market, and, ladies, I'm not picking on anyone, but because of the increase in women who are working today and two-worker families and so forth.”
Ironically, Reagan's fiscal policies had the diametrically opposite affect on his desired social agenda. He figured that his “trickle-down” economic theory would allow him to slash social services since his tax cuts to the rich would create jobs through their investment in new businesses.
While the rich speculated with their money rather than starting new businesses, jobs – many of them good-paying union jobs – started being shipped overseas under Reagan. The stagnation of wages that had begun in the seventies persisted. In the end, Reagan's policies served to increase the number of two-earner families!
The men who self-righteously proclaim that they support “family values” are selling snake oil. If we women cannot plan our pregnancies, have no one to care for our children while we work, have employment only at subsistence wages, then we and our families are in serious trouble. While some women will be forced back into the home, financially dependent on a partner, many more will have a tougher time of it as they and their partners struggle to work more than two jobs in order to keep the family afloat. The country's new generation of women faces many obstacles in carving out for themselves secure and satisfying lives.
In reality, conservatives are striving to shore up the worldwide patriarchal system by doing their part to keep it alive and well here in the heartland of the empire.
Based on the subordination and exploitation of women, patriarchy across the globe is kept in place through legal codes, social mores, religious practices, political isolation and economic disadvantage, thereby empowering men and solidifying their dominant position vis á vis women.
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