Women’s Liberation Yesterday and Today

learn from the past history or repeat it

Sometimes it feels to me that the young American women of today need a serious history lesson in exactly how much things have changed in the past fifty years. Being age 63, I have a pretty good perspective on these changes. I have witnessed, in my lifespan, gigantic changes in how American women are seen and treated, and I fear the younger women just don’t get that. They only see how far we still need to go, not how far we’ve come in the past 50 years.

Let’s start with something as simple as control over your own body. Here’s an excerpt from my book “Find Your Reason To Be Here: The Search for Meaning in Midlife”:

Today, it seems normal and natural to limit progeny or choose to remain childless, but boomers are the first generation of Americans to even have this option. With the invention of the birth-control pill in the 1950s and the legalization of abortion in 1973, reproduction rules changed drastically.

Limiting progeny, bettering ourselves through training and education, and then choosing the career that best suits our natural abilities, talents, and character are options not even imagined by our grandparents and great-grandparents. Here’s a summary of women’s prospects in the 1800s from the book In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age by Patricia Cohen:

“For women, adulthood was one long, undifferentiated stretch of mothering with scarcely any leisure time. Mothers gave birth, then gave birth again, and again, and again. In 1800, the average woman had seven children and spent seventeen years either pregnant or breastfeeding, although without antiseptics, anesthesia, or antibiotics, there was barely a parent who escaped burying a child. Giving birth often left women severely weakened or disabled. . .By the time all the children were grown, she was well into her sixth decade—or more likely dead.”

How’s that for thought-provoking? These were the lives of the women who came before us. How many had more children than they wanted and then died without ever doing anything they wanted with their lives? How many brilliant women led lives of quiet desperation because they could not find respect for their unique gifts and talents? Women were seen as entertainment and prizes for wealthy men only decades ago.

1933 Miss America swimsuits

MISS AMERICA 1933 SWIMSUIT COMPETITION

Check out this news report from CBS Sunday Morning on the protests around the Miss America pageant of 1968. It was not so long ago that our beauty was our only way to “get ahead.” I know it is hard to believe, but this is also too true. Women only got the vote in 1920. We can thank the women of the West for being the pioneers in getting us that right!

Now we are faced with a president and Congress who would like to move us back to the good old days (for them!), when women were seen as pretty, but told to keep their mouths shut. Do you value your right to control what happens in your life and your own uterus? Than get active and show it!

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9 thoughts on “Women’s Liberation Yesterday and Today

  1. How quickly we forget. How quickly we forget about lack of birth control, about Help Wanted Male/Female ads (and trust me, the female ads weren’t for engineers and executives), about breast cancer treatment in the “old days” when a woman went under to check out a lump, not knowing if she would awake with one less breast, and about another use for coat hangers besides hanging up clothes. Oh yes.

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  2. I’m 51 and I would say that I fall right at the beginning of women who got to take for granted the rights that were won for us by women before us. I was 5 when Roe v. Wade was decided, women’s reproductive freedom wasn’t even on my radar at the time.

    I think the moment I was most personally grateful was when I stopped menstruating in the middle of chemo. Chemo can do that to a person, and when she’s perimenopausal anyways it’s likely to stay that way – but I’d had to go off of the pill because my cancer liked estrogen, and although we’d switched to other methods, I was very aware that those had a higher failure rate than the pill when taken properly, so I set up an appointment with my ob gyn to make sure we hadn’t had an accident. The day I was heading for the appointment, it hit me that I was SO glad to be living in NYC, where a full range of choices is still available to women. As I’d mostly expected, I wasn’t pregnant, it was just the chemo. Phew. Now, if it had turned out otherwise, I have no idea whether I would have decided to have an abortion or whether some latent maternal instinct would have finally kicked in (I don’t know why I’ve never wanted kids, but I haven’t) but knowing that the choice was there and mine alone to make was comforting at a time when life was pretty stressful.

    Now I see these people fighting so hard to take the rights that the women before me fought for away from the women after me, and I just hate it.

    I am hopeful though – it’s so encouraging seeing how younger people are rising to the challenges we’re facing.

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  3. It’s so easy to forget that under the mountains we present-day women stand on are buried the women who sacrificed so much to get us here. I think of the line from Mary Poppins: “Our daughter’s daughters will adore us.” I do!

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  4. I’ve been feeling the same way, lately. I’m 64 and remember when Women’s Lib started. We all had a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. I don’t feel that younger people realize the struggle women went through back then. The back alley abortions, the discrimination. They take it for granted that they can do things women in the 50s never could. It’s killing me to see those old cranky men treating Dr. Ford like her testimony means nothing. It’s scary.

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