Each generation of women who have come before us have given us rights that make us who we are today. They have truly made our lives easier. Like a pretty gift given to us, we accept it happily not always knowing how much the gift cost or how much time and diligence went into the packaging. We're not always conscious of those rights we've been given and we sometimes simply take our 'entitlements' for granted. College was not only available to me, it was my right. Home ownership was something I expected, and being an educated woman and owning a home are two rights that I, for one, never questioned.
In my grandmother's day, women were allowed neither. My grandmother came from a well-to-do family in Italy, yet she was not allowed to be educated beyond what was considered proper for females at that time; knowing the domestic arts and memorizing religious doctrines. She came to this country because the older man she married wanted to come to America. She came unwillingly with the mantra instilled in her by her mother -- "A woman must follow her the man she marries" -- and a dictum from her father: "People will talk about a married woman living apart from her husband." My grandmother was just 16 and scared.
With the money she brought with her, my grandparents bought a house, though the mortgage listed my grandfather as the "main owner." Women were not allowed to own property without a husband, father, brother or other male relative signing the papers.
Her money was frittered away by her husband who liked living well despite not working well, with the rest of it being lost in the Great Depression. She became pregnant five times, (birth control was illegal), lost the first two children as infants, then raised the surviving three children while working long, uncomfortable hours as a seamstress in a sweatshop because she didn't have the ability to read English. She was a savvy survivor.
The way she got the seamstress job became a funny family story. She'd never had a job when she applied for one in a clothing factory. When she was shown a sewing machine by the foreman of the shop, (she had never seen one in her life) and asked if she knew how to work it, she said with an ingratiating smile:
"This one is a little different from what I worked on at my last job. Can you show me how to do it just one time?"
He showed her, she remembered it, and she got the desperately needed job. Later, my grandmother would also be one of the women who demanded short morning and afternoon breaks as part of a healthy working environment for women who worked as many as 14 hours a day. Her foreman was impressed with her boldness, and gave the women what they wanted. He also was attracted to her and asked my grandmother to leave her husband and marry him; he had money and she would want for nothing. My grandmother gently refused since, for her, marriage -- good or bad -- was sacred. Later she would join the The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union and help make shop working conditions better for all who worked in the shops, men as well as women.
My mother came of age when girls were allowed to be educated but only at women's colleges. She took full advantage of that fact and studied accounting, although throughout most of her working life she worked only as a bookkeeper or executive secretary. Accounting, she was told in interview after interview, was an occupation for men. When she was in her late 50s she did finally get a position as a part-time accountant, a feat she always said was a triumph for her. It didn't matter that it had taken so long -- she was finally doing what she had wanted to do and that satisfied her.
In my mother's time, birth control was "discreetly" available for men and sold only behind the counters in pharmacies or given to women privately by doctors who understood the need for "family planning." For her generation, that was a health improvement.
As far as owning property, this intelligent, educated woman still had to have a "male co-signer" when she applied for a mortgage despite a hefty down payment. Women were seen as poor loan risks due to the anatomical fact that they "might get pregnant and thus be unemployable." The unfortunate fact was that when a woman did apply for a job an employer was well within legal rights to ask the following questions:
Are you married?
Do you have children and, if so, will they be a distraction to your work here?
Do you plan to have children in the near future?
Imagine being asked this today! The prospective employer would be hit with lawsuits left and right, his business would get horrible press and social media would skewer him.
A little side note: My mom's generation, by the way, was the first group of women to wear pantyhose instead of stockings and garters, (pantyhose first came on the market in the early 1960s), and to be able to wear slacks to work and school. They also opened the way for women's sports to a certain degree even if being athletic was seen as unfeminine at that time. Her generation lobbied for equal education for women. Many women became openly active in politics for themselves and not as an appendage of a male candidate. Yay for those pluses!
And my generation? We seem the most entitled; we have it all despite having the Equal Rights Amendment shot down 40 years ago by those who have a problem seeing women and men as equal. However that may be, we see ourselves as equal in all ways. "Allowed" is not a word we use when it comes to our rights. Things are not simply "allowed" for us, we expect certain rights and privileges. We are entitled and you better believe it.
We've given young girls the right to have their participation in school and recreational sports programs taken as seriously as those of boys and have seen women's professional sports become more prominent and lucrative.
We've fought for, and gotten, more recognition for women in the military. Crucial military decisions are not simply "men's work"; a military mind is not "genderized." The right to education has also given women the right to apply for any type of work they choose and in any field. This has also helped men feel more comfortable entering fields formerly thought of as "only for women." We have improved women's health care, including birth control and control over our own bodies, and vastly improved prenatal care. Quality of life is an important issue for every one of us at all of life's stages.
Each generation of women has a responsibility to the next one. What we do pass on has an impact on generations of women to come. Let's make sure we pass on rights of equality, strength and quality. The current generation of young women seem to able to do just that and much more.
By the way, the next time you sign a legal document that makes you a property owner, or walk up to a podium to receive your degree, the next time you run for office or apply for a job, and yes, the next time you wear slacks to work, stop for a moment and say a silent thank you to the women who came before you and made the changes you enjoy. They worked hard for them and they'll be happy you remembered.
© 2012 Copyright Kristen Houghton
Kristen Houghton is the author of the hilarious new book, No Woman Diets Alone - There's Always a Man Behind Her Eating a Doughnut in the top 10 hot new releases at Amazon
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