Friday, February 10, 2012

Yes, I once waved a banner for women

I have sometimes said that at this point in life I feel as if I am standing on a mountaintop looking back on my journey. I am in the eighth decade.   I can see the hard climbs, the gentle paths,  the cliffs, and the temporary footholds where I stood and waited for strength to continue.  This look back happens in particular when someone draws to my attention  events that happened long ago.

Recently  it was my son James’s passionate account on his  blog about how the death of his father in 1962 affected him in his growing-up years.  Read about it at  at  “Hasking and Other Reflections on Fatherhood.”  His well-stated comments  about his scrabbling for memories of a father he never knew brought back a flood of memories about how hard it was to be a single parent.  How difficult it was to be a working mother.  How trying  it was to be a woman wanting to be involved in the life of a traditionally oriented church when it came to the  role of women.  How discouraging it was to being an uncoupled  woman in a male-oriented world.

Over the last few  months  I have  read several books related to the women’s movement and those events that featured large in my life at one time:  

When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 by the Present by Gail Collins.

Radiating Like a Stone: Wichita Women and the 1970s Feminist Movement, edited by Myrne Roe.

Draft of a Ph.D. dissertation written by Canadian historian Doug Heidebrecht in which he examines the hermeneutical process by which the Mennonite Brethren church arrived at its position with regard to women.

To this I could add my own book You Never Gave Me a Name:  One Mennonite Woman’s Story in which I describe my own journey through the women’s movement. 

All these readings  are  a second look to another time and another way of looking at life. At times reading was painful, at other times enjoyable.  Few events affected my life as much as the death of  my husband at age 44 in 1962.  I was 38.  I went from being a stay-at-home mother to becoming a “working woman,” as if I hadn’t worked before.   I went from being comfortable as one member of a couple to becoming  head of  a family of four young children.  And from being keenly aware of what was happening inside church life to being relegated to  non-participating  outsider. Yes, it was a different world.   

Each reading  moved me through experiences I thought I had left behind, better stated, grown out of.  

*Collins’ book  is a survey of what happened in the United States.

* Roe’s is a collection of essays by about 75 writers about the women’s movement in the city of Wichita.

*Heidebrecht’s dissertation  is a carefully researched, documented account of  the way the movement worked its way through the Mennonite Brethren church, (and is still working its way)  and finally my own struggle which began when  I was in my early 20s and the church council decided I could not be leader of the youth group because I was a woman  even after the  young people had elected me.

* James, in his blog,  looks at our fractured home  life from his perspective – and his loss of a father.  Would I have become a supporter of the women’s movement if my husband hadn’t died?  Big question.

The women’s movement of the 1960s and 70s  created a huge stir because what had seemed the norm and natural  for women for decades, was purported to be unfair and needed examination – and change.   

Some  people were insisting women are  the weaker sex with less brain power  and too much emotional baggage. Therefore  they had no place in the public sphere.  Women’s  place was  in the home – the kitchen and the bedroom.   They should be guardians of everything good, pure and beautiful,  never the precursors of change,  never acting  independently  of husband or  father if they expected  to be respected.  And own their own property ? Unthinkable. 

If they dared move out of the home, it was into subservient roles.  In offices,  grown women, even elderly women, were referred to as the “girls”  just as  African-American males of any age were once referred to as “boys.”  The girls  were the lackeys who made the coffee and brought the cookies. Standard clothing included  panty hose, girdles,  and high heels. Their only concern was their hair and nails --because that was what society expected of them. Men were paid more than women in the same positions because they had a family to support.  Single women with children weren’t in the equation.

The few that dared become doctors or lawyers  were referred to as a “female doctor,” and “female lawyer,”  just like today a man who becomes a nurse is called a male nurse.  A woman poet was a poetess, an  woman actor an actress.  

But things have changed, especially the way women look at themselves and  the way people look at women.  Daughters grow up expecting a different life than that of women in the 1960s and 70s. They know that women can think and can lead.  The change has not traumatized society as was predicted.  And hopefully it is still taking place. 

Yet the struggle hasn’t ended, especially when I think of   domestic abuse being  on the rise, young girls being enticed into prostitution, very young girls being groomed to act and look like vamps, and high school girls turning down an education for a job in a fast food place to earn money to buy  more shoes and clothes.  We’ve come a long way, but we’ve sure got a long way to go.  Maybe it’s time to start waving another banner.           

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