Nel's New Day

March 30, 2012

Don’t Let Conservatives Silence Women

Republican legislators—primarily men—continue to create bills to oppress women, but people are beginning to fight back, sometimes successfully. Even courts are recognizing the unconstitutionality of these laws. The most recent ruling is from federal District Judge Brian Dixon, who declared that the Oklahoma law mandating ultrasounds before abortions is unconstitutional.  An appeal will send the case to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has already permitted a similar law in Texas.

“The right is ours. Have it we must. Use it we will.” This is a statement from Susan B. Anthony over a century ago as she fought for women’s rights by the side of Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Born less than 50 years after the Revolutionary War, the two women fought for another half century to change the repressive laws against women.

When Anthony and Stanton met on a street corner in Seneca Falls, New York, women were considered weaker and more inferior to boys and men. Women who spoke for their rights in public were ridiculed, reviled, threatened, called vicious names. Men believed they shouldn’t leave their homes without a male escort. Ministers declared women’s roles through bible verses: “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord” and “But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”

Anthony started to work for women’s suffrage after she was prevented from speaking at a temperance conference because she was a woman. That was when she learned that women had to have the vote if they could change any laws or policies. Anthony also knew that women have no independence without money and they can have no money without equal property rights and the right to keep their wages.

A transformative experience for Anthony was meeting a woman whose husband had first beaten her and then committed her to an insane asylum after she confronted him about his affair with another woman. She spent 18 months in the institution until her brother, a U.S. senator, got her released. Yet when she wanted to see her children, he said, “The child belongs by law to the father, and it is your place to submit. If you make any more trouble about it we’ll send you back to the asylum.” The woman fled with her daughter but could not find a hotel room because she was unaccompanied by a man. A year later the husband found them and abducted the child. The mother never saw her again.

Together Anthony and Stanton fought the language of the Fourteenth Amendment, passed after the Civil War, that delineates “male citizens” and injected gender into the Constitution for the first time. Because the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment defines citizens without gender, Anthony and many others decided to vote—and were arrested. During Anthony’s trial, the judge refused to allow her to testify because she was “not a competent witness” and instructed the jurors, all men of course, to “find a verdict of guilty.” Anthony was fined $100 and court costs, which she refused to pay.

As a Quaker, Anthony believed in a religion that allowed women to preach and participate in governance. She believed that if women were enfranchised that conservative churches and clergymen would become more liberal. “Get political rights first and religious bigotry will melt like dew before the morning sun,” Anthony wrote to Stanton. Disagreeing, Stanton believed that women must question religion that justifies the elevation of men over women. Toward that end, she published The Woman’s Bible.

For half the 19th century these two women helped lay the groundwork for the great gains accorded women, a foundation that women like Alice Paul and others imprisoned for their belief in women’s suffrage built upon. The constitutional amendment for suffrage was created as the 16th Amendment but ended up being the 19th because of three other national amendments passed in the interim: government collecting taxes, people directly electing senators to the U.S. Congress, and prohibition of alcohol.

Women still had a long way to go after women’s suffrage was legalized across the country in 1920. Only fifty years ago, people in this country could be arrested, fined, and sentenced to prison for distributing birth control. Sex between consenting adults of the same sex was illegal in every state. Employment discrimination against women was legal—and pervasive.

By the end of the 1970s Congress had outlawed some of the country’s gender discrimination. The Supreme Court ruled against statutes outlawing birth control and abortion, and half the states had repealed anti-sodomy laws. During the same decade women helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment, battled sex education in schools, and fought federally-funded child care.

“Failure is impossible,” Anthony said in her last speech. As long as women are willing to vote for their equal rights, despite the laws that white men attempt to impose on us, Anthony’s statement will be true. Only when we women abdicate our power to vote, that hard-won power, or allow men to subjugate us through our vote will we return to a time when we could not own property, gain custody over children, obtain contraception, inherit property, keep wages, even serve on a jury—a right that we have had for only 40 years. In the United States, women are in the majority. We are in control as long as we wish to be.

If women have any doubt about whether they need to keep control over their reproductive rights, we should consider a finding from the National Bureau of Economic Research. During the 1980s, oral contraception accounted for 10 percent of the narrowing of the wage gap the gap in median annual wages between women and men.

Remember, too, the “common scold” laws begun in Colonial America and continued until 40 years ago. Women were criminals if we expressed strong opinions because this action was attacking male privilege. In the early days, women were chained in the town square, dunked in lakes, or wore a scold’s bridle—a metal cage with a tongue piece forced into the mouth. This could break teeth, cause vomiting, slash the inside of the mouth, and even cause death. The last “common scold” case, State of New Jersey v. Marion Palendrano, arrested a woman for arguing with two men over a parking space.

Conservative men are once again attempting to silence women. The Republican legislators kept women from testifying about birth control in Congress, and Rush Limbaugh verbally abused women who use birth control. Women need to stop men from silencing them and taking away our rights. We need to guarantee that next year’s Women History Month shows how much we have gained, not all the rights that we have lost.

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[The above information about Anthony and Stanton was taken from Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony: A Friendship That Changed the World by Penny Colman; check it out for more about these amazing women.]

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