Look At Me (Part Two)

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When Ana Maria Archila, national committee member of the Working Families Party and executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, and activist Maria Gallagher confronted Senator Jeff Flake in an elevator, they demanded that he look at them. Their imperative is one that demands that we see women today and see women within the context of the history of women in the United States. When I wrote about Anita Hill, I read her testimony within this context. Here is some of what I wrote:
“Once upon a time in America, during the Revolutionary War, women became boycotters, refusing to buy British goods, were camp followers, petitioners, fund raisers, loyalists and patriots. Still, at the writing of the Constitution, women were not citizens. In the 1800s, women were seen as the keepers of values while they had no control over property, children, or the number of children they bore. Many women were illiterate, so a lack of education and a lack of birth control kept women in traditional household roles. According to historian Nancy Woloch, reason was considered a masculine quality, even by women themselves, and an effeminate mind was thought to be “vain, capricious, fickle, foolish, frivolous, or extravagant.” In the 1800s women were expected to display personal virtues: “modest, cheerful, timid, delicate, tender, affectionate, graceful, sympathetic.” While women were expected to display these qualities, a man’s approval, husband, judge, legislator, was necessary for a woman to exercise any legal rights.
Once upon a time in America, in the early 19th century women organized for charity work and social reforms. Middle-class women in the North, kept from official authority, made a public place for themselves between the house and government. Still women found themselves confined to a “woman’s proper sphere.” They were allowed to stay home and to visit the unfortunate. Dorothea Dix visited prisoners and worked on prison reform, trying to get insane people put in different facilities from common criminals. Women worked for peace, temperance, and against slavery. They worked for moral purity of male and female. The 19th century saw more young women leaving home, working as seamstresses, factory workers and clerks in cities. Moral reformers, watching out for the welfare of single women working in the cities, became advocates for women’s rights and they became abolitionists. Women now became concerned with politics and with the public limitations imposed on women. During this time in America, it was scandalous for a woman to address a mixed audience of both men and women. Margaret Fuller wrote in 1845 that women ought to end their psychological dependence upon men.
Once upon a time in America, between the Civil War and World War I, women in America continued to work as unpaid labor in their households and thereby, during western expansion, helped to establish European-American communities. Meanwhile, because of increased urbanization and industrialization, women became wage laborers, in larger numbers. Young women worked in factories producing cloth, clothing, food, and tobacco. They worked as teachers, nurses, office workers and salesclerks. But, once married, women were expected to leave wage labor and work inside the home. After the Civil War some two million blackwomen* entered the labor market. Most blackwomen of necessity did not conform to the white domestic ideal of the mother who only works at home. Yet, despite blackwomen’s role as wage earners, black men still wanted to assume a male dominant role. The notion of male supremacy was therefore not incompatible with female labor.
Once upon a time in America, both men and women often worked 60-hour, five and a half-day weeks that required “standing, stooping, lifting, and hauling, as well as heat, dust, dampness, noise, monotony, and exhaustion.” Children worked in factories. Women reformers who wanted to change the working conditions of women and children often saw women’s own passivity as part of the problem. According to one reformer, women had not learned to “work” only “to be worked.” Wages were low and women rarely organized into unions. Male dominated unions while not welcoming women as members, called for equal pay for equal work because they did not want to see women create a cheap labor force that would reduce men’s salaries. Union men therefore supported the domestic ideal. Later, protective laws restricted working hours, imposed a minimum wage, but also kept women from working at night, carrying heavy loads, working in dangerous places, including mines and bars, and these laws were largely supported by women’s rights activists.
Certain occupations became feminized, especially domestic work, office jobs, such as typing and switchboard operators and the like, along with teaching in primary and secondary schools.
Once upon a time in America, in the late 19th and early 20th century women began to enter colleges and universities in higher numbers. It became common knowledge that women possessed the same intellectual capacities as men. College education provided women with a means of self-improvement and socialization outside the private realm of family. Women’s self-esteem grew. All this happened, however, at the price of male backlash and many colleges now took steps to keep male students.
Educated women started to enter the professions and certain female dominated occupations such as teaching, nursing, and social work became professionalized. Male dominated professions such as the ministry and law proved more difficult for women to enter in large numbers.
Once upon a time in America, women lawyers were prohibited from practicing in the courtroom and were limited to office work, or work in other organizations. Women had an easier time becoming physicians since medicine was less organized. Women doctors and dentists could practice at home and many female physicians treated primarily women and children. Women never dominated any aspect of medicine and the institutions that women established were often taken over by men.”
Look at me.
Look at the restrictions that society placed on women often with the cooperation of women. Much has changed since this early history of women. Now there are women in the United States Senate who have the power to stop the nomination of a man who has been accused of sexual assault. It is true that an accusation is not proof. There may not be enough evidence to deprive Brett Kavanaugh of his liberty. However, the question for the women in the Senate is: do they believe the women who have accused Brett Kavanaugh to the extent to prevent him from ascending to the highest court in the land for a lifetime appointment?
Look at the women past and present. And, as Archila and Gallagher said to Senator Flake in the elevator, think about the women of the future who will be affected by the decisions that Kavanaugh will make if he ascends to the Supreme Court.
*On blackwoman: womanist scholar and Pastor Joan Martin elides the space between black and woman because the existential reality of blackwomen means that we cannot not be one or the other. We are both.
See Nancy Woloch, “Women and the American Experience” 2nd edition.
Valerie Elverton Dixon is founder of JustPeaceTheory.com and author of “Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love, and the Public Conversation.