When my first husband and I were married, an insurance salesman advised us only to insure ourselves against serious losses: his life and my contact lenses.
It’s actually a little puzzling that it took me so long to figure out what was wrong with that statement, as my mother was an ardent third-generation feminist. Equal rights for women have been a family theme for as many generations back as anyone can remember. My grandmother, who had a Ph.D. in zoology in 1910, and great-grandmother, who graduated from college in 1880, were passionate suffragists.
Unlike my childhood friends, my early years were filled with youth-level biographies of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and even Margaret Sanger. (It couldn’t have been easy to write kids books about legalizing birth control. I think they were a little vague on some of the details.)
One of my grade school reports was written, somewhat to the astonishment of my teacher, about the 19th amendment to the Constitution that gave women the right to vote. As I said in my impassioned oral report version, it took 72 years of relentless effort from the time of the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 until the 19th Amendment was passed in 1920 by only one vote. Of course, my classmates and I were years from being able to vote, and Seneca Falls might as well have been on Mars. A lot of blank stares. But my mother was so proud.
As fate would have it, I had only sons and nephews, no daughters or nieces, not that I didn’t do my best to inculcate my sons with the value of feminism for both sexes. The nuances, never mind applications, of the term can be tricky. My younger son, Henry, came home from fifth grade one day in a huff announcing that the P.E. teacher was “sexist.” Turns out she gave the girls an extra serve in volleyball if they needed it, but not the boys. Henry wished me to take action. (I told my not-yet-husband Olof about it on the phone that night and he said, “What? You don’t already have an appointment with the school board?”)
I explained to Henry that it was important to clarify the issue. Was he distressed that one group, solely on the basis of sex, was being given an advantage over the other?
“Yeah!” he said. “And we lost!”
“And if you had won?”
“Then who cares how many serves they get. Call her, will you, mom?”
It’s really sad to me that the word
feminismhas gotten such a bad rap when it just means political, social, and economic equality of the sexes. The term has unfortunately been bad-mouthed, co-opted, distorted, and otherwise maligned, with feminists too often caricatured as testicle-targeting harpies with shrill voices and bad haircuts. I don’t think any woman I know could really envision the life that women have historically lived when they couldn’t vote, couldn’t own property, and had no rights other than what a husband allowed. Never mind the 12 children we would each likely have. Believe me, that would definitely cut down on the lunch dates.
Prevailing opinion in the second half of the 1800s was that higher education transferred blood from a woman’s reproductive organs to the brain, which would result in damaged children. Even bicycle riding was controversial for women. But if we think feminism has a bad reputation now, the early suffragists – women campaigning for the right to vote – were not only publicly maligned but jailed, sent to work houses, and even tortured. We take the vote for granted now, but as my mother wanted me to remember, a lot of people worked really hard for this. It didn’t just happen.
After the 14th amendment in 1868 bestowed citizenship on all persons born or naturalized in this country, famed suffragist Susan B. Anthony attempted to vote in the presidential election of 1872 on the grounds that women were citizens. (The only other legally-recognized categories of persons at the time were minors, aliens, idiots and felons.) The effort only succeeded in getting her arrested. “Are women people?” became a catchphrase of the suffragist movement. Sadly, there seem to be a few politicians still grappling with the question.
Now I have a tiny granddaughter. I hope it won’t take her even a nanosecond to figure out what’s wrong with insuring her husband’s life and her contact lenses (which I’m sure will be obsolete by then anyway). I hope she’ll be as proud to be a feminist as I am. And you can be sure I’m already shopping for the early suffragists children’s series. But I might wait until she can pronounce Seneca Falls.—
Look for La Jolla resident Inga’s lighthearted looks at life inLa Jolla Light