Overall, the rights and status of women have improved considerably in the last
century; however, gender equality has recently been threatened within the last decade.
Blatantly sexist laws and practices are slowly being eliminated while social perceptions of
“women’s roles” continue to stagnate and even degrade back to traditional ideals. It is
these social perceptions that challenge the evolution of women as equal on all levels. In
this study, I will argue that subtle and blatant sexism continues to exist throughout
educational, economic, professional and legal arenas.
Women who carefully follow their expected roles may never recognize sexism as
an oppressive force in their life. I find many parallels between women’s experiences in the
nineties with Betty Friedan’s, in her essay: The Way We Were – 1949. She dealt with a
society that expected women to fulfill certain roles. Those roles completely disregarded
the needs of educated and motivated business women and scientific women. Actually, the
subtle message that society gave was that the educated woman was actually selfish and
I remember in particular the searing effect on me, who once intended to be a
psychologist, of a story in McCall’s in December 1949 called “A Weekend with Daddy.”
A little girl who lives a lonely life with her mother, divorced, an intellectual know-it-all
psychologist, goes to the country to spend a weekend with her father and his new wife,
who is wholesome, happy, and a good cook and gardener. And there is love and
laughter and growing flowers and hot clams and a gourmet cheese omelet and square
dancing, and she doesn’t want to go home. But, pitying her poor mother typing away all
by herself in the lonesome apartment, she keeps her guilty secret that from now on she
will be living for the moments when she can escape to that dream home in the country
where they know “what life is all about.” (See Endnote #1)
I have often consulted my grandparents about their experiences, and I find their
historical perspective enlightening. My grandmother was pregnant with her third child in
1949. Her work experience included: interior design and modeling women’s clothes for
the Sears catalog. I asked her to read the Friedan essay and let me know if she felt as
moved as I was, and to share with me her experiences of sexism. Her immediate reaction
was to point out that “Betty Friedan was a college educated woman and she had certain
goals that never interested me.” My grandmother, though growing up during a time
when women had few social rights, said she didn’t experience oppressive sexism in her
life. However, when she describes her life accomplishments, I feel she has spent most of
her life fulfilling the expected roles of women instead of pursuing goals that were mostly
reserved for men. Unknowingly, her life was controlled by traditional, sexist values
prevalent in her time and still prevalent in the nineties.
Twenty-four years after the above article from McCall’s magazine was written, the
Supreme Court decided whether women should have a right to an abortion in Roe v.
Wade (410 U.S. 113 (1973)). I believe the decision was made in favor of women’s rights
mostly because the court made a progressive decision to consider the woman as a human
who may be motivated by other things in life than just being a mother. Justice Blackmun
delivered the following opinion:
Maternity, or additional offspring, may force upon the woman a distressful life and
future. Psychological harm may be imminent. Mental and physical health may be taxed
by child care. There is also a distress, for all concerned, associated with the unwanted
child, and there is the problem of bringing a child into a family already unable,
psychologically and otherwise, to care for it. In other cases, as in this one, the
additional difficulties and continuing stigma of unwed motherhood may be involved.
(See Endnote #2)
I feel the court decision of Roe v. Wade would not have been made in 1949.
Even in 1973, it was a progressive decision. The problem of abortion has existed for the
entire history of this country (and beyond), but had never been addressed because
discussing these issues was not socially acceptable. A culture of not discussing issues that
have a profound impact on women is a culture that encourages women to be powerless.
The right of abortion became a major issue. Before 1970, about a million abortions were
done every year, of which only about ten thousand were legal. Perhaps a third of the
women having illegal abortions – mostly poor people – had to be hospitalized for
complications. How many thousands died as a result of these illegal abortions no one
really knows. But the illegalization of abortion clearly worked against the poor, for the
rich could manage either to have their baby or to have their abortion under safe
conditions. (See Endnote #3)
A critic of the women’s movement would quickly remind us that women have a
right to decline marriage and sex, and pursue their individual interests. However, I would
argue that the social pressure women must endure if they do not conform to their expected
role is unfair. The problem goes beyond social conformity and crosses into government
intervention (or lack thereof). The 1980’s saw the pendulum swing against the women’s
movement. Violent acts against women who sought abortions became common and the
government was unsympathetic to the victims. There are parallels between the Southern
Black’s civil rights movement and the women’s movement: Blacks have long been
accustomed to the white government being unsympathetic to violent acts against them.
During the civil rights movement, legal action seemed only to come when a white civil
rights activist was killed. Women are facing similar disregard presently, and their
movement is truly one for civil rights.
A national campaign by the National Organization of Women began on 2 March 1984,
demanding that the US Justice Department investigate anti-abortion terrorism. On 1
August federal authorities finally agreed to begin to monitor the violence. However,
Federal Bureau of Investigation director, William Webster, declared that he saw no
evidence of “terrorism.” Only on 3 January 1985, in a pro-forma statement, did the
President criticize the series of bombings as “violent anarchist acts” but he still refused
to term them “terrorism.” Reagan deferred to Moral Majoritarian Jerry Falwell’s
subsequent campaign to have fifteen million Americans wear “armbands” on 22 January
1985, “one for every legal abortion” since 1973. Falwell’s anti-abortion outburst
epitomized Reaganism’s orientation: “We can no longer passively and quietly wait for
the Supreme Court to change their mind or for Congress to pass a law.” Extremism on
the right was no vice, moderation no virtue. Or, as Hitler explained in Mein Kamph,
“The very first essential for success is a perpetually constant and regular employment of
violence.” (See Endnote #4)
This mentality continued on through 1989 during the Webster v. Reproductive
Health Services (109 S. Ct. 3040 (1989)) case. “The Reagan Administration had urged
the Supreme Court to use this case as the basis for overturning Roe v. Wade.” (See
It is disturbing that the slow gains achieved by the women’s movement are so volatile
and endangered when conservative administrations gain a majority in government. To put the
problem into perspective: a woman’s right to have an abortion in this country did not
come until 1973. Less than two decades later, the president of the United States is pushing
to take that right away. It seems blatant that society is bent on putting women in their
From the above examples, it appears American culture prefers women as non-
professional, non-intellectual, homemakers and mothers. This mentality is not easily
resolved, because it is introduced at a young age. Alice Brooks experienced inequality on
the basis of her race and her sex. In her autobiography, A Dream Deferred, she recalls the
reaction of her father when she brought up the idea of college to him:
I found a scholarship for veterans’ children and asked my father to sign and furnish
proof that he was a veteran. He refused and told me that I was only going to get married
and have babies. I needed to stay home and help my mother with her kids. My brother
needed college to support a family. Not only was I not going to get any help, I was also
tagged as selfish because I wanted to go to college. (See Endnote #6)
This is another example of women being labeled as selfish for wanting the same
opportunities as men. Alice Brooks is a very courageous woman; seemingly able to
overcome any oppression she may encounter. During her presentation to our class, she
said that “women who succeed in male dominated fields are never mediocre – they are
extraordinary achievers.” Her insight encapsulates much of the subtle sexism that exists
today. I feel that no one can truly be equal in a society when only the “extraordinary
achievers” are allowed to succeed out of their expected social role.
This attitude of rising blatant and subtle attacks on women’s civil rights is further
exemplified in recent reactions to affirmative action plans. These plans have been devised
to try to give women and minorities an opportunity to participate in traditionally white
male dominated areas. However, we see the same trends in legal action for the use of
affirmative action plans as we saw in the 1980’s backlash against the Roe v. Wade
decision. A few interesting points were presented in the case, Johnson v.
Transportation Agency, Santa Clara (480 U.S. 616 (1987)). Mr. Paul E. Johnson filed
suit against the Santa Clara County Transportation Agency when he was denied a
promotion, feeling the company’s affirmative action plan denied him of his civil rights.
Some interesting facts were presented in this case:
Specifically, 9 of the 10 Para-Professionals and 110 of the 145 Office and Clerical
Workers were women. By contrast, women were only 2 of the 28 Officials and
Administrators, 5 of the 58 Professionals, 12 of the 124 Technicians, none of the Skilled
Crafts Workers, and 1 – who was Joyce – of the 110 Road Maintenance Workers.
(See Endnote # 7)
The above statistics show women have been considerably underrepresented at the
Santa Clara County Transportation Agency. These numbers are not uncommon and are
found throughout business. It is interesting to note the current popular perception is that
affirmative action precludes white males from finding employment with companies that
implement these plans. The truth is in the numbers, however. The fact that Mr. Johnson
felt he was denied his civil rights because an equally qualified woman was given a
promotion, instead of him, is just a small window into the subtle sexism that exists today.
Most critics of affirmative action do not consider the grossly unequal numbers of men in
management and professional positions. Secondly, it never seems an issue of debate that a
woman may have had no other previous life opportunities in these male dominated areas.
I do not intend to argue that affirmative action is good or bad, but only wish to point out
that the current backlash against these programs is heavily rooted in sexism and racism.
Often blatant violence or unfair acts against a group of people will cause that
group to pull together and empower themselves against their oppressors. The women’s
movement has made large steps to eliminate many of these blatantly sexist acts in the last
century. Now the real difficulty is upon us: subtle acts of sexism and the degrading social
roles of women in today’s conservative culture. Alice Brooks so eloquently described her
experiences with inequality, stating, “the worse pain came from those little things people
said or did to me.” As these “little things” accumulate in the experience of a young
woman, she increasingly finds herself powerless in her relationships, employment,
economics, and society in general. The female child has as many goals as the male child,
but statistically she is unable to realize these goals because of the obstacles that society
sets in front of her. Society and media attempt to create an illusion that women have
every right that men enjoy. However, women will never be equal until the day female
scientists, intellectuals, professionals, military leaders, and politicians are just as accepted
and encouraged to participate in all of society’s arenas as males.
1. The Ethnic Moment, By P.L. Fetzer. Page 57
2. Constitutional Law Cases & Essays, By S. Goldman. Page 205.
3. A People’s History Of The United States, By Howard Zinn. Page 499.
4. Beyond Black And White, By M. Marable. Page 40-41.
5. Constitutional Law Cases & Essays, By S. Goldman. Page 767.
6. The Ethnic Moment, By P. L. Fetzer. Page 234.
7. Constitutional Law Cases & Essays, By S. Goldman. Page 784.
Fetzer, Philip L. The Ethnic Moment, The Search For Equality In The American Experience.
New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 1997.
Goldman, Sheldon. Constitutional Law Cases & Essays, Second Edition.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
Marable, Manning. Beyond Black & White.
New York: Verso, 1995.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of The United States.
New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1980.