War on Women: Slowly Evolving Cultural Attitudes

war on women

Social change almost always happens slowly and unevenly, and while it is occurring, people who were socialized into older worldviews must co-exist (uneasily) with those who have adopted the emerging paradigms.

I am old enough to have seen enormous changes in the way women participate in American society. With the exception of a brief period after high school and before marriage, my mother was a homemaker until my father’s death required her to enter the work force in her 60s. She was one of a legion of intelligent, talented women who should have had a career; she chafed as a housewife and was much happier after she went to work. Working for pay during the marriage, however, would have reflected poorly on my father’s ability to support his family, so like most of her middle-class peers, she stayed home.

Girls were supposed to be demure and decorative when I was growing up. I once overheard a cousin tell my mother “It’s nice that Sheila reads so much, since she’s unlikely to date. Boys like girls who are pretty, not smart.”

Later, when I went to law school, many “friends” let me know they were troubled by my choice; I had three young children, and according to the social mores of the time, my place was at home tending to them. I still remember people warning me that my children would all “do drugs” if I pursued a career–and I vividly recall a partner at the firm I joined (as the first woman ever hired) reassuring me that “There’s nothing wrong with being a woman. Why, we hired a man with a glass eye once!”

So–as the commercial says, we really have “come a long way, baby.” But as the “me too” movement, the persistence of the glass ceiling, and statistics about earning discrepancies all attest, we also have a long way to go.

In 2016, a substantial number of Americans didn’t find Trump’s taped admission of sexual assault reason to disqualify him from the Presidency–and a not-insignificant number of voters explicitly based their rejection of Hillary Clinton on her gender. (A friend of our handyman told me that some men he worked with had volunteered that they would never vote for a woman–any woman– because  a woman simply couldn’t “handle” being President.)

Granted, few prominent Americans are as forthright about their misogyny as Philippine President Duarte, who recently boasted that he had ordered soldiers to shoot female communist guerrillas in the genitals.

“Tell the soldiers, ‘There’s a new order coming from the mayor,’ ” the president said in a speech, recalling a directive he said he had given when he was mayor of Davao City. “ ‘We will not kill you. We will just shoot you in the vagina.’ ”

Duterte has repeatedly expressed hostility to women in the country’s political insurgency, saying they should have stayed home and raised children.

Most American politicians avoid expressing anti-women sentiments quite so forcefully, but there are plenty of signs that similar underlying worldviews–ranging from “women should be submissive to men,” to “women should stay home with their children,” to “women really welcome male ‘attention’ and just say no in order to play hard to get”–remain ubiquitous.

These cultural attitudes are a holdover from times long past, when physical strength was needed for most jobs, and families had to have lots of children, both to help support the family and to replace the large numbers who died in infancy.

As any sociologist will confirm, longstanding cultural assumptions are slow to change. As any political scientist will attest, people who enjoy power or status rarely relinquish those privileged positions out of the goodness of their hearts.

When Obama was elected, we saw the depth and persistence of widespread racism that had largely gone underground. As women claim the right to participate in a workforce in which we are both fairly compensated and unmolested, we are encountering equally deep-seated paternalistic resistance.

That resistance will persist at least until the men (and women) glued to Fox News pass from the scene.

Or as I tell my students, once my age cohort is dead, things really should improve.

[Originally published at SheilaKennedy.net on February 21, 2018]

Sheila Kennedy is a former high school English teacher, former lawyer, former Republican, former Executive Director of Indiana’s ACLU, former columnist for the Indianapolis Star, and former young person. She is currently an (increasingly cranky) old person, a Professor of Law and Public Policy at Indiana University Purdue University in Indianapolis, and Director of IUPUI’s Center for Civic Literacy. She writes for the Indianapolis Business Journal, PA Times, and the Indiana Word, and blogs at www.sheilakennedy.net. For those who are interested in more detail, links to an abbreviated CV and academic publications can be found on her blog, along with links to her books..


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