|(Gus Wezerek/Globe Staff)|
To daring, tenacious women
Women’s Equality Day is almost here! Oh, you didn’t know? You and everyone else: It’s not like the press is all over the event or Hallmark makes a card. AOL did start offering an e-card - but only after some bloggers launched an e-mail campaign in 2007 to add Women’s Equality Day to AOL’s August holiday card lineup. Why hadn’t it been offered until then? Bloggers bitterly joked that it had been overshadowed by National Toilet Paper Day, which also falls on Aug. 26.
You might guess that the day has something to do with women getting the vote. Check: The 19th amendment was adopted on Aug. 26, 1920 (after one young Tennessee legislator, nudged by his mother, broke a deadlocked state vote on ratification). And the holiday has been on the books since 1971, thanks to New York congresswoman Bella Abzug. Every Aug. 26 since, the White House issues a proclamation. Last year, President Obama noted how it’s taken “the collective efforts of daring and tenacious women over many generations to realize the principles and freedoms enshrined in our Constitution.’’
Daring and tenacious women. It’s good to mark Women’s Equality Day by reading about a few of them. Gail Collins, a New York Times columnist, jumps right in with “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present’’ (Little, Brown, 2009). If you were around in 1960 (or watch “Mad Men’’ now) you know it was a galaxy far, far away. Collins reminds us that the classifieds had separate job sections for men and women. Grown women couldn’t get credit without male cosigners. Just before graduation at Barnard in the early ’60s, students were handed corsages if they were already engaged, lemons if they weren’t. (Two-thirds got corsages.)
Collins is great at such oh-my-God details, but she also pans back to show how the women’s movement was partly a result of the civil rights movement (NOW was originally dubbed “the NAACP for Women’’), the sexual emancipation of the Pill, and the booming economy of the ’60s. Remember booming economies? Once upon a time, there weren’t enough men to fill all the jobs, and
One of the heroines of Collins’s book, and a central figure in the modern feminist movement, is the writer and activist Gloria Steinem, whose insightful, charismatic influence reaches to this day (check out her new HBO special, “Gloria: In Her Own Words’’). Indulge yourself, then, with her classic essay collection “Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions’’ (Holt, Rinehart, 1983). The pivotal pieces are here: her take on 1977’s ground-breaking
As a middle-class working mom, it’s no stretch to see myself in the trends described in both books. After all, I’m writing this column while my husband watches the kids, an arrangement unsurprising now and almost unthinkable 50 years ago. As Erica Jong has said, “The things I fought for are now considered quaint.’’
Which is why it’s a humbling, radicalizing experience to read “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide’’ (Knopf, 2009). The New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning husband-and-wife team of Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn have done something colossal here. “Half the Sky’’ should be the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ of our times. The book that changes the mind of a generation, the book that rights the wrong.
This is no hyperbole. If slavery and totalitarianism were among the worst evils we sought to end in prior centuries, then gender equality in the developing world is fully part of the unfinished business of the 21st.
Kristof and WuDunn put it all in context: “In the wealthy countries of the West, discrimination is usually a matter of unequal pay or underfunded sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In contrast, in much of the world discrimination is lethal.’’
Lethal, yes. But raising women’s status isn’t about rescuing a helpless group or rolling out some do-good deed. It’s smart policy with wide-ranging repercussions. Help women and you also improve the world economy, for instance. Some 80 percent of the workers on the assembly lines in China are female; without them you have no Asian miracle. Help women, and you bolster the health and education of children globally.
Much of this book devastates - the stories of poverty, honor killings, sex trafficking. But, remember the word “opportunity’’ is in the subtitle. So that’s how I’ll honor Women’s Equality Day, by acting on the book’s “What You Can Do’’ chapter. It’s better than sending a card.
Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at email@example.com.