09 May Four Generations of Women: How Far We Have Come, Part 1
My grandmother told me stories about driving to school in a horse and buggy in a small town in the Sacramento Valley of California. She talked about growing almonds, raising chickens and the economic uncertainty and isolation that was her childhood before she moved to Oakland. What she didn’t talk about was how trapped she felt in an abusive marriage to a tyrannical, alcoholic man.
When my grandmother was born in 1868, women could not own property, could not sign contracts, could not vote, file lawsuits, nor have their own money. Women were seen as the responsibility of the family until they married and became the responsibility of their husband but they were not seen as responsible for themselves.
My grandmother was a mother and housewife, bearing children, raising them, and providing a home was considered women’s work. Men were to be the providers and handle all of the worldly decisions that affected them both. This was encoded in law, religion and the societal norms of the times and if your partner turns out to be the type of man my grandfather was– there was not much recourse.
Nowhere was that more apparent than in family planning. Because of the Comstock law of 1873 my grandmother was not allowed any information about preventing pregnancies, about birth control devices of any kind, or about abortions. This changed in1916 when Doctors were finally allowed to talk to women about preventing pregnancies. Doctors were not allowed to distribute birth control devices until 1936, to late for my grandmother who had four children to raise in a chaotic and violent environment.
I didn’t understand just how devastating not having the ability to control how many children you wanted to birth was until I worked in Ireland in the 1990’s. During that time if you didn’t have a child every 18 months or so you were considered to be practicing birth control which was a sin that you could be excommunicated for. As the Catholic Church controlled and owned a great many of Ireland’s institutions and businesses, excommunication could lead to being fired and ostracized– putting your families’ survival in jeopardy.
In the middle of my Hakomi training in Galway, one of my trainees told me that she would have to miss the next day as she was going to a funeral. “It was my best friend you see. She was only 54 but she had 24 children and she just wore out.” In my entire time teaching in Ireland I never met anyone from a family of less than eight—ten to twelve or more was the norm. I want you to imagine having twelve to eighteen children to feed, clothe, do laundry and clean for, discipline, educate and manage. And if you are a man reading this, I want you to imagine supporting fourteen to twenty people on one salary. It’s no wonder that the top song playing on the radio when I was in Ireland went:
“The pill, the pill, I’m pinning for the pill.”
I am very grateful for the separation of Church and State after having seen how harmful it can be when it is not.
My mother, the youngest grew up in the depression and came of age during WWII. My grandmother’s unhappiness and her father’s alcoholism shaped her life. She was determined to have more options than her mother. She went to business school, and availed herself of birth control and family planning. She also married a man with alcohol issues but with a much different temperament. During WWII and before her marriage, she was able to work and loved her job and the new found freedom many women experienced during the war. Women were encouraged to work and carry on many of the tasks men had done before being called to serve. She was more independent and loved this period of her life.
That of course changed when the war ended and the men came back. Four million women lost their jobs and women again returned to being at home, this time in the newly created suburbs. My mother, like many of the women in her generation, was bored silly raising two children in the suburbs, far away from the city that she loved.
The birth control pill was made available in 1964 and by 1968 it was widely used, for my mother that ended the fear of a later in life pregnancy. For the first time in the history of our species, women could choose to control their reproductive processes if they wanted to. The legal right to birth control however, would not be nation wide until 1965 for married couples and 1966 for unmarried couples.
At the same time as women were being freed from the uncertainty of pregnancies, the US economy exploded. In the mid sixties there were more jobs than there were men to fill them. The US, which had 6% of the population, produced 50% of the world’s goods. The whole concept of the dual income couple was born as a marketing strategy to encourage women to join the work force, which they did in droves, never to leave it again.
However most of the jobs were low paying retail, phone operators or clerical positions. My mother went back to work in the mid 60’s and was the happiest she had ever been. She worked as a school secretary for 10 years, which paid considerably less than any other position at the school but allowed her a sense of self and identity that she relished.
My mother was not allowed to apply for a mortgage, credit card or insurance without a male co-signer until the 1970’s, but The Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974 put an end to that discrimination nation wide. So when she briefly considered divorcing my father in the mid seventies, she knew she had options that her mother never had. One of my mother’s greatest sorrows was that she could not convince my grandmother to leave her marriage. My mother was determined that I would be raised with the idea that I alone was responsible for my life and educated to be able to do so. She never wanted me to be trapped in a marriage with few financial options and too frightened to leave it. Her determination had a huge influence on my life.