The Luxury of Choice

Today is International Women’s Day. (This is NOT Mother’s Day. We honor women who raised children on Mother’s Day. By all means, honor your mother today, but also look at what else this day means. Women don’t need rights to be mothers.)

For me, it comes down to the choices. I am allowed so many things that women before me were not, but it is my duty to take advantage of those choices and to not rest until all women have equal the choices available to both our other female and male counterparts. I am Gen-X, so I have experienced some level of the glass ceiling, and I am old enough to remember Anita Hill, but I can’t fathom what my mother’s generation went through, and today I am thankful for the women who lived before me who have allowed me the privileges I have today. What I think is remarkable is how so many women take the privilege of choice so utterly for granted.

The Right to Vote (and the choice whether to exercise that right)

I had to learn all of the Constitutional Amendments in high school history. Today, I only remember numbers one and two and a smattering of others, including the 19th. The nineteenth amendment gave women the right to vote. Do you know when that happened? 1920 after SEVENTY YEARS of fighting for. Adult women involved in the early stages never saw their dreams come true. They died only partial citizens with no ability to shape government. It should go without saying that since no woman was allowed to vote, no woman held public office, so their lives were decided completely by fathers, husbands, adult sons and male lawmakers.  Sadly, it also should go without saying, but I am going to say it anyway, this law only referred to white women. Black women, in particular were left out of this because although the 15th Amendment extended the vote to black men, it excluded women, and frankly black men were not given access to voting until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is when black women were also granted legal voting rights.

The point is 100% of adult women in the country have the privilege, the right, the duty to vote, yet they don’t. In the years immediately following the passage of the 19th Amendment, women still didn’t vote in droves. This was to be expected; it was scary for many. There was no official counting of voter demographics until 1964, apparently, so it is hard to track the female vote over time. (I actually could not find a single chart that tracked it since then.) But in 1980, a record 59.4% of women voted. According to Vote Run Lead, “Women make the difference.  According to exit polls, 53 percent of voters in the 2012 elections were women, which means that women determined the outcome of the presidential election.” We all have a voice, but we don’t all use it; only about half of us do. Do we not feel empowered or do we just have something better to do that day? Women across the globe are still fighting for a right, almost half of us don’t even use.

The Right to an Education

American girls have an unbelievable right to education that is in no way globally ubiquitous. Don’t believe me? Read this.

In this country, girls have had equal access to education for a long time, and our laws apply to all school-aged children.

It appears that in the area of college education, women have seized upon this right.  In 2015, 30.2% of women had a college degree which was marginally higher than men at 29.9%. This was the first time that happened, and that is amazing, but we can do better!

Many would say that this is great and this is enough. What are women complaining about? We have access to all the same education, but women still are often discouraged from pursuing sciences and math. This starts at a young age with the messaging on clothing and continues throughout. We are not stopping the fight, and STEM education for girls is slowly gaining ground, but until we have an equal number of men and women in medicine, science and technology, we will not have won that battle. Young women have the best possible education available, but it is up to their parents and to them, to take full advantage if it.

The right to work in a system of equality (or to choose not to)

This is a very complex one. Women are legally ALLOWED to work, but women are still no where close to equal in the workplace. Women still earn 80 cents on the dollar as compared to men. And only 14.2% of the top five leadership positions at the companies in the S&P 500 are held by women, according to a CNNMoney analysis. It’s even worse if you just consider the very top. Out of 500 companies, there are only 24 female CEOs. There is definitely not equality in the workplace.

We are behind most of the industrialized world in this. “Out of the 45 countries examined, the United States ranks in the bottom 10 for the percentage of women in senior management positions.” The countries above us would surprise you, as they included Latvia, Russia and Indonesia.

When you add on to this being sexually harassed (yes, this still happens); getting little or no maternity leave; paying out the nose for childcare and/or having to choose between job and kids, women face more hurdles than their male counterparts.

Still women do work. They can if they want or if they need to. However, they have the choice not to. There are young women today, who have the luxury of a partner who makes enough to support the family on one income, and they are choosing to be stay at home moms. I don’t think we can criticize this choice, but I would beg those women to recognize they have been afforded a privilege most do not have access to.

I would also implore the women who are in places of power to fight on behalf of their female employees. Women-run companies should be the BEST places for women to work. Female bosses have the choice to pave the way for more women or to decide that they fought for what they have and others should too.

The right to have children (or not)

I think this one is huge. I have always hated that the opposite of ‘pro-choice’, is ‘pro-life’. ‘Pro-choice’ does not mean ‘anti-life’. It means what it means, the right to choose, and that starts long before the choice of whether to terminate a pregnancy. It used to be the biggest possible shame to become pregnant as an unwed woman. This is because that woman clearly had been doing the unthinkable: having sex. (Of course people like to ignore the fact that rape has always been a producer of unwanted pregnancies.) No one was ever that bothered about the fact that she was not alone in that endeavor. Men were never shamed for getting the woman pregnant. There was just a shocking article recently about a home in Ireland, which was founded for these shameful girls. They would be sequestered away there, give birth and then the babies were killed. Not sure how that preserves life.

Pre-marital sex has been becoming more and more acceptable. “Only 29 percent of American adults (35 percent of men and 23 percent of women) said premarital sex is “not wrong at all” in the early 1970s. Acceptance went up to 42 percent in the 1980s, remained flat in the 1990s, climbed to 49 percent in the 2000s, and surged to 58 percent in 2012. Generationally speaking, 47 percent of Boomers in the 1970s thought premarital sex was not wrong at all, compared to 50 percent of GenXers in the 1990s, and 62 percent of Millennials in the 2010s.

The sexual revolution of the 1960’s changed a lot for women. With the advent of the birth control pill, which was made available for contraception in 1960, they could take their bodies into their own hands. They could choose to have sex and NOT become pregnant. Since then, we have been given a host of ways to be sexually active if we choose and not become pregnant, in addition to male condoms. There are female condoms and diaphragms, which are not as reliable and there are various hormonal methods including the pill, the patch and injections and then there are inter-uterine devices. This seems in line with those statistics on pre-marital sex.

Do you want to guess what the result of a more open attitude of sex is and the possibility of birth control is? Teen pregnancy has been steadily declining since 1991.

Birth Rates (Live Births) per 1,000 Females Aged 15–19 Years, by Race and Hispanic Ethnicity, Select Years. Click on image for data point details.

And the abortion rates have been declining in the years since Roe vs Wade was passed.

Women are proving that with choice, they will make good decisions, yet lawmakers constantly stand in their way. The pro-life movement continues to fight Roe vs Wade. Under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) insurers were required to pay for contraception if a woman CHOSE to use one. This was a change. My first PPO policy back in the early 2000s did not cover my birth control pills and did not cover pregnancy without a rider added six months ahead of the pregnancy, but did cover Viagra. I’ll let you process that for a moment while I roll my eyes. The ACA does not require women to use birth control, but it gives them a choice. And yes, those who don’t use it have to pay for those who do, just like I had to pay for Viagra.

With the Affordable Care Act on the chopping block, so is the requirement that insurers cover contraception. Because if we women want to have sex, and not get pregnant, we damn well better have the money to pay for that because what are we doing having sex if we aren’t married to a providing husband anyway?!?!?!

What frustrates me about the pro-life movement, is that since it is largely conservative and republican, it is also against social services. So the very people who don’t want women to have access to birth control also don’t want them to have an abortion, but they also are likely to not provide free pre-natal care, paid maternity leave, Head Start, food stamps, free child care, ability to breast feed or pump milk at work, etc. They take choice out of the women’s hands, and the children suffer.

There is also another choice here. The choice to simply not have children. By using available methods of birth control, some women such as myself have simply chosen that we don’t want to be moms. According to the Census Bureau, the rate of women who have kids is at its lowest point ever at 47.6 percent. Those of us who don’t have kids by choice have our reasons, but they are irrelevant. It is our choice to not bear children, but also to have sex, so we get to be like men a bit. Don’t worry, the natural instinct is still strong and our population is not in danger of extinction.

 

The right not to marry or to marry who you choose

This point is loosely related to the one about kids. Because we accept pre-marital sex, we largely also accept pre-marital parenthood. Some couples choose to have kids, but not get married. Some women choose to have partners, but not get married. Because women no longer need a man to be a part of society or the workforce or to have and raise a baby, some are choosing to be independent. The rate of women (and men) to never marry is on the rise.

Rising Share of Never-Married Adults, Growing Gender Gap

And that is okay. Women can own land, drive cars, work and pay for their own lives and have and raise children independently. Or they can choose to do this with a partner or spouse. Both options are indeed options, which is in many ways a result of the previous points. If women could not go to school, could not work and could not prevent pregnancy, they would be wholly reliant on a husband. In the past in this country, and still today in many countries, that is still true.

And, of course, women can now choose to marry other women, which was not previously a choice. This was also a hard won battle that men and women had to fight.

Get married or don’t, but recognize that is a choice that you are afforded.

The duty to take advantage of our rights

Women born before the Gen-X generation had to fight tooth and nail for EVERYTHING. My mother, a baby -boomer, was the first in her very large extended family to go to college She said that they way she saw it, she had three career paths: teacher, nurse, flight attendant. She is the oldest of six girls, and the first three of them chose those three paths. My mom was a teacher until she decided to stay home and raise us while my father worked. My peers saw their moms working more than ever before, getting divorced more than ever before, and generally making choices previously unavailable to them.

I think we Gen-Xers kind of took it for granted, but I think the millennials take it even more for granted.

The style of the 80’s was sort of telling. Women wore shoulder pads; short, cropped hair was fashionable; the power suit emerged. Women had to be strong, cold, calculating. They had to look and act like men or they would be labeled “emotional”. Women had to fight for everything and they often were rewarded by being labeled “bitches” and “bad mothers” even by other women. So in the most recent election, one would have thought the women would have voted for the female candidate because of the common struggle, but they didn’t. One would have thought women my age would have voted for her because we appreciated what women her age did to make our lives easier, but we didn’t. And the millennial women have no idea how good they have it, so they felt no sense of comradery at all for her apparently.

Millennials have never been told they can’t achieve their dreams. We still push “boy stuff” on boys and “girl stuff” of girls, but generally, women today, I think, feel there is less to fight for.

However, the recent upswing of participation and anger by women of all ages leads me to believe that we still have some fight left in us passed on by our grandmothers.

Until women are 50% of the work force and 50% of the upper-level management and 50% of the Congress and are paid 100% of what men are in all of those places, we still need to fight.

Until no woman fears sexual assault or rape or at least feels confident justice will be served when she reports it, we still need to fight.

Until women are in charge of their education, their choice to be a mother, their decision to work or not work as a mother(or not), and their position as a wife or a non-wife, we still need to fight.

Until we are the number one country in the world to be a woman (we are 16), we still need to fight.

Women today have so many options available to them, and I don’t think as women we serve our cause when we disparage another’s choices  in terms of how, when and why other women choose to partner up and/or be a mom, but I do think we have an obligation to support one another in the workplace, in the community, in the congress. We will be a stronger country when we are ALL equal. So women, when you are given the gift of a right, take it, seize it, use it. Do not waste your right because if you do, who knows when the day will come that you no longer have the luxury of choice.

 

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