For an alternate viewpoint, see “Counterpoint: Children Are Priority One for Parents.”
What makes a woman a woman? That’s the question Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn asked Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson at her Supreme Court confirmation hearing. Alabama governor Kay Ivey signed legislation that threatens doctors and nurses with up to 10 years in prison for aiding transgender young people in transitioning. Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, signed legislation that bans teachers from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity, a bill opponents call “Don’t Say Gay.”
What is this preoccupation of the Republican Party with gender issues while war, the pandemic and inflation are problems of the day? To say that this obsession is weird is not an exaggeration. However, if we examine the extraordinary changes in women’s lives, it does make more sense. For many, these cultural changes cause anger, anxiety and angst. To appreciate fully how the life experience of American women has changed, it is helpful to start by examining magazine ads in the 1950s.
Among dozens of ads accessible on the internet, one has a man spanking his wife if she does not purchase Chase and Sanborn coffee. “It’s nice to have a girl around the house” was the caption of another showing a man with his foot on the back of a woman’s head while she’s lying on a floor — a message somehow associated with Mr. Leggs Slacks. Outrageous and unimaginable today, but common in the mid-20th century. Misogyny abounded.
In 1950, domestic abuse was not considered a crime. It was a family matter, not considered against the law unless it went too far. If anything, it was deemed appropriate to keep the “little woman” in her place.
The median age of first marriage in the 1950s was just over 20. Today’s women marry around age 28, a seismic change. In the 1950s, women were essentially limited to three occupations — teaching, nursing and airline stewardesses. All work providing service. Today, women are employed in countless occupations.
Fewer than 24 percent of women attended college in 1950. They now fill 58 percent of the corridors of higher education. The Equal Rights Amendment may have been defeated, but the feminist evolution has never stopped.
Of course, women have always been strong. The evidence of the last 70 years has verified that their intelligence and skills were generally hidden behind the scene and seldom given credit when it was due.
In the middle of the last century, however, the definition of a woman was clear. Marriage was primary. Being a mother and dutiful and obedient wife were standards of the day. A majority of today’s young women would bristle at such a definition.
Meanwhile, the definition of maleness has stagnated. Manliness for many men, especially on the political right, continues to mean strong, silent, independent, stoic and rugged. In other words, boys don’t cry and are certainly not “girly.”
A pillar of manliness has always been “not female” — read weak and subservient. As women’s identity has come to include independence and strength, the definition of manliness becomes more uncertain, causing many men and some traditional women anger and frustration. Therein lies an underlying (but not readily omitted) dissatisfaction for those unhappy with the gender direction of our country. Leaders of the Republican Party have sensed that discontent and cultivated it to their political advantage.
Hence, we do not see attacks on women who are a political force. Instead, we see attacks on transgender bathroom rights, efforts to ban books in our schools, an initiative that would suppress many gender-related texts, and the false linking of the LGBT community to pedophilia. The diverse minority groups under attack are neither powerful nor numerous, but they are easy targets to rile up the discontent of those unhappy with the direction of the country.
Don’t be fooled by Republican proclamations to protect our children. The real message is to protect their manhood, something many in the Republicans’ political base feel is slipping away. Something the leaders of the Republican Party are counting on for political advantage.