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Archive for February, 2012

Minor Sexist Irks

While talking with someone today, I was reminded of something sexist that happened to me a little over thirty years ago.  It’s not all that important, but I remember how it irked me at the time, so I decided to share it here, just for the hell of it.

Early in 1981, I gave birth to my one and only child.  During my stay at the hospital, I was asked to give the information for my son’s birth certificate.   They didn’t give me much flak for having a surname different from my then-husband, because the format was to fill out the mother’s name with her “maiden” name, anyway.

Rather unexpectedly, the problem came with filling out the category for “occupation”.  At the time of my son’s birth, I was unemployed, because I’d given up my most recent job when I got to a certain point in my pregnancy.  It wasn’t a big deal, as the job wasn’t one I cared about staying with, in any instance.  I intended to get another once my son was around two or three months old.

When I told them I was unemployed, they put me down as a “housewife”.  Considering that I was not the one solely responsible for cooking and cleaning and other such duties, and that my unemployment was only temporary, I corrected them.  They told me they couldn’t put me down as unemployed.  I countered by asking what they would have listed my husband as if he didn’t have a job.  Would they list him as a “househusband”?  They said, no, he’d be listed as unemployed.  That’s when it hit the fan for me.

But no matter how much I objected, they refused to list me as unemployed.  The only concession I got from them was to change the word “housewife” to “homemaker”, as I wasn’t married to a house.  Never mind that my husband, who came from a large family, could both cook and clean better than I could at the time.

I know it’s not very important in the grand scheme of things, but it must have been important to them if they insisted so adamantly not to do as I’d requested.

I’d be curious to know if any women who have given birth more recently have ever encountered anything like this before.

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The French government has recently announced that women will no longer be required to indicate their marital status on official documents by identifying themselves as Madame or Mademoiselle.  Prime Minister Francois Fillion ordered that Mademoiselle, used to denote a single woman, was no longer to be used and that all women, regardless of marital status, would henceforth be known as “Madame”.  This ruling came after French feminists had campaigned for years for its removal.

It was also announced that the term “maiden name” would be replaced with “family name” on all official document forms.

As I said in a recent post about courtesy titles, I prefer the re-purposing of existing forms of address to solve the issue of  having a title for women that indicates sex alone without also indicating marital status to the creation of a new title for that purpose.  I won’t rehash that argument again here, except to say that the creation of Ms is to courtesy title equity what civil unions are to the cause of same sex marriage.

I’m glad that the French chose to follow the German example of re-purposing existing titles, rather than the awkward English speaking solution of making up a brand new title.  The Germans did what the French are now doing forty years ago and it’s worked out well for them. It’s too bad we can’t go back and do it this way, too.

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Now that  we’re well ensconced in the 21st century, it’s astounded and disheartened me that not only are the right wingers continuing their campaign to chip away at abortion rights, as they’ve been doing since 1973; they are now targeting birth control as well.

The Virginia legislature has passed a bill that would compel women seeking abortions to undergo a medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound.  In my opinion, the purpose of this unnecessary penetration is simply to induce shame and humiliation, in the hopes of discouraging women from getting an abortion at all.

Similarly, fetal “personhood” bills have been introduced in a few states that would give a fertilized egg full human rights, which would have the result of making some forms of birth control illegal.

To get an idea of the mindset behind these campaigns, billionaire Santorum backer Foster Friess said in defense of Santorum’s opposition to birth control, “This contraception thing, my gosh it’s so inexpensive. Back in my day they used Bayer aspirin for contraceptives, the gals (sic)  put it between their knees and it wasn’t that costly.”

Seriously?  Someone is making comments like that in 2012?

Perhaps the most chilling thing was last week’s House hearings about insurance coverage of birth control, at which no women were able to testify; who are the only people who would be affected by such a law.

And in the most recent example of anti-woman batshittery,  Indiana Republican Rep. Bob Morris has attacked the Girl Scouts.  Yes, the Girl Scouts, a hundred year old girls’ organization long respected by nearly all Americans, regardless of their political beliefs.  Voting against a resolution that would honor the organization on its 100th anniversary. Morris said the Girl Scouts were a “tactical arm” of Planned Parenthood, and are “bent on promoting communism, lesbianism and subverting “traditional American family values.”   Shades of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson much?

So far as abortion and birth control are concerned, one would think that someone who deplores abortion would support birth control because the proper use of birth control drastically reduces the number of abortions, as women who use it don’t get pregnant in the first place.

The birth control pill is also used to regulate a variety of women’s health issues, some of which can be debilitating if left untreated — it’s not just to prevent pregnancy.  Planned Parenthood also offers preventive measures against STDs as well as treatment, with only 3% of its budget going to abortion services.

But opposition to abortion and birth control isn’t really about saving babies.  Rather the unstated goal is to remove a woman’s control over her own fertility.  Much of the discrimination against women has generally been based on the fact that, until the 2oth century, women were at the mercy of their reproductive systems for much of their adult lives, which gave men an excuse to discriminate against them in activities that took them away from their roles as mothers.

After World War II and especially after the 1965 Supreme Court ruling that removed bans on contraception and the 1973 ruling that made safe abortion legal, the skids were kicked out from under most of the reasons for sex discrimination.  Those on the right wing quickly understood that the key to the independence of women and the freedom for women to deal with men and society on their own terms rested on the ability to control their fertility, hence the push to remove this control.

What some of them don’t realize though, is that there’s a downside to this for men, too.  I can’t imagine that many men are keen to return to the days when any sexual encounter with a woman could result in a baby.  And this isn’t just the men in bars seeking one night stands.  It’s the married fathers who can’t afford to support another child, and the ones who, along with their wives, have decided that they just don’t want more — or any at all.

In a faltering economy on a planet groaning with overpopulation, to restrict or deny women access to contraception or abortion isn’t just sexist, it’s shameful and irresponsible.

Similarly, Bob Morris’ condemnation of the Girl Scouts indicates that  he hates them because they teach girls to think for themselves and that they can grow up to be whatever they choose to work to be, instead of indoctrinating them into being future Stepford Wives. It’s also interesting that he’s not accusing the Boy Scouts of turning boys gay, but that’s the old double standard at work again.

At this point, I’d not be surprised if they tried to have a woman’s right to vote rescinded next.  To those who think this is totally farfetched, I will leave you with a quote from Ann Coulter:

If we took away women’s right to vote, we’d never have to worry about another Democrat president. It’s kind of a pipe dream, it’s a personal fantasy of mine, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.

I’m guessing she’s thinking they’d make an exception for her or that she doesn’t consider herself a woman.

In any instance the bar for batshittery seems to getting lower all the time.

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Up until the late 1960s, all English speaking women used courtesy titles that indicated their marital status: Miss or Mrs, while all men, regardless of marital status, used Mr.  Feminists of this time  pointed out the inequality of such a system where a man’s title simply denoted his sex, while women’s titles denoted her relationship to a man or lack thereof, along with her sex.  To correct this lopsided situation, the title “Ms” was invented to correspond to Mr in that it would refer only to a woman’s sex, regardless of marital status.  I’m guessing the idea was that Ms would eventually replace Mrs and Miss, with these older titles gradually fading away through disuse.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t turned out quite like that.  Ms caught on fairly quickly with younger single women and those of a liberal bent, but many married women of more conservative leanings much preferred the traditional title of Mrs.  Similarly, many older women who had never married clung to Miss.  In the entertainment arena, there had been a long tradition of calling all female celebrities Miss, a practice that is still quite common.

Now, more than forty years after the introduction of Ms,  Mrs and Miss are still going strong, though Ms is now firmly established, despite courtesy titles being used less often in daily life nowadays.  Though usage varies in different countries, regions, classes, ages, and social groups, the way it’s generally panned out is that Ms has largely replaced Miss for adult single women and is used by most divorced women.  Though Ms enjoys some usage among married women, Mrs is still widely used.

So, instead of having one title for all women, as was originally intended, we now have three.  And this brings the inevitable hassle of not knowing which one to use with a woman unless we ask her preference.  For men, it’s business as usual: one title for all men, with no hassles at all.

So, it’s still a lopsided system, despite the efforts of well-meaning people.

Along the same time that Ms was invented, German speaking countries came up with their own solution to this dilemma.  Instead of inventing a new title to add to the two already existing ones, they decided to re-purpose the ones they already had: Frau and Fraulein.   As in English, these titles originally distinguished between married and single women.  Around 1970 or so, it was decided that women’s titles would be based on age, rather than marital status, so all adult women would henceforth be referred to as Frau, while Fraulein would be only for girls.  It’s worked beautifully since that time.

I think English speaking countries would have done better if we’d followed the German pattern.  Re-purposing the existing titles to refer to age rather than marital status would have immediately created an equitable parallel to men, where Mr is for all adult men and the older, less-used title of Master was meant for boys.  There would be no hassle in trying to figure out which title a woman preferred, and it would likely have created less resistance among those of a more conservative bent, considering they were old established titles.

There is even a precedent in English for basing women’s titles on age, rather than strictly by marital status.  Up until the late 18th century, early 19th century, it was not at all uncommon to call women past a certain age Mistress, which is the word that the title Mrs is an abbreviation of. (That’s where that R comes from!).  At that time, Mistress was simply the female version of Mister, without any of the salacious connotations that it has today.

But I’m guessing it’s rather too late to switch to the common sense German system now.  It’s been more than forty years, so I suppose we’re stuck with the awkward, unwieldy, still-lopsided system of three titles for women and still just one for men.

Pity, really.

 

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