THE STATUS OF WOMEN IN THE WORLD TODAY
Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution, women in Europe and North America have made considerable progress towards equality with men, although much remains still to be done. Of course, the industrialization of Western countries at first had not improved the status of women, but had degraded them even further by exploiting them and their children in factories as cheap labor.
In the preceding relatively prosperous agrarian culture women had worked on an almost equal footing with men and had been skilled in many occupations. Families were still “producing units“, and women received recognition for contributing their substantial share. The factory system changed all that by breaking up the traditional extended family with its large household and by giving people specialized monotonous tasks behind perpetually moving machines.
Women and children were, however, paid much less for such work than men, and thus their economic “value” declined. It took many decades of struggle before unionization and legal reform ended the crassest form of this discrimination.
Their husbands no longer worked inside the house, but were absent during most of the day. These idle women often played the role of frail, sensitive creatures who had “the vapors” and fainted in any “indelicate” situation.
On the other hand, many of them also became critical of their position in society. They found time to devote themselves to various religious and moral causes and even to become interested in abolition and the women’s rights movement.
Eventually, both working-class and bourgeois women insisted on change and contributed to the success of feminism. This success still is not total, and, as we all know, even in the industrialized countries women continue to fight for equal rights.
Today, however, in addition to economic issues, problems of sexual self-determination have come to the foreground.
It must be remembered, of course, that the relatively ‘liberated and affluent women of Europe and North America‘ are only a small minority of women in the world today.
Women in many non-Western countries, and especially in the so-called Third World generally live in a state of subjection and misery. Most of their energy is consumed by a hard and unrelenting struggle for sheer survival.
Thus, for them, any talk about “sexual liberation” in the Western sense sounds, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, frivolous.
Their concerns are more elementary and more pressing. This became disturbingly obvious, for example, when, in 1975, the United Nations sponsored an “International Women’s Conference” in Mexico City.
UN Resolution 1325
This resolution on “Women, Peace and Security” passed on October 31, 2000 which states that women should be involved whenever there are issues of peace and security to be decided: in prevention, resolution, and the aftermath of conflict.
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It also revealed a stark global picture: More than a Billion Women (i.e., the majority of the world’s female population) live in poor, rural areas. Most of them are illiterate, malnourished, exhausted, or even ill, and are forced to work long hours for little reward. Naturally, men share many of these hardships, but women still bear the greatest burden.
In nearly all “underdeveloped” countries, boys are favored over girls from the moment of birth, since parents consider sons as a guarantee for their economic security in old age. Girls, on the other hand, marry into some other family. Thus, even under conditions of abject poverty, boys are better fed, clothed, and educated than girls.
In emergencies and in case of natural disasters, female needs also take second place. Furthermore, in many poor countries women have few rights and are early given away in marriage with hardly a voice in the matter. Backbreaking work and constant pregnancies then keep them weak and dependent.
Attempts by governments and international agencies to raise the general standard of living in poor communities may well have the opposite effect on women by increasing their workload. Under such depressing circumstances, “women’s liberation” has a special meaning and, indeed, poses a challenge to the women’s movement in the rich and powerful West. Some of the poor countries have, in the meantime, made great strides toward economic progress and, in some cases, such as in the People’s Republic of China, a considerable degree of sexual equality has been achieved.
It is also interesting to note that in recent times some “developing” nations, such as India, Sri Lanka, and Israel have chosen women as heads of state, an example that still waits to be emulated in Europe and America. On the whole, one might say that the emancipation of women is no longer a “Western” issue, and that its global implications are increasingly being recognized.
There also seems little doubt that the demand for sexual equality will persist until it has fully been granted everywhere.
LEGAL – ILLEGAL
Where the violation of sexual norms is defined as a legal problem, sexual conformity and sexual deviance are seen as respect for the law and crime. Conforming sexual behavior is “correct”, “law-abiding”, and “legal”.
Deviant behavior is “offensive”, “criminal”, and “illegal”.
There is, of course, no question that certain kinds of sexual behavior have to be prohibited by law, because they involve force, fraud, violence, or exploitation, or take place in front of unwilling witnesses.
The victims of such behavior are clearly justified in demanding legal protection, and virtually all human societies try to fulfill this demand, at least for their “important” members.
In short, no society can survive very long without a certain minimum of sex legislation.
However, there have been societies in which large numbers of people were deliberately left unprotected even against the most brutal forms of sexual assault.
In these societies, the law served only the powerful and privileged and was, in fact, nothing more than a tool of class justice. Thus, slaves and serfs often were “fair game” for their masters. Sometimes, members of religious or racial minorities also were denied their full human rights and could be sexually abused by the majority without fear of punishment.
On the other hand, most modern societies which are devoted to “equal protection under the law” take great pains to punish all sexual abuse, no matter who the offender. Indeed, in their zeal to make the world “safe” for everyone, they sometimes over legislate and create sexual offenses where otherwise none would exist.
Thus, they end up protecting not only the righteous from the wicked, or the wicked from each other, but also the righteous from themselves. That is to say, when the sex laws begin to extend to “victim-less crime“, they take on a totalitarian character and may themselves victimize many good people.
Still, even the most zealous lawmaker must leave many forms of sexual wrongdoing unpunished. For example, husbands and wives who use sex as a means to degrade each other, parents who keep their children sexually ignorant, teachers who frighten their students with lies about masturbation, or clergymen who call for the persecution of sexual nonconformists may do a great deal of harm. Nevertheless, they are not regarded as sex criminals, and it is doubtful whether any specific law could control them.
All of this leaves us with two conclusions:
1. Law and morality are not the same thing. Undoubtedly, the two are somehow related, but the relationship is not a direct one. Some immoral sex acts may be entirely legal, while certain moral sex acts may be illegal.
2. One cannot simply assume that the purpose of sex legislation is to provide physical or emotional protection. After all, as we have seen, some dangerous behavior may be legal, and harmless behavior may be illegal.
How, then, are we going to find the “true” reasons behind our often puzzling sex laws? Or, in other words, what is the real basis on which societies determine the legality or illegality of sexual behavior? Perhaps we can arrive at an answer by taking a brief look at history.
REFERENCE AND RECOMMENDED READING
Barker-Benfield, G. J. The Horrors of the Half-Known Life. New York: Harper & Row 1976.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. New York: Knopf, 1953 (cloth); Random Vintage, 1974 (paper),
WOMAN OF ACTION: Friedan, Betty. The Feminine Mystique, 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 1974 (cloth); Dell, 1975 (paper).
Kanowitz, Leo. Women and the Law: The Unfinished Revolution. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1969 (paper).
Money, John and Tucker, Patricia. Sexual Signatures: On Being a Man or a Woman. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.
Papachristou, Judith, ed. Women Together: A History in Documents of the Women’s Movement in the United States. New York: Knopf, 1976.
Ross, Susan C. The Rights of Women; The Basic ACLU Guide to a Woman’s Rights. New York: Avon, 1973,
Rossi, Alice S., ed. The Feminist Papers: From Adams to Beauvoir, New York: Columbia U. Press, 1973 (cloth); Bantam, 1974 (paper).
Russell, Diana E. H., and Van de Ven, Nicole. Crimes Against Women: Proceedings of the International Tribunal. Millbrae, Cal.: Les Femmes Press, 1977.
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