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Friday, September 28, 2007


The role of women

Amidst all the hubbub over what Ahmadinejad said (or didn't say, depending on one's interpretation) at Columbia about homosexuals, what he had to say there and at the U.N. (PDF) about women was barely mentioned. At Columbia, it was the classical, Biblical view of women on a pedestal: "Women are the best creatures created by God. They represent the kindness, the beauty that God instills in them." At the U.N., he started his speech discussing the "challenges facing mankind." #2 was "Widespread violations of human rights, terrorism, and occupation." And #1, the place he started his speech? "Organized attempts to destroy the institution of the family and to weaken the status of women." Yes, on "social issues" he'd be quite comfortable on a stage with the Republican Presidential candidates, although unlike half of them, he at least believes in evolution (I think!).

But I'm not writing this to insult religious fundamentalism; that's an easy target. No, I'm writing this because the other day I was browsing through a bookstore and picked up a copy of Bill Bryson's latest book, "The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid," which is his portrait of growing up in the '50s in the United States (something I share with Bryson). And what did I read in the very first chapter, which reminds us in the West that if you think people like Ahmadinejad (and the right-wing in America) are living in another century, you're right, but it isn't the 16th century, it's the 20th? This: "Up until Pearl Harbor, half of the 48 states had laws making it illegal to employ a married woman." So the next time you're looking down your nose at another culture or even part of your own, try looking in a mirror. Or a history book.

I first become politically active not the antiwar movement, but in the women's movement in the early 70's. One of the key figures in the struggle at that time was Bill Baird. Baird was imprisoned in 1965 and 1966 (hardly ancient history; I was a senior in high school) for teaching birth control and distributing abortion literature in New York & New Jersey; and was the central figure behind the Supreme Court decision of Eisenstadt v. Baird, which allowed unmarried people the right to use birth control...in 1972 (following the 1965 case of Griswold v. Connecticut which provided the same right for married couples).

No, neither of these examples is in the same league as stoning someone to death for adultery, say. But they do remind us that the "superior" Western culture has its own history (and present!) of reactionary attitudes and laws as well.

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