Sunday, March 8, 2009

International Women's Day

In the beginning, God created man. Like all inventors, God saw that improvements could be made on the original model and thus created woman.

Man believed he was the stronger, more intelligent of the two and dominated the woman for centuries. There were woman along the way who managed to distinguish themselves, but for the most part it was the male who ruled the home, church, business and political worlds.

Women were not allowed to vote or own property. If they did get any type of job, it was usually as a servant or possibly a teacher - but those jobs were left behind if they married, as they were then expected to take care of their husband, his home and raise his children. Any other type of job that women had was usually within a family type business.

It wasn't really until the last 150 years or so that things slowly started to change and women began to take their rightful place in society as equals to men. The women slowly but surely asserted themselves and found a voice to express themselves. They fought for the right to own property and businesses. They fought for the right to vote, They fought for better education and for basic human rights.

During times of war, the women were expected to do the more labour intensive work that the males had done. When the men returned, the women were expected to quietly return to their domestic lives and allow the man to resume the lead role as head of the household. Not all women were willing to bow out so gracefully. They were thriving in the new found freedoms and wanted to find a way to work side by side with the men not under them.

Women were finding ways to open more and more opportunities for personal and professional fulfillment. They began careers in business, science, medicine, sports, theater, arts, religion and politics. These were the groundbreaking pioneers who challenged the societal norms of the day and over time proved, beyond the shadow of a doubt that a woman could do anything a man could do. They were no longer destined to a life of servitude to their master or husband.

As I grew up in the 1960's and early 1970's, I remember hearing about the women's right movement, but as I lived in a small Canadian prairie community, it didn't seem that relevant to me. I never really understood just how little freedom women around the world really had or why they wanted things to change.

One of the earliest double standards for men and women that I recall in my own life was in about grade 8. The school I attended (Grades 7-12) had a dress code. The girls had to wear skirts/dresses. We were allowed to wear dress pants from November through March when the weather was cold. The boys, on the other hand, were allowed to wear blue jeans as long as they were not torn or badly faded. We tried to rally enough support to change the rules, but this was a conservative farming community and old morals/habits don't change easily. Many of us would change during noon hour or after classes just to express our discontent. Some of the guys supported the changes we wanted, but many didn't see what the big deal was.

My maternal grandmother was a home economist. My maternal grandfather was an agricultural representative. Even after they married in 1920 and started a family, they still traveled and worked together. He would teach the men more about farming and she would teach the women more about food preparation, storage, sewing and other aspects of running the home. She was a wife, mother and working woman. She was also one of the first women to serve on a local school board. I later realized that even though she was teaching women within the confines of a domestic world, she was still a groundbreaking woman in that she worked and served outside the home even though she was married.

Some women never had much of a choice but to work. If they never married, were widowed or their husband was unable to work, they had to find a way to support themselves and their families.

The women of the various women's rights and liberation movements of the past 100 years or so, really changed things for the better. Their dreams, foresight, strength and tenacity paved the way for the freedoms that most women take for granted today.

We have the right to vote, own property and hold political offices. We have the right to higher education and any job a man can have. Many of us live in society's where we have the right to choose and the freedom to express ourselves. Not all women choose to work outside of the home - and there is nothing wrong with that choice - as long as it is their choice and not one that has been forced upon them by their culture/religion/spouse.

Not all women are that fortunate. There are still countless women around the world how are not allowed to think for themselves, express their own desires/needs or even be seen in public without a head covering and/or in the presence of a husband/male relative. There are still pockets of society that believe in the barbaric and often life threatening practices of female genital mutilation. It is heartbreaking to see so many women still being treated like this.

If you think that these things are only happening in third world countries you are wrong. There are women who are living in our own communities who are treated as second class citizens. There are women who have been programmed from birth that they are worthless without a man or if they do not have children. There are still religious and cultural groups here in North America that believe in the old adage of a woman should be pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen. Some are not allowed to vote or be educated past grade 9 or 10. There are countless men who still choose to emotional berate and physically abuse a woman who will not do his bidding.

They still live among us.

We all lead such busy lives, as we try to balance relationships, family and career. Women really have come a long way. We enjoy more freedoms and opportunities than any other generation. It is also important not to forget those who helped to make this life possible and to do whatever we can to make life better for other women who aren't as fortunate as we are.

I was rather late finding my way to the women's rights movement. Ironically it was a very enlightened male friend who opened my heart and mind to the sad realities, hardships and cruelties that so many of my sisters still face on a daily basis. He leant me articles and books on women's rights and the peace movement. He took me to lectures, plays, films and concerts that that informed and also celebrated the lives of women around the world. He encouraged me to find my own voice and to take a stand when I believed in something.

Today, March 8, is International Women's Day. Take a little time to think about what we have achieved and what our lives would be like without out our many freedoms. If you can, find a way to support the women who aren't as fortunate as you and I.

We really have come a long way, but there is still more to be done. Until every woman has the freedom and right to education, healthcare, hold any job at equal pay, vote and stand up for what she believes in - then there is still work to be done.


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