Where are we going, where have we been: The history of feminism, suffragettes to millineals, is about the women and the men who established the measures of women’s rights to determine the use of their bodies, and civil rights bringing equality and access to the role of women in the world. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Bill, there is the challenge to reduce those rights that is not a whisper but a roar in forty state bills in process that would limit not just abortion, but birth control. The barefoot frontrunners are the women who have led and continue to provide the path to equality, stepping out on unpaved road to bring the gains of equality and dignity to humanity. Nobel Laureate Nelson Mandela stated “freedom cannot be achieved unless the women have been emancipated from all forms of oppression.” Women’s rights are human rights and the only future for humanity.
Where we have been is the story: the historical context of the sexual and political advances of women and their intimate stories as they lived through this period of change inside and out. Where we are going is to carry forward the feminism that addresses the betterment of humanity. What has been given by the previous generation falls on the next to maintain and move forward.
There are many definitions of feminism, for the purposes of Barefoot frontrunners, the inclusion of all, men or women, who seek equality and dignity for all human beings is a good place to start. The history of women’s rights as lived through by the women, from Baby Boomers to millenials, here and throughout the world is fresh terrain. Those women had the benefit of women’s rights in 1965 through a civil rights act, but brought the possibilities from the act into their lives and may or may not be aware of how those benefits came to be. The Barefoot frontrunners took on the rough terrain and found their way through trial and error to establish their lives.
Another aspect to the showing the history, social and political, of sexual liberation are their personal and intimate stories. The women’s movement as seen through the historians, like Ruth Rosen of University of California and Estelle Freedman of Stanford is still the essential to the education and representation of feminism throughout the world. The work is not done, but in process. As Estelle Freedman states it, feminism has been a middle class phenomena and has not reached into the areas of the world where women suffering poverty and lack of education.
The continuum of this process of feminism corresponds to the level of humanity and dignity world wide. The story of the barefoot frontrunners, where we are and how we got here, and where we need to go to expand women’s rights is the content and the perspective of this work.
The value of the stories of the women is to reflect the process of feminism is ongoing, showing up in different parts of our society. These stories of the women who came through the sexual and political liberation of the past fifty years. The work of feminism for the women who found their freedom and self expression reminds those who do not know the history, personal or political, the cost born by those who came first to these new interpretations of being a woman. The women born in 1940 who responded to the invitation to be interviewed in every case had triumphed over the conditions, limitations, obstacles, hardships and disappointments. There are many women who would have a different perspective and a different outcome, but this self selected group represents the positive deviants of the women who came through the sociopolitical changes of the past fifty years relative to their being a woman.
Positive deviance by definition is a description of those at one end of the continuum: those who thrive, are inspired by and engaged with satisfaction in a process that could produce a variety of results, like women’s rights. The fuller picture of those turning 70 would entail inclusion of conditions resulting from limitations of access, opportunity and education and a range of issues related to health, social or marital, economic disparity.
What these women interviewed for Barefoot Frontrunners brought to the perspective was in fact that conditions of health and well being, education and economic vitality indicated either the positive or negative outcome of aging. One aspect that was evident was that the women interviewed identified as being innovative and open to a variety of ways to problem solve. Those interviewed came from a group that meets monthly for over 35 years. Rarely the same people attend, they are from all over the country, all ages, all stages, middle class the common denominator is being willing to risk exposure by presenting their question, and open to discovery in terms of the response they get from the group.
From this aggregate, the women who stepped forward relished the opportunity to tell their story though they were clear about the condition of anonymity as an interview process subject. Consistently, as is probably self evident in their volunteering for the research, they were pleased with their current state of well being with a sense of security in the world.
Still they reported that for each gain, each law, each standard, there were challenges; they described obstacles, obstructions, imposed limitations prior to sexual and political freedom, and then the new problems that came with civil rights and affirmative action. They reflected on their responsibility in defining new paths. Each spoke of not wanting a life “like my mother” in one form or another. But they didn’t know what would be asked of them with new freedom, and if they could meet the needs of the situations they encountered. They reported both significant losses and thrilling gains in their passage through the years of social change.
THE HISTORICAL TIMELINE: 1940-1965
All the significant changes in law and policy have happened in the past 49 years for women, most specifically the pivotal year of 1964 when birth control became accessible through the work of Margaret Sanger who opened the first women’s clinic in 1939 and is the founder of Planned Parenthood. The addition of women’s rights to the civil rights act in 1965 became the law of the land, not necessarily the law in practice.
CHANGE AND TRANSFORMATION
How did civil rights and birth control impact women? Unlike today with the ongoing 24/7 news of every place in the world and every significant news item publicized on our phones, on our computers with the newspaper being the slow route, not all women knew or participated in the process of gaining the benefits of women’s rights. Change is chaotic, and the path and the directions for living life through the transitions and conflict was welcomed and experienced by some, not all women, or men in the late 60’s. It was a time of challenging sexual roles by both men and women. Ultimately the civil rights act and affirmative action sought to provide a more level playing ground. Given the mothers of the women born in the 40’s could not drive, own property or have access to birth control, this new world of opportunities to discern one’s own choices was confronting to many women.
Prior to this period of liberation, women were taken in and cared for in the event of loss of husband by extended family and churches. Those days were before FDR and the New Deal with public policies to aid the family. Divorce was rare, most often the father just went away and left the family. So change looked risky, liberation and freedom were concepts not all women embraced. So some women led, some followed and some watched the black and white television reports of women aggressively speaking of equal rights in the 1960’s and didn’t identify with the process at all. Alongside the women who made the changes happen, these women also are barefoot frontrunners.
The Barefoot Frontrunner
A profile emerges of who the barefoot frontrunners are today and throughout history. She breaks the rules, finds her own path, and leads to places without the benefit of social agreement as well as those where there are legal grounds, but little social approval. The Barefoot Frontrunner’s response to the pain in the world is to take the step out and towards a place lacking support, guidance or protection. The indignities and injuries of the world are made visible by their simple acts of courage. The Barefoot Frontrunner takes their vision of the world, and expands the awareness and discomfort of the world to inequality and indignity. Feminism has always been about reform, a social reform: reform of prisons, a reform to temperance, equal pay, equal access to education and inclusion in academia and the job market. Feminism has always been about women and men who seek equality through change. Changes always come in response to the cracks in the solidity of positions held in society. The struggle over the Viet Nam war and racism provided the conflict and a dawning consciousness that led to the heightened cohesion and action of the women’s movement to facilitate women’s rights.
WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE
16.1 million Americans were drafted into World War II on average for sixteen months. Their jobs in the shipyards, in the factories, on the farms were taken by women who were needed for the war effort. Rosie the Riveter is symbolic of all the women who took the jobs for the men who entered the war. Workers’ rights came about during this period of time in the ship factories of Richmond, California, as well as other locations. Many of the women who came to California left South Carolina, Georgia and Texas because of the jobs available to women at that time. Those workers’ rights gained disappeared once the soldiers returned to their jobs. Women were sent home in 1945, and the FHA single family homes launched a new era of independence and relocation for many. The return of the vets and the single family home purchases and baby boom boosted the sagging economy post World War II.
The VA loans for all the soldiers who returned offered access to home purchases and college entry allowing social mobility producing the bustling 1950’s. How were the women faring shows up could be a factor in the highest recorded level of alcoholism attributed to dissatisfaction that showed up in the mental and physical health of women . Masters and Johnsons (Sexual History) Chapter 4) did a significant study on the sexual dysfunctions of unhappy wives. Not directly concerned with their unhappiness, but wanting to have the women more responsive to their roles of wife and mother.
It would be the Viet Nam war that allowed women to come out of their homes again in the mid 1960’s. Protests, and the Anti-war and civil rights movements brought women together. Reform of the war that was killing so many of America’s youth in Viet Nam, and the tragedies of three young girls in a Babtist Church in Alabama provoked the women participating in the anti war and civil rights protests. They began talking to each other and noticed they were relegated to “women’s work of getting coffee and the paper work done” and began to invest themselves in the Women’s Movement. Also at this time, the Commission of Women’s Issues which President John F Kennedy brought into existence produced a document identifying 47 Sexual Injuries to women in the work place and in the home. This group would ultimately leave the government and throw their considerable skills in public life to the work of the Women’s Movement. ( Ruth Rosen: The World Split Open )
Meanwhile Betty Frieden’s The Feminine Mystique challenged women to consider a whole other level of understanding about their sexuality. For those women, their roles, society’s view of them and the contradictions they experienced, a new awareness of themselves emerged. It was far from comfortable, particularly women towards women, to challenge the a priori of what was considered to be a successful woman at that time. Those that did respond led themselves on a path with no guaranteed destination. Without protection or structure, barefoot frontrunners, these women were ridiculed in the news reports as unfeminine, with family members who distanced themselves from their “strident and bossy” ways. Even within the Women’s Movement, there was considerable conflict over what it meant to be liberated and who was and who wasn’t truly free. In the fray of these conflicts, tv show hosts and comedians made light of the struggle.
For the majority of non urban women who were not in a college environment, there was no real understanding or knowledge of the need for the struggle underway, no way to assimilate what seemed alien to what they knew from the world around them. The effect on these women was to distance themselves from the stereotype feminists. As some made new decisions, taking on new responsibilities and dealing with the hard work of establishing new identities, most women at that time steered clear of the conflict within themselves as well as the building of external pressure from a changing society.
For all women, recognition of the doors opened with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Chapter 6) and Affirmative Action which brought more women into college and into jobs previously not available to them. Life was changing across the United States, but most emphatically in California, New York and Chicago.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Women’s rights – feminism is a work in progress. The conditions for the values and practices of women’s rights are unevenly distributed outside the United States and within. Those conditions that enhance the developments of feminism, that is equality and dignity to all people, are reducing poverty and making education available for all women in addition to having sexual education and responsibility in the hands of women and their choices about the use of their bodies.
Women have come a long way. More women entered college as early as 1975, and that is the standard now. Women have entered business and political life with success since the 80’s aided by the Affirmative Action policies of the late 70’s. An equal number of women are head of households currently as their male partners, and 40% of the family incomes have women contributing equally to the household income. Marriage is a choice, having children is a choice for women young and older today.(Chapter 5) Women have their own 401K’s, their own health insurance. as the Barefoot frontrunners sample survey indicates, women of social security age, most are self supporting, and will work for the remainder of their lives. The past fifty years of women’s rights have changed the rules and the roles, but not for women in the areas of poor education and poverty anywhere in the United States. Not for the women in countries where education of girls is prohibited.
THE WAR ON WOMEN
Today 40 states are attempting to reduce women’s rights through bills that outlaw birth control as well as abortion. Most incongruous is the fact that abortions have diminished by 40% at the lowest level in thirty years because Planned Parenthood, schools and public awareness has given the means for girls and women to be responsible for potential pregnancies. Therefore, the attempt to do away with birth control and abortion would only damage the increasing number of girls and women who are being responsible for pregnancy and disease.
Going back to the future is not a destination to aspire to. It’s important that women coming along are aware of the need to carry forward of the work of previous generations to the freedoms earned by women today. For the younger generations, gen x-ers or millineals for example, the work of the earlier generations gave them the women’s rights they have always had. It may not be clear that all the changes that occurred for women and minorities were hard won and at a significant cost, and relatively recent, and sometimes an accidental gain.(Chapter 2) . They may or may not be aware of the fact that Planned Parenthood has been around as long as the quest for freedom and equality for women has been, and has served with dignity and respect women, men and our communities with education and treatment.
So it is the Barefoot frontrunners
The purpose of this book is to provide that history, convey the challenges that have been and still are of concern to women, and the society we all say we want. Those women in our history and in our world who demand going forward, bringing equality and civil rights to women through politics and education throughout the world are the barefoot frontrunners. That is the future, the transformation, that leads from the vision of inclusion, rather than exclusion, -collaboration rather than competition and sustainability rather than opportunistic use of resources shared by society. The work ahead will have much more gravitas and meaning if we understand the past, how the gains have been made that have profoundly impacted the opportunities and choice provided by women’s rights.(Chapter 10) These gains from the voices and actions of women unwilling to tolerate
conditions that violated personal dignity and potential are ours to continue, ours to guarantee.
Gloria Steinem: A feminist is anyone who recognizes the equality and full humanity of women and men.