The Good Old Days

Now, I love vintage ’50s fashion as much as the next girl and I’m positively delirious with excitement about Season 5 of Mad Men, but this might be a good time to take a little non-ironic stroll down memory lane to see the workaday sexism and sheer juvenilia that defined attitudes to women in my mother’s generation.

From Newsweek vintage ads

I was born in 1963, so by the time I got to high school, it was okay for a girl to dream of being an astronaut (though Sally Ride didn’t actually get to be an astronaut until the 1980s.) But I do remember having to wear dresses to school until about third grade and believing there were lots of exciting things girls just couldn’t do. My mom received a free magazine in the mail called “Doctor’s Wife.” (It came with samples of amphetamines, too, but that’s a story for another day.)

My mother had a Betty Crocker cookbook that advised young brides, among other things, to “try to think of interesting things to captivate your husband at dinner time.” The caption featured a cartoon woman in a housecoat puzzling at a cat stuck in a tree. The cookbook also advised house wives to lie down and nap on the kitchen floor when they tired of mopping. Even my mother, who married at age 20, had enough self esteem to ask why she couldn’t take a nap on her damned bed if she wanted to.

I don’t know when feminism fell out of favor but I think it might be time for a refresher course. The word, “feminist” used to be normative on college campuses and, as Gloria Steinem points out, the dictionary definition hasn’t changed. But it has certainly assumed a new meaning. Young people seem to think of feminists the same way they do people who haven’t kept pace with contemporary hair grooming practices: they’re unfashionable and kind of repellant.

I know it represents progress that people don’t understand why women – who comprise more than half of all college students and have broken down most important barriers – feel the need to fight for their rights. But make no mistake, ladies (and that’s irony-free), you’d better snap to attention right-quick because there are a lot of men (and women, too) who want to roll back your rights.

I just read the chilling news that the Colorado house of representatives has passed a “First Degree Homicide of the Unborn Child Bill,” which will make most terminations of pregnancy and use of the morning after-pill a homicide. It also conveys personhood to a newly fertilized egg. Presumably, though no one talks about it, people undergoing fertility treatments will also be prosecuted for first degree murder since IVF involves the loss of plenty of fertilized eggs and embryos.

This is one of 135 bills nationwide limiting reproductive rights this year. Others include a Kansas bill that allows doctors to withhold medical information from pregnant women that might give them any cause to consider abortion and absolves the doctors of any malpractice suits from such withholdings. (The only exception is if the withholding results in the mother’s death, in which case a lawsuit may be possible. Nice.) And there’s a New Hampshire bill that instructs doctors to tell women, falsely, that abortions cause breast cancer, a claim that has been repudiated by scores of health organizations, including the WHO.

I respect the diversity of views on abortion and personally find the high prevalence of unintended pregnancy and abortion in the U.S. unacceptable. But I wonder what will happen when people’s beliefs and behaviors collide, as they always do. What will happen if contraception is even harder to access or even criminalized? What will happen if women start to die from unsafe abortions and we discover, as we’ve seen in Latin America, that criminalizing abortion does not, actually, reduce it.

I’m old enough to remember the good old days when people took a martini “for the road” before driving home from a party. I’m also old enough to have a father who saw women bleed to death from botched abortions when he trained as an obstetrician-gynecologist.

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director/author. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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