By Bob Litton
Note To Reader: This is another of those essays I wrote in a time long, long ago and in a place far, far away. However, I think it is still timely.
In the summer of 1977, while I was editor of a small weekly paper in the Texas Panhandle, I wrote a feature article about an 86-year-old woman who, it was said, had been the first girl born in the little town.
As a young woman she had attended a nearby college where she majored in art. Back in those days, I’m told, most young women who sought a higher education were in reality attending a “finishing school”. That is, they were improving their graces while awaiting a proposal of marriage. As soon as they got married, they packed away their palettes or, if music majors, relegated their talent to Sunday hymn-singing.
At any rate, that’s what this woman did. She quit painting. “I couldn’t stand the smell of the turpentine,” was her excuse to me. Apparently she never considered water colors.
She became what I call a “squaw”. She concentrated on home-making. She allowed her brain to atrophy by not using it for anything more complicated than preparing the weekly grocery list. She surrendered all judgments to her husband and a great deal of the conversation as well.
In fact, I had a difficult time getting the information for my article because every time I asked her a question, her husband would answer it. And most of his answers related more to what he had done than what she had done. The husband had had a rather interesting life of his own as one of the city’s leaders, but the story I had come for was about the woman and I was determined to get it.
One peculiar exception to this lady’s squawism was that she retained her membership in her own church. She was a Methodist and he a Baptist. Each Sunday for the 50-odd years of their marriage they had walked to separate churches to worship.
With that anecdote as background, perhaps you will understand why I am more pro-women’s rights (and obligations) even than many feminists. I want to see them paid the same as men for equal work and do the work. I’m glad to see them take responsible positions in political parties and in government. But, I want to see them fight in wars, too, pay the same insurance premiums I pay, relinquish their advantage in child custody litigations, and even open doors for themselves.
The main thing, however, is that they learn a job skill that will help them survive if their husbands die first. I don’t know what happened to the couple in the anecdote above, but I do know that, if he had died during his working years, she would have been a basket case—unless a second husband quickly appeared. She didn’t know how to do a damned thing that would earn money except be a maid.
Many elderly women now on Social Security — their husbands’ Social Security — have to live within the meager bounds of their government checks. Although the law allows them to earn a certain amount, they simply don’t have any saleable skills. If they had learned a trade of their own, the burden of life in their sunset years wouldn’t be as heavy.
In yet another way women were hamstrung by the social dictate that they be ignorant and helpless in certain areas. By never being taught by their parents and husbands how to deal with car salesmen, home repair workmen, and the like, when they became widows they were left vulnerable to con artists.
I suppose in a way I’m beating a dead horse. Women have gained a lot in the workday world since World War II, when the conflict made their entry into the factories a necessity. Some of the economic inequities still exist but are being whittled away day by day. Yet, in individual instances I still see squawism of the old sort: A story was related to me just yesterday of a man retiring on a pension and then divorcing his wife of forty years, leaving her with no income and no job skill.
And, although the Democrats made a big deal out of the fact that a woman had finally been nominated as vice-president by a major political party, the fact remains that Geraldine Ferraro supposedly lost the Southern vote because of the attitude that “a woman belongs in the kitchen barefoot and pregnant.” This despite the historical experiences of Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher.
Yes, there is still a long way to go.