The Essence Of The Argument

Okay–back to basics.

Morton Marcus and I are currently working on a book examining the causes and effects of women’s legal and social equality.

We understand that the movement toward equality is still a work in progress. We are also well aware that women’s progress has engendered considerable resistance–and that, in a very real way, that progress will be on the ballot November 8th.

As we approach a midterm election that will be crucial for women–not to mention American democracy– it seems appropriate to share some of that book’s relevant analysis.  What follows is long, despite the fact that I am breaking those arguments into three posts, and you may wish to skip or skim it, but it represents my understanding of the barriers  to women’s equality erected and defended by paternalism, religion and culture.

On November 8th, we will be voting on whether to keep or dismantle those barriers.

I have omitted the footnotes; if you want citations, ask me.


Let’s begin with the obvious: there are genuine biological differences between men and women, and those differences profoundly and understandably shaped human cultures for thousands of years. Over time, science and technology have operated to minimize the social impact of those differences, although the differences themselves remain. In addition to changes in the job market that have made physical strength less important and inventions that significantly reduced the time spent on housework, women can now plan, defer or abstain from procreation without the necessity of celibacy, a reality that allows females to pursue educational and career choices that used to be available exclusively to males. Those choices have facilitated their ability to participate more fully in civic and political life.

Despite those advances, the drive for gender equity in the workplace and polity continues to be hindered by the persistence of attitudes and traditions more appropriate to bygone generations, and especially by religious beliefs that powerfully influence the country’s politics and culture. As the second section of this chapter will explain, a number of religious denominations work assiduously to impose their doctrinal beliefs about women (and what they believe to be the proper, subordinate place of females in society) through legislation applicable to everyone. Those theological positions support and strengthen a cultural patriarchy rooted in history, politics and privilege. As we will see, religious arguments are used to justify the still- significant resistance to women’s personal autonomy—and to motivate the increasingly frantic efforts of the political Right to reverse women’s social, legal and economic progress.

                                                                    Biology and Destiny
For generations, there have been two major biological impediments to women’s equal participation in society and especially in the workforce: women’s relative lack of physical strength vis a vis their male counterparts, and the fact that women get pregnant. Those two realities have exerted a major effect on cultural attitudes about men and women. For a very long time, most jobs required manual labor—and often, brute strength—and most (although not all) females were physically unable to undertake such tasks. Over the years, as technology has improved, the job market has also changed and fewer jobs today require physical strength. An increasing number instead require education, intellect and/or particular skills, qualifications that are more evenly distributed between the genders and even, in some cases, are more likely to be possessed by women.

In 2020, Janet Yellen authored a report for the Brookings Institution that focused on the prior century’s history of women’s employment. As she noted, early in the 20th century, most women in the United States didn’t work outside the home, and the few who did were primarily young and unmarried. A mere 20 percent of all women were “gainful workers,” and only 5 percent of those were married. (Yellen did point out that those statistics understated the economic contributions of married women who worked from home in family businesses and/or in the home production of goods for sale. The statistics also obscured racial difference—African-American women were about twice as likely to participate in the labor force as White women at the time, and were more likely to remain in the labor force after marriage.) When women did work outside the home, it was often taken as evidence that the husband was unwilling or unable to support the household. As a result, men tended to view a wife’s paid employment as a shameful statement on the husband’s role as a breadwinner. As Yellen wrote,

The fact that many women left work upon marriage reflected cultural norms, the nature of the work available to them, and legal strictures. The occupational choices of those young women who did work were severely circumscribed. Most women lacked significant education—and women with little education mostly toiled as piece workers in factories or as domestic workers, jobs that were dirty and often unsafe. Educated women were scarce. Fewer than 2 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in an institution of higher education, and just one-third of those were women. Such women did not have to perform manual labor, but their choices were likewise constrained.

As a result, as Yellen notes and many of us vividly remember, there was widespread sentiment against women, especially married women, working outside the home. Even in the face of severely limited opportunities, however, increasing numbers of women did continue to enter the labor force during this period. As a result, some 50 percent of single women worked by 1930, as did nearly 12 percent of married women. Mores and social attitudes were slowly changing, partly as a result of what is often referred to as the “first wave” of the women’s movement, which focused on suffrage and (to a lesser extent) temperance, and which culminated in the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote.

Between the 1930s and mid-1970s, women’s participation in the economy—especially the participation of married women–continued to rise, spurred by several social changes. The growth of mass high school education was accompanied by a similar rise in graduation rates. New technologies led to an increased demand for clerical workers, and clerical jobs were seen as appropriate for women, because they tended to be cleaner and safer. And while there were still bizarre rules that kept many women out of the labor force—for example, female librarians in most cities could not be married, and female school teachers who became pregnant were dismissed once they “showed”—these restrictions were gradually removed following World War II, although it wasn’t until 1986 that United Airlines was ordered to pay $33 million in back pay and to reinstate 475 flight attendants who had been forced to quit in the mid-1960s because of a no-marriage rule.
By far the most consequential change, however—the development that eliminated the major impediment to women’s full participation in economic and civic life—was the introduction of reliable contraception, primarily although not exclusively the birth control pill.

Before the advent of reliable birth control, every sexual encounter carried the risk of pregnancy, and pregnancy generally meant the end of a woman’s economic independence. A pregnant woman was almost always unemployable; for that matter, a married woman in her childbearing years was similarly unemployable, since there was always the possibility of pregnancy and the resulting need to care for offspring, seen as a uniquely female responsibility. Most women were therefore economically dependent upon the men to whom they were married. (Refusing to marry was no panacea: unmarried women were routinely labeled “old maids,” and were objects of pity and/or derision.) If her marriage was unhappy, or worse, violent, a woman with children was literally enslaved; given the barriers she faced to participation in the workforce and her resulting inability to support herself and her offspring, she usually couldn’t leave. Absent charitable intervention or inherited wealth—or friends or relatives willing to house and feed her and her children—she was totally dependent on her husband’s earnings.

Access to reliable contraception –and in situations where that contraception failed, abortion—was thus absolutely essential to women’s independence. If women could plan when to procreate, they could also plan when not to procreate. They could choose to schedule or defer motherhood in order to pursue education and career opportunities. The availability of the birth control pill didn’t simply liberate millions of women, opening possibilities that had been foreclosed by reasons of biology, its availability and widespread use triggered enormous changes in social attitudes that in turn opened the door to legislation that advanced both females’ economic independence and women’s ability to more fully participate in the civic life of the nation.

A 2010 article in Forbes marking the fiftieth anniversary of the pill acknowledged its immense significance. The article began by noting the then-current workforce status of women:

For the first time in U.S. history, women have overtaken men in the workplace. More specifically, they’ve overtaken men in professional roles. As of 2009, women represented half of all U.S. workers and are the primary or co-breadwinners in nearly two-thirds of American households. That’s a far cry from 1967, when women made up only one-third of all U.S. workers.

Without the birth control pill, women would almost certainly not have made it into powerful senior positions. While the political and social will to bring a critical mass of women into the workplace was certainly there–the advent of the birth control pill coincided with the second wave of feminism and the fight for equal rights–the pill gave women a tangible tool to level the playing field with men. They no longer had to be mothers first and careerists second. The pill allowed for both their entrance–and ascendance–in the workplace.

To be sure, there’s no denying the pill triggered the sexual revolution for women as well. Because they no longer had to worry about getting pregnant, it freed them up to have sex outside of marriage. But it was the workplace where the pill made its most lasting impact.
Together with women’s new prominence in political and economic life, that sexual revolution, such as it was (the punditry continues to argue about its nature, extent and consequences) ran headlong into what is perhaps the most regressive element of American culture: fundamentalist religion.

Tomorrow: religion and women’s rights



  1. Thank your this article and the promise of two more, plus a book. I was at an Allen County Bar Association meeting shortly after the leaked Dobbs opinion in May where a panelist on Constitution Day said there is no way the ERA will pass now, essentially affirming (with a smile) that women have always been and will continue to be second-class citizens in Indiana and the US. I have read with disbelief online posts from anti-trans feminists who are joining with religious extremeists in support is a “Women’s Bill of Rights” that characterizes women as the weaker sex and seeks actively to perpetuate inequality as a protection of “real” women.

  2. “…the drive for gender equity in the workplace and polity continues to be hindered by the persistence of attitudes and traditions more appropriate to bygone generations,…”

    That same “persistence of attitudes and traditions more appropriate to bygone generations” keeps women who work outside the home still responsible for maintaining the home where men want no part of “equality” in that job. And consider the number of single-mothers who maintain full economic responsibility for home and family aren’t fighting off men claiming they want equality in that area.

  3. If we are all created equal, why do we need to explain why women should be considered equal to men?

    In other words, tell me why they should be treated lesser than men.

    Why are we arguing for their equality? It’s the same as people of color. Tell us why they should be treated lesser than others.

    I think the burden of proof should be on those who feel they should be treated better than others.

  4. For women who came of age after the arrival of the birth control pill there is no memory of a time when women were the servants of men and had zero control over their bodies. My granddaughters cannot fathom what my life was like when I was their age. They know not the kind of drudgery, the lost dreams, the feelings of inferiority to half the population, the hopelessness that came from knowing that what you could be contributing was not wanted.
    But the “pill” was not the only liberating factor in my life. Suddenly, in downtown Indy, there was this new place.. IUPUI. A new world opened up to me, and I rushed through that door with everything I had. There I was accepted and expected to contribute as a full adult with a mind. It was the most liberating experience of my life.

  5. Laurie, the text of HR1136 looks so reasonable, if you don’t have any critical thinking skills!

    Thanks Sheila!

  6. Republicans CANNOT accept gender equality. Why? Because women, being of a nurturing mindset, would tend to vote for more egalitarian candidates and policies. This fact, of course, flies in the face of the males who run Wall Street and most major corporations. Profits before people tends not to work for most women. So, excluding religion – which is male-invented and controlled – women MUST be kept away from all things important to save the men from being seen as the greedy, unprincipled and corrupt people they are when given too much power. That power stems from money…just like when the “priests” controlled the grain storage 8,000 years ago.

    My point is that economics and sexism are linked. To men, money = power over others. To women, money = the ability to make life better for all. Yes, I know I’ve just cast a big blanket, but the tendencies are seen in the demographics between Democrats and Republicans. Republican men are the strong majority in profits before people. Democratic men are much more egalitarian.

    As many of us on this blog have hinted: Everything Republicans touch dies.

  7. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Maybe they should put an addendum in the declaration of Independence that includes the term woman or maybe instead of men it could say humans?

    Now, there is a declaration adopted by the United Nations general Assembly in 1948. The declaration States: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

    If it weren’t for women during the second world war, the war might have been lost. They are the ones that built the American war machine!

    That being said, does the term equal rights also include the ideal of separate but equal?

    For all of the calls of being treated equally, sub-sects of the female gender are always singled out for discrimination by their so-called sisterhood!

    And, as you know, separate but equal is bigoted, inappropriate, unfair, and degrading!

    I’ve seen it in the workplace, I’ve seen it in the political realm, I’ve seen it in public and Society in general.

    Women of color even with Superior credentials are passed over for their white counterparts. Women of color are seated in areas that are undesirable by restaurant patrons close to the kitchen door, close to the bathrooms, away from the front door!

    Women of color being refused pain medication for the same medical procedures, and the recovery process that white women receive! This is not only male doctors doing this, it’s also female doctors of a certain ethnic makeup.

    I will admit, this doesn’t happen every single time, but it is more often than not the rule of thumb. So, I would say that as much as men need to clean up there own house, women need to reevaluate their conduct towards their female associates of another ethnic origin. Women of color really have no Paraclete, any attempt to level the playing field is met with yells of reverse discrimination. It seems a woman of color would have to adorn a Chit, to be found wholely acceptable.

    That in itself is barbarically inappropriate, but, seems to be a practice in the minds of white women.

    Women, white women tend to look at themselves in a “mirror darkly,” they cannot see past that hazy outline, they cannot see the actual truth of the matter. They’re just as guilty of discrimination as their male counterparts! Change starts at home.

  8. There’s is, of course, something a little unfortunate about the statistic that in 2/3rds of American households women are the primary or co-breadwinner. I suspect the majority of that number is as a co-breadwinner. Because the cost of living hasn’t exactly kept pace with production and pay. So, women have to work now as opposed to just wanting to in the past. So, only a two income household has a chance now.

    To be clear, women’s independence is awesome sauce and equality is WAY overdue. But, the requirement to join the workforce in order for a married couple to survive is a bit of an unfortunate thing. We produce more and and get paid less for it every year, so the system requires more workers. Shame women only get to move towards equality when workers are at the bottom of the scale.

  9. John P. Sorg; your last paragraph at 8:47 is probably something you gleaned from your Scriptures. Vickie Weaver comes to mind with her separate building on their mountain top where she and her daughter stayed during the days they were “unclean”. That being “unclean” is all part of God’s plan when he created woman, “…and male and female he created them”. “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth,…” Yet his creation of woman included that necessary “unclean” system to “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth…” A system now a basic part of the Supreme Court to keep women subjugated to forever be dominated as lesser beings.

    We are obviously battling Trump, his Republicans, the 1-2% and God. Sheila and Morton have taken on Goliath; may the force be with them.


  10. Old fogie here: ” there’s no denying the pill triggered the sexual revolution for women as well. Because they no longer had to worry about getting pregnant, it freed them up to have sex outside of marriage.”

    Having sex outside of marriage is also a moral issue, for men and women. The “freedom” to do that is not necessarily a good thing for either. Not sure that the “hook up” culture has enhanced humanity.

  11. What is progress?

    Of course, it has many ingredients. We generally think of it in terms of positive forces like culture, science, technology, macroeconomics, microeconomics, etc. But, they operate to overcome obstacles like war, resource distribution issues, and pandemics, in other words, the famed four horsemen of the apocalypse.

    Generally, progress is life trending better and better for more people. As such we should all be for it, right? It’s not that simple. Life has never been just and often the perception of progress by and for a group, is either actually or perceived as at the expense of other groups. Other groups may ask why can’t the world leave my comfort alone.

    Because of that, humans decide individually, their balance between justice for all and comfort for themselves. Our history is largely about that struggle.

  12. Lester, do you really think that religious dogma and government policies should determine when and with whom you can have sex? That is the alternative if people lack the freedom to have sex outside marriage. A freedom, I might add, that men have always had and which forced women to be regarded as either wives or whores.

  13. Rights and freedoms are always double edged swords. They require those who have them to watch over them judiciously and to do their duty to maintain them. Most of the commenters on this blog are old enough to remember the 50s clearly and are vigilant simply because we remember. The Supreme Court and Republican legislatures have opted to show those who are too young to remember why we had those fights for rights and freedoms and what it is truly about. Gear up, kids. This is your moment.

  14. Sharon – WADR, I did not mention religion at all. If morals only come from religion than, no wonder things are going downhill, as fewer and fewer are “religious” in any way (other than having fun).

    In my “book”, men should be husbands or johns/predators. Yes, women should have equal rights to be predators. “Sex” is physical – love is intimacy…said I was an old fogey; happily.

  15. To help all those tripped by our ancestor’s use of MEN in their documentation – it either meant MEN were superior to WOMEN or it was an ambiguous PEOPLE.

    Based on what we know today about those old Oligarchs, they meant MEN were superior, and since they stole the land of Native Americans and owned slaves, they also felt WHITE MEN were the most superior – preferable WASP MEN.

    Why can’t we replace MEN with PEOPLE?

    It’s a rather simple fix. 😉

  16. JoAnn,

    Are you aware of how many modern phrases, laws and moral parameters come from scripture? Are you aware of how many modern phrases, laws and moral parameters come from the many different philosophical dogmas and their creators? Many, many, more than what you refer to as “gleaned from (your/my) scripture!”

    Nothing in the above comment I made is inaccurate!

    Who you put your Faith and Hope in, is your business! May that go well with you. I noticed you like to criticize your former Faith, but embrace the sayings of philosophers that were around before scripture was written.

    And, for your information, the unclean portion was so the man did not make himself religiously unclean by having relations with a menstruating woman. It protected the woman who was open cervically while menstruating and was more susceptible to infections and diseases.

    Do you actually know what “a mirror darkly means?” It means looking at something that you might think is complete but is not. In other words, still immature!!! A child sees and thinks like a child, an adult sees and thinks like an adult.

  17. Lester – I was referring to the fact that religions and governments are the entities which legitimize marriage. I couldn’t agree more that morality and religion are not synonymous. Unfortunately, neither are marriage and love.
    Sex is a biological act. We may both regret that it is not always paired with love, but that is reality. My point was that I think individuals, rather than groups, whether religious or governmental, should control their own sex lives. In my book, sexual predation is immoral even when church and state turn a blind eye to it.

  18. John P. Sorg; the Supreme Court is currently using Scripture, their cherry-picked and adapted versions, to rule this country.

  19. Lester and Sharon, from what I’ve noticed, most churches and religions are hypocritical about sex for procreation. Now, if we would talk about the creation portion, as JoAnn did in her above comment, obviously there was meant to be pleasure in having intimate sexual relations. The feelings and sensations of men and women show that it’s not just a biological act for procreation, it is meant for pleasure also. That being said, the hypocrisy of religious Dogma condemning sex outside of marriage but yet they readily engage in that very thing is astounding! Scripture says “enjoy the wife of your youth” and does not say trade her in on a new model if you get tired of her.

    There was a reason for restrictions and such concerning the early sexual edicts of scripture, mostly based on disease and other issues. The spread of venereal diseases even back then was problematic. People would pass leprosy to each other, syphilis, and other early STDs.

    If you kept your relationship monogamous, you more than likely would not have to worry about disease. They didn’t have condoms or antibiotics back then. So, those types of infections tended to be fatal.

    Look at the spread of HIV-AIDS today! Or monkey pox, or syphilis, or gonorrhea, or chlamydia, I mean there’s quite an extensive list. You would think people would be more cautious wouldn’t you? But they are not.

    People do not like to use the spirit of a sound mind, and most often do not want to use protection, but they do want drugs available to kill whatever they catch because altering their behavior is out of the question.

    Too bad many of these diseases are becoming resistant or have never had a drug to kill them in the first place. And, behavior really has not changed one iota! You still have predators out there, male and female purposefully going out to infect anyone that they can, the human heart, what an oxymoron.

    As a side note, venereal disease was so bad in Egypt when Napoleon was there, he called it, the land of the menstrating men!

  20. Sex and marriage is becoming a mute point. Most coupling today is hooking up or living together. Fewer and fewer people are getting married.

  21. I agree Lester,

    My youngest son has been in a monogamous relationship for the past 8 years, his girlfriend doesn’t want children and neither does he! And for some reason neither one of them wants to be married, I believe he said it was just part of the hypocrisy to be married. So, people have to follow their heart. They have an excellent relationship and I love his significant other like a daughter.

  22. JoAnn, that’s a very good point. I think that attitude is changing as time goes on, but there is no doubt that a segment of us men willfully ignores the “household chores” aspect of an equitable life within a family structure. The same could be said of child-rearing responsibilities, which is similarly (slowly) changing as time goes on.

    This is another area where the youth will save us going forward. Fortunately, they lack a lot of the prejudices (traditions, some might say) that create these inequities.

    P.S. I’m bracing myself for tomorrow’s post, where I’m certain I’ll be even more annoyed with religion than I usually am.

  23. Mr. Sorg, since I sometimes disagree with your posts, I wanted to call attention to the fact that your comment related to your youngest son and his “significant other” substantially increased my happiness today.

  24. I remember in the late ’60s, how a friend used to surprise people with his accuracy in his game of “Name the Co-Ed’s Major”. He had a simple trick – conservative appearance meant Education major, usually elementary ed; Otherwise they were psychology majors.

    Things have changed for the better, as in both of my careers, research biology and IT, large number of women are present at all levels.

    I appreciate your praise of the pill, Sheila. I also remember in the early days, when side-effects were beginning to manifest with the early versions of the pill. A number of “feminists” (their term) complained how the pill was an evil male invention, and that there would be no side effects if it was taken by males. There are always some —-

    Finally, I am glad the Dirk brought up how two-earner families have become a necessity for too many people, which I suppose is more reason to give credit to the pill for allowing those families to keep their head above water while acknowledging the economic problem.

  25. Yes, fundamentalists are a complete drag on the culture, in many ways. I know of no fundamentalist group,
    not that I may know of them all, that has ever said that women ought to be thought of as equal to men, to
    put it mildly.
    Most religions I know of are about power, and wealth, and they mean power and wealth for men.

  26. Todd E Smekens, Indiana Amended it’s constitution in the 1980’s changing “men” to people in our state bill of rights. Changing the language has not changed the culture or stopped the oppression.

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