Mothers’ Day seemed to bring into focus a lot of diverse issues concerning the lives of women, not only in America but worldwide.
We read and hear a lot of commentary and discussion in the media about equality of men and women but the pandemic has shown that no matter the lip service in the U.S. to this endeavor, fundamentally nothing changes. There are biological reasons for this, a fact that irritates some, but history shows in countless ways that biology is the strongest force that guides human behavior.
As a young child in northern England, I was active and loved to be outdoors. My favorite activities with neighborhood girls and boys were climbing trees, playing with cap pistols, building “dens" in the woods, trespassing on private property, and generally getting dirty. Equality in all these nefarious activities was not an issue. To say this was unsupervised play is to put it mildly, but we stayed out of major trouble in a time when adults were dealing with the serious problems of war-time.
We survived, grew older, and went our various ways through the male/female segregated high school system of the post-war times. As a science major in college, I was one of few women in the first-year honors Chemistry, Botany, and Zoology lecture classes of 200 students. Labs and fieldwork were riotous fun! Women were top students in many of our first-year classes because it took the men time to “get serious” about academic work and new styles of studying. I learned quickly that, in the academic world, women could succeed. I also learned the basic life experience, that women are physically vulnerable unless they know how to set limits.
Over the past 50-plus years, American women have worked hard to gain equality in work, pay, social status, and respect in many aspects of daily life. They have made good progress but the Pandemic has shown that in many cases this progress is superficial and, under stress, will melt away. In the U.S. women have borne the brunt of coping with the effects of the Pandemic on families with very young or school-age children. Remote learning programs have allowed many children, though not all, to maintain some level of progress in school work. The more a parent has been able to help children follow the school learning programs, the more valuable those programs have been. In many families, caring for very young children has brought mothers in the workforce back home, who would otherwise have used nursery and daycare for their little ones.
Much of this return to childcare has fallen on women for a variety of reasons both financial and social. Some may say, “Well that’s what a mother is supposed to do!” But in many economically developed countries, societal attitudes and educational opportunities have moved from that earlier lifestyle to one where many women have professional careers and working lives. Many of the repercussions will take a long time to recover as the economy gradually returns to “normal.” Some types of work may never return to their former state as the pandemic response has created new ways of doing some jobs. We already see that many formerly-employed women are now out of work. Often a family’s finances depend on a mother being in the workforce.
The recent National Census has shown that the birth rate in this country has declined over the past 10 years. There are many reasons for this but certainly professional careers and work outside the home and the cost of raising and educating a family had a significant impact. Interestingly, China is also showing the same trend. For China, however, there is an even more significant cause. The One Child Policy that was invoked in the 1970s, because of the fear of famine due to poor harvests, and a rapid population growth, was overwhelming the attempts to modernize China and raise the standard of living. The policy mandated each family should have no more than one child. Many families wanted a son who would, when adult, be able to take care of aging parents, the ancient Chinese tradition. Some female fetuses were aborted, infant girls were abandoned or put up for adoption through foreign agencies. The results of that social experiment became apparent when the favored boys became old enough to look for wives. The policy was ended officially in 2015. This social experiment changed many aspects of life in China and the current Chinese census shows a significant imbalance of males to females in the 40-50 year age group. As in the U.S., the more affluent the society has become, the more the birthrate has declined.
Religion impacts women’s status in many societies, even ours. We know that women in countries such as Afghanistan are very vulnerable and restricted in their everyday lives, education, and socially outside the home. Those who step from the traditional path, and do not follow societal rules of religion and family, are kept a virtual prisoner in the home, or even murdered by family members for infractions of tradition. Other strict orthodox religious sects in many countries treat women who go beyond traditional roles with severe disciplinary actions, limiting their social freedom. Forced marriages are still common in many parts of the world. These are some extreme examples of inequality that impact the ability of societies to adapt to changing world conditions.
For the sake of human survival in times of rapid global environmental change, we should be working towards equality of opportunity for all people. To have the opportunity for equal pay for equal work, easier access to better education, diverse career opportunities, homeownership, and health care benefits everyone, is important no matter where they live. This includes acknowledging the special qualities and talents that individual men and women bring to public life and work in all its forms. The pandemic has shown that everyone has a role in helping our differing societies to survive challenging times.
Isobel P. Swartz is an archivist at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.