Small World: The Rise and Rise of Women

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

A few weeks back, The New York Times published on Page 1 a photo of the five top statewide officials of New Hampshire. They were all female. (Maine recently could only muster three of five.)

I suggest that high school girls clip that photo for their albums. Some day, not too distant perhaps, your descendants will be amazed that this generation found it newsworthy that females were running everything. By then, it will certainly seem quite normal.

As a survivor from the old America, I admit to finding the female ascent an unsettling development – not wrong, heavens no! — just not expected. When I see lovely young things on television explaining the world, or CEOs or cabinet secretaries running their bit of it, I realize I haven’t kept pace. Maybe I was working in the traditional Middle East when gender roles changed back home.

It used to be, as one scholar describes them in the Middle Ages, that women were “patient and benign, meek and gentle.” That began to change in the 19th century when a few jobs were open to the weaker sex (teaching, nursing and secretarial). In 1848, the Seneca Falls Convention called for equal rights for women, including suffrage. It has taken awhile to achieve (most of) those goals, but the movement has accelerated with each generation.

A family I know tells the story. The great-grandmother never worked a day. Her daughter, born in the 1890s, worked until she got married. Her daughter did so as well, but followed that with a life crammed with volunteering. Then, her daughter became a full-time professional as will her daughter in turn.

One of the surprising things about this progressive change was that it was accomplished so peacefully. That certainly won’t be the case in the Moslem world, in India or in many traditional societies where achieving equal male-female rights is a source of serious tension. How did it happen so relatively smoothly here? Why didn’t men fight back? Others will have better founded insights than I, but let me suggest five main reasons:

First, the American ideology emphasizes freedom, equality, opportunity and independence. It’s very, very hard to deny those rights to half the population.

Second, during the past 100 years either the U.S. economy was depressed which meant a woman’s income was needed or it was growing, which created job openings without enough men to fill them.

Third, after World War II (when many women were called to work) families were offered many new and costly temptations — housing, gadgets, vacations, education — that one salary plainly couldn’t satisfy. Two earners were necessary for the good life.

Fourth, institutions, including marriage and the family, have begun to decay allowing women to enjoy a new independence. A separate income becomes essential.

Finally, smart, ambitious women want to share the satisfaction from engagement with the world that men have mostly monopolized.

Very likely, female employment is one of the causes for persisting high levels of unemployment across the nation. In the modern economy, there are few jobs where women are not easily substituted for men and sometimes do a better job. Professional athletics are still a male preserve. Combat soldiering was one, but it has just been taken off the list.

Get used to it, guys! I know I had better.

You Read It Here First Department

Last week, I wrote about “Sadat’s Law” which says the United States loves rulers whose citizens dislike them and vice versa.

The same week, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who in the spring was enthusiastically cheered by the U.S. Congress, suffered a “humbling rebuke” (The New York Times) from Israeli voters.

Henry Precht is a summer resident of Bridgton.

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