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American Women Struggle in the 20th Century

Gender equality can be assessed as a relatively new phenomenon, and some of the fears of women of the past are still relevant. In the past century, American women conducted a long and grueling fight for their rights and status. Sexual liberation, career, material, and psychological independence became part of women’s self-assertion, the legitimacy of which they tried to convey to society. Even though this struggle is ongoing, it was the women of the 20th century who laid the foundation for it and achieved incredible results.

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Women mostly born in the 1930s and became adults in the early 1950s were brought up in a society with specific requirements for a woman and a girl. An adult woman was constantly torned between career values and the value of marriage, immersed in the mystery of femininity. The young woman’s sexuality was suppressed by the family and, at the same time, was aroused by such mass media as films and magazines. The image of a housewife and a married mother as the female ideal was promoted at the state level. All this pressure negatively affected the condition of women. In this regard, some courageous female representatives sought to solve this problem.

Margaret Sanger achieved a significant breakthrough in the fight for women’s sexual rights. Although this activist was a supporter of eugenics – a movement whose reputation leaves much to be desired – her achievements significantly improved the quality of women’s life. Sanger founded the American Birth Control League (later the Planned Parenthood Federation of America) and advocated for the use of contraception (Goethals 126-127). Sanger was sure that women should not just be equal to men in society but should also have the same biological capabilities. After all, women were deprived of control over their bodies throughout history – after sexual intercourse, women were afraid of the consequences and not men. This fact created a trap for women, assuming for them only the role of caregivers.

Fear of pregnancy was also justified by economic dependence on men. Employers were less likely to hire a woman, even less likely a woman with a child, and her salary would be much lower than that of men. The situation was almost irresolvable for unmarried women – in addition to condemning society, they could not provide financial security for the child. The emergence of children inevitably led to monetary problems even in wealthier families. The woman was thus forced to abandon ambitions, aspirations, and self-realization. Finding ways to avoid these consequences has led to multiple clandestine abortions, unwanted marriages, or giving children for adoption – sometimes under duress (Vandenberg-Daves). Such actions were bringing a great threat to women’s physical and mental health.

Sanger believed that contraception would not only benefit women’s health and their ability to manage their lives but also prevent the appearance of children in poor families that are not ready to have them (Sanger). She considered such measures as a solution to some economic problems that would improve the lives of all segments of the population. The name Margaret Sanger, and more precisely her niece, Olive Byrne, is also associated with the history of the creation of one of the icons of the feminist movement – Wonder Woman.

The creator of this comic book heroine, William Marston, was also known as a feminist, psychologist, and inventor of a lie detector. In the book The secret history of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore reveals Marston’s family life (Garner). He and his wife Elizabeth were in love with another woman – Olive Byrne, who lived with them (Lepore). Olivia and Elizabeth significantly influenced the image of Wonder Woman. Although the creation of the Amazon Diana is a rather unusual story, this heroine raised many important questions about women’s rights and protection.

External circumstances also complicated women’s struggles. World War II, which took men to the front, contributed to the fact that women gained jobs. However, after the end of the war and the return of men, women, partly voluntarily, partly under state duress, were forced to leave their workplaces. Moreover, a demographic crisis required the decision, and the United States created an information campaign in promoting the ideal American dream, in which a woman was a wife, mother, and housewife. The image of a happy family with a working husband, several children, and a diligent wife in a beautiful house spread everywhere.

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The effect exceeded all expectations – it was believed that a woman could be realized as a person, only becoming an exemplary housewife. Women who sought to develop in their careers were met with sympathy and misunderstanding. Moreover, working women have faced persistent discrimination. Their salary was significantly lower than men’s, which also affected working relationships, in which men looked down on females. Another problem that is still relevant today is sexual harassment, which was difficult to punish and prevent.

The myth of a housewife wife as the ideal ground of society was not only beneficial from a reproductive point of view. In the 50-the 60s, there was an increase in sales of household appliances, the primary consumers of which were women. Changing the image in the ad meant losing the buyer. However, due to unrealized opportunities, inconsistency with the canon of a journal housewife, and indulging children’s whims, women began to feel anxious, tired, up to depression with suicidal thoughts. These symptoms made part of the population dependent on tranquilizers and alcohol. As the situation worsened, women increasingly wanted to express their views on the problem and fight for their rights.

Incredible pressure was exerted on females in terms of having children. Before abortion was allowed in the United States in the 1970s, the problem of termination of pregnancy was threatening. Bylaws banning abortion, as well as laws banning alcohol and drugs, the authorities created a particular commercial niche, which was filled by doctors who were ready for illegal medical practice. However, that was not the only problem of this law. On the one hand, a woman in marriage was obliged to have many children. On the other hand, a woman who had kids outside marriage, according to society, was considered a sexual offender, possibly suffering from neurosis. Such public opinion created a contradiction with the law banning abortion – in any situation, a woman turned out to be a criminal.

Thus, historically, several stages can be distinguished, during which women won more and more rights. The first stage of women’s liberation in the United States was the revolution of suffragettes who achieved legal equality with men in the educational and electoral spheres in the 1920s. The second revolution was the sexual revolution of the 1920s – its main sign – the fact of mass entry into premarital sexual relations. One more step was the workplace revolution, which changed the workforce’s nature and the role of women in the economy. Unfortunately, the fifth revolution developed because of World War II.

Despite all the problems that women continue to face, a real breakthrough has occurred over the past century. Many of the opportunities available to modern women in the last century could be unattainable for this half of the population. Public pressure, contradictory demands, and a sense of insignificance due to the mismatch with the ideal promoted by the state in the past is only a small proportion of the women’s suffering. However, they were able to express their opinion and prove their strength by continuing to achieve equality.

Works Cited

Garner, Dwight. “Her Past Unchained.” The New York Times, 2014, Web.

Goethals, George R.Women and Leadership: History, Theories, and Case Studies. Berkshire Publishing Company, Limited, 2016.

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Lepore, Jill. The Secret History of Wonder Woman. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.

Sanger, Margaret. “The Civilizing Force of Birth Control,” Sex in Civilization edited by Victor Calverton and Samuel Schmalhausen, Garden City, 1939, pp. 525–537.

Vandenberg-Daves, Jodi. “Twentieth-Century American Motherhood: Promises, Pitfalls, and Continuing Legacies.The American Historian. 2016. Web.

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