Myth: Before women’s liberation there were no laws protecting women.
Before women’s liberation there were actually hundreds of laws that benefited and protected women. Now it is important to stop right here and understand that the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s had absolutely nothing in common with the early feminists of the 19th century. These early feminists were trying to give women basic rights and protections that the feminist movement of the 60s-70s would ultimately take away from women. It is very essential to note that most of the women living at the time of the “first wave” of feminism in the 1800s probably did not see themselves as victims or “second class” in any way. Even when it came to the suffragist movement (which really should be put in a different category separate from the feminist movement) women stood on opposing sides. They were both suffragists and anti-suffragists.
“Under the old laws of coverture, the husband was held completely liable for the actions and well being of his wife.
“Under coverture rules, a woman could not make contracts; write wills; sue or be sued in court; or own property such as money, clothing, and household goods- these belonged solely to the ‘head of household,’ the husband. This meant that if the wife worked for pay for someone else, her husband owned the wages that she earned…”[i]
In the words of William Blackstone in 1765:
“By Marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband; under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs everything…and her condition during her marriage is called coverture.”[ii]
However, “even in the old Common Law tradition, man and wife were not so merged that women had no legal identity. The wife’s position was not that of a possession but of her husband’s ward. She could, for example, maintain property rights, though they were limited by her husband’s authority.”[iii] Also, along with being head and master of the house, “the husband is bound to provide his wife with necessaries by law, as much as himself; and if he contracts debts for them, he is obliged to pay them…..If the wife be indebted before marriage, the husband is bound afterwards to pay the debt.”[iv]
Before women’s liberation the laws that protected women were numerous. Because our society understood that the reality for women is, and always has been, different than the reality for men, our laws and customs gave women preference and protections in many areas of the law. Divorce could not be obtained just because one party wanted to walk away or got bored and yes there were laws protecting women should she need to divorce her husband because he had been abusive. Many today distort this part of our history by saying a woman was property before women’s liberation and couldn’t get away from abusive husbands. In the 1700s and early 1800s such things might occur, but, as stated above, women gained rights and protections in the mid to late 19th century. Women were protected. Family wages laws were enacted to ensure a man could easily support his wife and children on one income, the maternal preference in child custody cases was put into law to ensure that young children would not be taken from their mothers in the event of divorce (unwed fathers did not have rights, but occasionally did gain the right to visitation), and multiple other laws protecting widows, wives, mothers and women in general.
“Before the feminist movement burst on the scene in the 1970s, there were literally hundreds of laws that gave advantages or protections to women based on society’s commonsense recognition of the facts of life and human nature. These included the prohibition against statutory rape, the Mann act, the obligation of the husband to support his wife and provide her with a home, special protections for widows…and laws that made it a misdemeanor to use obscene or profane language in the presence of a woman”[v]
There were numerous protections that women had under the law and numerous rights. These rights were there before the feminist movement of the 60s and 70s. The feminist movement of the 60s and 70s was nothing more than an attempt to push women out of the home and into the workforce and destabilize society. Whether or not women actually enjoyed having careers was inconsequential.[vi] In order to get women into the workforce so there would be more workers for the government to tax the family had to be destroyed and all laws that favored and protected women abolished (all in the name of “equality” of course). Instead of wives and mothers being protected and husbands and fathers having the responsibility for supporting and protecting their wives and children, a new code was developed to make wives and mothers equally financially liable and divorce laws were liberalized. The main method of achieving this was the Equal Rights Amendment. But even though it failed, it didn’t matter. Feminist lawyers were still able to get laws gender-neutralized both on the state and federal level.
“Because of women’s rational fear that they might become comparatively destitute if they were divorced, our no-fault divorce laws exerted tremendous pressure on women to decline the housewife’s role. The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) would have served that same goal. By the end of the campaign for enactment, the amendment’s only real purpose was to compound further the pressures to drive all women into the work force. As Jane Mansbridge has noted, decisions of the United States Supreme Court had, by 1982, already changed almost all the laws the ERA was designed to change. The amendment’s major legal effect would have been to subject women to the draft and combat service and invalidate certain laws that benefited women; supporters could point to little else they claimed was discriminatory. But what the amendment had come to represent-and the reason its enactment seemed crucial to the women’s movement- was a societal affirmation of the feminist perspective.”[vii]
“‘What was at stake in the battle over the ERA was the legitimacy of women’s claim on men’s incomes’; the force of feminism, Ehrenreich concedes, was to ‘allow men to think they have no natural obligation to support women.’ Mary Jo Bane anticipated that the ERA would encourage reexamination of marital roles to ‘stimulate questioning and perhaps change behavior,’ thereby fostering families where wives are no more likely than husbands to take time from the workplace to rear children.”[viii]
Ultimately what the feminist movement of the 70s did was bring women’s rights back to the old days where women were not protected and their husbands could once again leave and take the kids, their wages, and property. But with corruption so rampant our laws don’t care who gets hurt or taken advantage of- in this regard the sexes are indeed equal today- just as long as families don’t stay together. If women cannot be protected because it would mean sex discrimination, women can be fined, thrown into jail, taxed and the elite can profit off of it. Broken apart families leave a civilization vulnerable. It opens the way to massive government interference in people’s private lives and the government begins to decide how children will be raised, what they will be taught, and where they will live. Women view careers as more important than simply being wives and mothers and men become unmotivated and refuse to marry and take responsibility for women and children. Women’s lib was about getting children out of the care of nurturing mothers and out from under the guidance and protection of patriarchal men.
Ultimately, women’s liberation was never about women’s rights. Women have gained in the area of reproduction and marketplace achievement but have sacrificed their happiness and security in the process. Mostly women’s liberation was about taking protections and rights away from women to achieve a gender-neutral society.
“The feminist quest for female fungibility with males has led the women’s movement to support the invalidation of laws benefiting and protecting women. This was the thrust, for example, of litigation directed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she was director of the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union and , often using male plaintiffs, secured invalidation of laws that favored women.”[ix]
Of course, feminists see this as an example of “women’s rights.” Those such as Ruth Bader Ginsburg see protecting any group of people, particularly women, to be harmful because it locks us into stereotypes. Nothing less than complete equality would suffice for feminists.
[i] Cushman, C. Supreme Court Decisions and Women’s Rights. CQ Press, 2001.
[v] Schlafly, P., Feminist Fantasies. p.144, Spence, 2003.
[vii] Graglia, C.F., Domestic Tranquility: a brief against feminism. P. 137, Spence, 1998.
[viii] ibid., 138.
[ix] ibid., 295.
© 2012 What’s Wrong With Equal Rights. Reproduction in whole or in part is strictly prohibited.