Women’s History month, a time dedicated to reflecting upon the enormous impact women have had on our world. From the mathematicians of NASA to the Suffragist movement that led to the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution, the airwaves fill with inspiring stories of women working, sacrificing, and creating a more inclusive society.
What is rarely done during this time is highlighting the obstacles, treatment, and oppression of these same women. The legal ways in which a male dominated government has sought to keep women in their place, and dependent on the very men holding them down, can be traced to rulers of ancient kingdoms and still easily found in the present.
In 1975, a Philadelphia microbiologist was walking home from work when she was stabbed to death near her home. The outrage sparked a collective Take Back the Night march, in which women attempted to demand they should not have to live in fear. Yet, the recent abduction and murder of Sarah Everard in south London merely reminds us nothing has changed.
Women continue to move through life cloaked in apprehension as these incidents become normalized and viewed as common place. Harassment, rape, and the trafficking of women and young girls isn’t an evolutionary phenomenon, it’s the legacy of dividing and categorizing human value.
The customary casualty of war, women were offered up like a sacrificial lamb, absolving all men of their responsibility for their own actions. From the biblical stories of every religion to the battlefields of the Highlands, rape was not only accepted but expected during a time of war.
The disparaging of women has been a tactic utilized by kings, husbands, employers, and government officials to keep control of what they deem the weaker sex. Vilifying women has been a woven thread in the tapestry of human life for centuries, and the rape culture it creates continues to thrive as men scramble to preserve domination.
A woman’s worth and marital value once determined by the size of the dowry being offered. Arranged marriages, often utilized by men to elevate their own placement in society, women were merely property used to negotiate.
Certainly we’ve come a long way since the slanderous stories of Mary Magdalene, the execution of innocent women during the rampant witch trials and the use of enslaved women as breeding stock, but you don’t have to look far into the past to find the patriarchy hard at work.
Convinced women were the cause, men set about to ‘fix’ the growing rate of sexually transmitted infections (STI’s) during World War l. In 1910, under an effort called ‘The American Plan’, police were given the authority to detain any person if they suspected them of having an STI.
Women were stalked, harassed, and arrested for sitting in a restaurant alone, changing jobs, walking without an escort, though no reason beyond an officer claiming they appeared suspicious was needed. Once detained, the women were forcibly examined, tested and often raped. Anyone testing positive would remain incarcerated until which time they were deemed no longer infectious.
Denied due process, women were held indefinitely and subjected to injections of mercury and forced to ingest experimental drugs containing arsenic to treat Syphilis. This program was applauded by government officials and continued in some places well into the 1970’s.
The ‘American Plan’ wasn’t the only law that unfairly incarcerated women. The Muncy Act of July 25th, 1913 created a legal road for sentencing women to prison indefinitely for any crime, while marital exemption laws across the country allowed husbands the legal right to rape their wife. As recent as 1993, North Carolina’s penal code definition stated if a victim were the spouse of the accused at the time of the rape, he could not be convicted of such.
The first state to abolish rape-exemption laws was Nebraska, in 1976. While all 50 States eventually repealed these immunities, California currently lists spousal rape as a separate offense from stranger rape.
Time moves forward and life struggles to keep up as the way women are seen in the eyes of the law, society and her own family continue to fall short of equal. Whether it’s the right to be free from servitude, the right to vote, seek an education or the ability to take out a loan, and possess a credit card, our past is riddled with women rising against the injustices plaguing our nations and prompting change.
Disenfranchisement continues to puncture the fabric of freedom, as the ideals of free will and self-governing are not extended to women. Stampeding out of the kitchen and into the workplace, women continue to fight for pay equality, autonomy in health care decisions, affordable childcare, and the ability to control one’s sexuality.
Even in this unprecedented time of pandemic isolation, the education and overall care of children has overwhelmingly fallen onto the shoulders of the mothers for no other reason than she is female. Widespread voter suppression continues its attempt to slither its way into the law of the land and wars we have already won, seemingly begin again.
Women continue to rise and meet the moment with courage and tenacity. Breaking glass ceilings and demanding a place at the table are hard fought battles that persist. Surrendering is not part of our DNA and failure isn’t an option.
While we honor those whose shoulders we stand on, may we also remain relentless in our pursuits and vigilant of our collective journey.
 Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape by Susan Brownmiller, copyright 1975. Simon & Schuster