"Why do women still feel oppressed?"
I'm asked this all the time, usually by a guy who looks like he should have a toothpick handing out of his mouth.
While I would like to answer "Are you kidding?" I have, instead, decided to list just a few reasons why "the gals"' still feel as if we're not exactly making either making the rules or being permitted to play the game as well as we really could.
Take a deep breath, and get out your reading glasses. And if you're the guy with the toothpick, get out your dictionary.
Men have retained the right to make both governmental and church law, thereby legislating both official and unofficial systems of morality. "Wives submit yourselves to your husbands," women are told by the Bible. When women were denied the vote they were patiently told that their husbands voted as the "head" of the household.
The woman was the hands and back and womb of the household, even the heart of it, but she certainly wasn't perceived as being able to use her head. She could have no direct say in the formation of her government but was, of course, still subject to all the rules and laws legislated "on her behalf."
In Benjamin Wadsworth's "Puritan Marriage Manual," The Well-Ordered Family, or Relative Duties, a woman in 1712 was advised that even if she were not "inferior" to her husband, she was nevertheless unquestionably to act as his subordinate. Wives heard from Wadsworth that "though possibly thou hast greater abilities of mind than he has, wast of some high birth, and he of a more mean Extract, or didst bring more Estate at Marriage than he did; yet since he is thy Husband, God has made him thy Head, and set him above thee, and made it thy duty to love and reverence him. If therefore thou dost hate or despise him, revile or dishonour him, or disobey his lawful Commands; if thou dost usurp authority over him, much more if thou life up thy hand to strike him (as some shameless wretches will), then thou dost shamefully transgress the plain Commands of the Great God: thou dost trample his Authority under thy feet."
To go against your husband was, in effect, to take up arms against God himself. Lucifer, we remember, got into trouble for doing no more than this.
The Catholic Church positions women as subordinate to men, since "The man is the ruler of the family, and the head of the woman." In an encyclical, or official papal letter on marriage and the family, Pope Pius XI gave the following instruction to his flock, "Because she is flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone, let her be subject and obedient to the man, not as a servant but as a companion, so that nothing be lacking of honor or of dignity in the obedience which she pays."
This should not be confused with equality, however, since it is "The same false teachers who try to dim the luster of conjugal faith and purity" that wish to "do away with the honorable and trusting obedience which the woman owes to the man. Many of them even go further and assert that such a subjection of one party to the other is unworthy of human dignity, that the rights of husband and wife are equal; wherefore, they boldly proclaim, the emancipation of women has been or ought to be effected." This is not an aim that can be endorsed, since the position of women remains what Milton had declared it to be in Paradise Lost.
Writing of Adam and Eve, Milton saw the chain of command as follows: "He for God, She for God in Him." Eve should worship the figure of God as he appears in the person of her husband. She needs a translator, a go-between, a man who will be able to understand the needs, rules and regulations of a god. Her husband should serve the Lord, and she should serve her husband. Heaven was presented as a sort of men's club which admitted women only when they had an escort. Certain faiths and congregations have allowed women equal access in spiritual terms, and in these houses of worship female leadership is not outlawed, and female lives are given a free range of expression.
Often, however, conservative religious groups regard women as naturally and correctly subservient to men.
There are now flocks of texts marketed to women suggesting that the only way to a happy marriage is for a woman to sit down, shut up, and let her husband make all the decisions. These tracts, distinguished by their reliance on "scripture" and their emphasis on making sure that women are fulltime homemakers, are full of practical advice on keeping a marriage "alive"--such as meeting your husband swathed only in transparent Saran Wrap. ("If I waited around the kitchen wrapped up like that," grumbles my friend Kim, "My husband would put me in the microwave without even thinking. He would figure I was just a big leftover.").
A woman is encouraged to put aside her wants, needs, and dreams in order to be more accepting of her husband's desires. The rhetoric is different from Milton's, but the message is the same: she should be for God in him.
Luckily, Cynthia Heimel offers a contrasting vision for those of us who have trouble believing that God wants us to dress as French maids as a way to prove our devotion. Heimel suggests that we should not look for God in heaven, but in less intimidating places. "For God is always to be found at the back of the refrigerator behind the moldy tuna fish casserole," she writes, "Or sometimes He is found in the way the tailor at your corner lovingly stitches up the hem of your party dress, other times in the way a child sings along with a toothpaste commercial. Do not look for Him in the heavens; He only keeps a small locker there, only goes there to change."
More radically, attorney Sarah Weddington, who argued the victorious pro-choice position in the original Roe v. Wade case, was on a television talk show with an evangelical minister who offered to show her the path to the Lord. She turned to him and said, "I talked to God, and She doesn't remember you."