The Importance of War to the Women's Movement
By Rod Van Mechelen
An aberrant domesticity?
1989 Bellevue, Wash. - War has played an important role in the women's movement. If World War II never happened, there would have been no "feminine mystique," no postwar rush to domesticity, and the gradual, technology-driven expansion of women's role in the workplace would have continued uninterrupted:
"The fact is that the 1950s were profoundly aberrant. The trademarks of the period -- an extended baby boom, a glorification of domesticity, a turning against careers for women, an impressive elaboration of the maternal role -- all run counter to modern values and contradict previously existing trends." (A Lesser Life: The Myth of Women's Liberation in America, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, p 232)
Consequently, while women today might have been even more liberated than they already are, there would likely never have been the backlash sparked by Betty Friedan's famous lie, The Feminine Mystique, against domesticity and the women's movement it spawned in the sixties and seventies, and, just as likely, no one would object to the loss of the latter for want of the former.
Few, however, realize just how important to American women the Vietnam war may have been. How many women gained admittance to college and access to jobs because the young men who otherwise would have gone to those colleges and gotten those jobs died or were otherwise occupied in Vietnam? How far would the modern women's movement have gotten without their sacrifice? How many pop-feminists are willing to admit their debt to these men? Do they acknowledge the role male chivalry has played in women's liberation?
The Neolithic Revolution, the Crusades and Gender Roles
Throughout history, humanity's fluctuating opinion of each gender has led to the imposition or lifting of restrictions previously in place. Before the Neolithic revolution, humans were unaware of the role men played in reproduction, and men and women were probably more or less equal. Once the connection was established, however, "man experienced an enormous surge of self-assurance" and "became certain of his own superiority." (Sex in History, Reay Tannahill, p 13)
Later, during the Crusades, the status of women, though not their condition, was much improved by the absence of virile men gone off to fight: "The absence of so many of the more intolerant members of society, and the presence of others who were in the process of discovering a new mildness and rationality, offered a golden opportunity to the women of the upper classes." (Sex in History, Reay Tannahill, p 258)
It was during this time that the convention of "courtly love" was introduced and women were perched in literature and song upon the pedestal of "virtue." From thence, it took some 12 generations for the idea to permeate society that women, too, were worthy of respect. But once this was accepted, it was only three generations until the Victorians realized women "were worthy of the vote." (Sex in History, Reay Tannahill, p 422)
Thus, no matter how repugnant to pop-feminists, the Chivalric attitudes toward women formed during the Crusades shaped the social substructure that made modern feminism possible. Similarly, if all the men who fought in Vietnam had never gone, the vacuum their absence created in both society and the job markets would never have created the opportunities needed for pop-feminism to flourish.
This raises an interesting question: Throughout history, have women been driving men to war?
Rod Van Mechelen