Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Friday, October 20, 2017

When Women Were "Sacred"

When Were Women Sacred? And What the Hell Does That Mean?


In his sycophantic, deluded press conference yesterday, while he was attempting to defend the indefensible Donald Trump, White House chief of staff John Kelly, formerly a respected Marine general, abandoned his hopeless mission and charged into strange new territory. No longer on solid ground, he wound up stepping into a steaming pile of ripe bullshit:
You know when I was a kid growing up a lot of things were sacred in our country. Women were sacred, looked upon with great honor.
What the hell?

This guy. Ugh
You know (see what I did there?), I am almost the exact age of John Kelly, who was born in 1950. I sure as hell don't remember a time when women were "sacred." 

And what does that claim even mean?

If you look up the word "sacred" in the Oxford English Dictionary, the most comprehensive and authoritative source for the study of the English language, here are the most common meanings of the adjective "sacred":
1. Of the Eucharistic elements: Consecrated.
2. (Followed by to.)
     a. Consecrated to; esteemed especially dear or acceptable to a deity.
     b. Dedicated, set apart, exclusively appropriated to some person or some special purpose. 
3. Of things, places, of persons and their offices, etc.: Set apart for or dedicated to some religious purpose, and hence entitled to veneration or religious respect; made holy by association with a god or other object of worship; consecrated, hallowed.
Well, I could go on, I love the OED, but you get the picture. Claiming women used to be "sacred" just doesn't make a lot of sense.

Of course, there's a lot more in the dictionary about what "sacred" can mean, including "venerable" and "holy" and even "something (or someone) sacrificed to the gods," but eventually you get to what, perhaps, Kelly had in mind--"Secured by religious sentiment, reverence, sense of justice, or the like, against violation, infringement, or encroachment."

Or maybe "Of a person (hence of his office): Having a religiously secured immunity from violence or attachment; sacrosanct, inviolable," but notice the pronoun there, which I have put into boldface type--the illustrations of this possible usage all refer to Roman tribunes and praetors. 

But, really, who knows what Kelly meant? Even if I'm being generous, I sure don't long for a time when religion kept women safe. BECAUSE NO SUCH TIME EVER EXISTED.

And aside from all the "sacred" crap, Kelly's sappy memories of when he was "a kid growing up" are also worth nothing. They are not memories--they are fantasy. Because when exactly have women been "looked upon with great honor"?

As soon as I type that, though, I see where I might have misunderstood him--so maybe he's right after all. Women have been "looked upon with great honor," sure, but WHEN HAVE THEY BEEN TREATED WITH GREAT HONOR?????? 

Clearly there is some make-America-great-again myth-making (or delusion) going on here. 

I've posted many times on this blog about the status of women in history. But let's not go back to the beginning of time. Maybe let's start with the nineteenth century. Could Kelly have been thinking of all those lovely, delicate "little women" imprisoned by their corsets and crinolines, those devoted, meek, and submissive "angels in the house" whose piety absolved men from being pious themselves?

The devoted nineteenth-century "angel of the house"
Because here is the English writer Caroline Norton on the realities of life for women in the nineteenth century. Does this sound like they were "sacred," treated "with honor":
A married woman . . . has no legal existence: her being is absorbed in that of her husband. . . . 
She has no possessions, unless by special settlement; her property is his property. . . . 
[She] cannot make a will. . . . 
[She] cannot legally claim her own earnings. . . . 
[She] may not leave her husband's house. . . . 
She cannot sign a lease or transact responsible business. . . . 
She cannot claim support, as a matter of personal right, from her husband. . . .
A woman had no legal right even to her children; children were the property of their fathers, who could deny their mothers the right even to see them. "Such . . . is 'the law,'" Norton concludes, demonstrating "the ridicule, confusion, and injustice of its provisions" for women.* 

Norton published her summary of the legal status of women in England in 1855. While the status of women was much the same in the United States, women and men had begun the long, painful process of trying to establish equal legal, political, educational, financial, and social rights for women by organizing in Seneca Falls for two days in 1848. 

And it took only seventy-two years of effort for women to finally get the right to vote. Wow! I guess it happened so quickly because, in those days, women were so sacred and honored.

But by the time good ol' John Kelly was growing up, more than thirty years after women had gotten the vote, women still hadn't gotten many of those other pesky things they might have needed. They were still so "sacred" and so "honored" that, among other things, they were barred from certain jobs if they were married (if they kept their jobs when they married, many were fired if they got pregnant), they couldn't get credit in their own names if they were married, birth control was either non-existent or not legally available, equal access to education wasn't even an issue, and the crime of marital rape didn't exist (marital rape didn't become a crime until 1979).

The same age as John Kelly, I remember being so sacred that when I looked for a place to live, I had to search in the "For Rent--Women" column, and I when I searched for a job,I was so honored I could look at the low-skill, low-wage jobs offered "For Women."

It's now, in 2017, almost 100 years since women have gotten the vote. And how's this for progress?**
  • Women occupy only 19.6 percent of the 535 seats in the U.S. Congress--there are 21 women in the Senate and 84 in the House of Representatives. In state legislatures, women hold 24.9 percent of the seats--1,840 of 7,383 members of state legislatures.
  • Only six of fifty state governors are women. In the 1,362 U.S. cities with populations of over 30,000, women are mayors in only 286 of them--21 percent.
  • There have been no female presidents of the United States in the 240 years since the country declared its independence in 1776.
  • Of the 112 justices who have served on the U.S. Supreme Court, only four have been women.
  • Women hold only 5.2 percent of the CEO position in Fortune 500 companies.
  • According to the most recent U.S. Census (2010), about one-third of U.S. physicians are women, 31.5 percent of lawyers are women, 17.5 percent of clergy are women, and 9.7 percent of civil engineers are women (United States Census Bureau, “Labor Force, Employment, and Earnings,” Table 616, “Employed Civilians by Occupation, Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin,” Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2012 [Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2012]).
  • In the increasingly important world of technology and social media, here are some numbers: Just 20 of Apple's top 107 executives are women. Meanwhile, Microsoft reports that only 25.8 percent of its total workforce is female and that women represent only 17.9 percent of its leadership. While Google touts its commitment to women on its website, its latest diversity report shows that women account for only 31 percent of its workforce and only 25 percent of its leadership, at Facebook, 27 percent, and, while it may have hired a new VP of Inclusion and Diversity, at Twitter, only 3 of its 9 -person leadership team is female, and it continues to be involved in gender-related "abuse" problems.
  • The wage gap persists; although the Equal Pay Act was passed fifty years ago, in 1963, today women in the U.S. still earn about 80 cents for every dollar earned by men.
  • The entertainment field certainly doesn't seem to hold women "sacred," as the cases of Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Woody Allen, and many, many others make obvious. In commenting on the opportunities for women writers in theatrical productions, playwright Marsha Norman recently noted, "Women have lived half of the experience of the world, but only 20 percent of it is recorded in our theatres." In other words, "if life worked like the theatre, four out of five things you had ever heard would have been said by men." Onstage and back stage, there is also a colossal gender gap: significantly fewer roles for female actors than male, and noticeably fewer female directors, set designers, lighting designers, sound designers, and choreographers, among other crucial roles.
  • At the same time, on screens both large and small, women face similar inequities. Recent studies of the top 100 films released in 2015 reveal women accounted for only 11 percent of the writers, 7 percent of the directors, 22 percent of the producers, 20 percent of the editors, and 3 percent of the cinematographers. On screen, women played leading roles in only 34 percent of the top 100 films of 2016—and of those leads, only 8 were women over the age of forty-five. And none of these numbers address issues of pay equity.
  • While women are more fully represented on television screens than they are in film—in the 2016-17 prime-time season, 42 percent of the “major characters” on broadcast, cable, and Netflix programs were female—they still comprised only 28 percent of the writers, directors, producers, editors, and directors of photography, among other roles.
  • Meanwhile, women and girls constitute the majority of the 54.3 million Americans who live in poverty.
  • Two-thirds of the low-wage workers in the U.S. (earning $10.50 per hour or less) are women. Four out of five of these women have at least a high-school diploma--33 percent have some college, 10 percent a B.A.
  • More than twice as many women over the age of 65 (over 3 million) as men (over 1.5 million) lived in poverty in 2014; the poverty rate for women 65 and older was 12.1 percent, 4.7 percentage points higher than the poverty rate for men 65 and older (7.4 percent).
  • On a really cheery note, the most recent report by the Violence Policy Center shows that 93 percent of women who are murdered are killed by men they know.
  • And while exact numbers are impossible to know, the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that there are about 431,840 victims (age 12 or older) of rape and sexual assault each year. While the percentage rate has remained "relatively stable" since 1993, it still means that a sexual assault occurs every 107 seconds. While men and boys are also the victims of rape and sexual assault, 9 of 10 victims are female. But note: as the CDC recently reported, the numbers of rape victims are significantly under-reported--as many as 88 percent may not be counted in national rape statistics.
Men have so honored their sacred mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters, that this is the world they have made for them. This is the world men control. This is the world they perpetuate. And if John Kelly thinks so much has been lost, he has only himself--and men--to blame.

As for you women--if the current state of affairs isn't good enough for you, if you're not feeling all that sacred, you can be sure that if you talk too much about any of these statistics--or if you criticize the behavior of men like Donald Trump--then men like John Kelly will feel free to deny your basic humanity (in Kelly's words, Frederica Wilson, who criticized Trump, is just "this woman," an "empty barrel"). These men who so honor sacred womankind will insult your intelligence and criticize you for your anger and disgust. 

And if you dare to do more than criticize, if dare to step out of line, men like Trump and Kelly will attack your ambition, your weight, your hair, your complexion, your smile, your breasts--well, okay, basically your entire body--your clothing, your voice, your laugh, your tone, your emotions, your driving . . . 

Because, looking back to some imaginary past where women were "sacred," this is how they honor them today.

God forbid you be a woman who speaks her mind.
(And who wears a hat. That's unforgivable.)
*For another view of how sacred and honored the "angel in the house" was, you might be interested in Florence Nightingale's perspective.

**This list--and its accompanying statistics--has been updated from a post I wrote in May 2016. If you check there, you can see how much progress women have made in that year and a half! It must be because we've so honored!

Update: On the very day that I was writing this post. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders opined that it was "highly inappropriate" to engage in any kind of debate with "a four-star Marine general" Hahahahahahaha!!! That's me, I guess. Highly inappropriate. (Of course, in my defense, I'm not debating him--I'm saying he's either a liar or delusional.)

Update, 23 October 2017: Aside from the ongoing epidemic of sexual assault in the military, Charles M. Blow ("Trump's Boogeymen? Women," New York Times) today alludes to the  abysmal the lack of female officers in the military. While Blow links to a 2011 PBS News Hour story in his column, it's easy to find the 4 October 2017 Diversity, Inclusion, and Equal Opportunity in the Armed Services: Background and Issues report prepared for the U.S. Congress by the Congressional Research Service.

According to the report (see especially Table 8, p. 31), published just days before John Kelly, with quivering lip, lamented the past when women were sacred and honored, only 20.3% of the total number of officers in the U.S. Army are female, only 18.9% of the total number of officers in the Navy are female, only 20.8% of the total number of officers in the Air Force are female, and only 8.2% of the officers in the Marines are female. (In boldface because Kelly was a Marine.) But, while women account for roughly 20% of all the officers in three of the branches of the military, they represent less than 10% of the "highest leadership positions."

Wow.

As for the whole good-old-days of female sacredness that Kelly mythologizes? Check out the history of women and military service in the report . . . (pp. 22-29). Nice to know that women could serve when they were really needed (like in World War I and II), but that after the Second World War, while women were finally accepted as a part of the permanent military, there was a gender quota (as there was a racial quota). Only 2% of the military could be female. These limits existed from the time of the 1948 Women's Armed Services Integration Act until 1967.

By the way, if you want to educate yourself about the horrors of sexual assault in the U.S. military, here's the most recent full report: Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military (fiscal year 2016, published in May 2017).