Living near Philadelphia has given me a strong sense of the history of our nation and the place of women in it. Has the challenge of being female in America changed since the Declaration of Independence was written? Or are women still facing the same issues for the same reasons?
Historically two things have had the greatest impact on the lives of women--our ability to control reproduction and our ability to get a good education. These two things still have the biggest impact on the lives of women in America, even in 2011. How is it that even after 200+ years we are still fighting the same battles? Opportunities for education have improved for some of us, but not for all. Reproductive control is possible but it is not always an option depending on our economic class, access to insurance or the knowledge and understanding of where to obtain it and how to use birth control properly.
Benjamin Franklin's sister, Jane Mecom, was a prolific correspondent, who often wrote to her famous brother. Her letters, known as "Poor Jane's Almanac," tell us about the life of a woman living a very different life than her famous brother, Benjamin Franklin. While Ben cavorted in the courts of Europe representing the government of the United States, Jane didn't travel the world or become famous as a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Instead Jane's life was a constant struggle to survive a life of poverty. While Ben was able to struggle out of poverty to become one of the most influential people of his time, Jane's life was far different. What did Jane do? Jane was married at 15 (I shudder to think what my life would have been like if I'd married at that age!). She proceeded to have 12 children, and sadly buried 11. It is widely believed her husband and two of her sons went mad--a unenviable diagnosis in that time period. Poor Jane struggled just to make ends meet, feed her family and try to survive a life of what must have felt like grinding poverty and incredible stressors.
A woman's ability to escape poverty is directly related to her ability to control reproduction (something some in our government seem determined to take away from us even today.) This coupled with our chance to get a good education, which is related to our socioeconomic class means that even more than 200 years after Jane Meacom wrote her famous letters to Ben, women are still facing inequality, much of which is based on uterine economics. The times as well as her circumstances kept Jane from getting the education she desired, though when she wrote in confidence to her brother, "I Read as much as I Dare” my heart broke for her.
"I Read as much as I Dare." Poor Jane! I cannot imagine a world where I only 'read as much as I dare.' But then I am blessed to live in a time when women have the ability to control the size of their families and can receive an education comparable to that of men (at least if we're lucky). I live in a world where I can read a dozen books at once without even leaving home -- thanks to my Kindle. Or get a college education online (presuming I can afford to pay for it). Poor Jane didn't even have a Kindle so she could read at night after a long day taking care of a huge family and a crazy husband.
Today, I am more fortunate than Jane, although not all women are. What my socioeconomic class (and technology) gave me was CHOICE. But I also recognized how fortunate I have been to have the opportunities to make decisions. Unlike Jane Meacom and the other women of the 1700s, I had a choice and those choices, both good and bad, were mine to make.
But one thing is clear to me. Even today, while we may have, 'come a long way baby' women's lives are still controlled by their ability to control their reproductive lives and to get a good education. These two things remain much the same for us today as they were for women in the 1700s. Not all women, even my contemporaries or their daughters all have that choice. It's still all about education and uterine economics.