The other day my wife and I were deciding on a restaurant for lunch. She chose one based, she remarked, on its bathrooms! The condition of bathrooms, I understood, is far more important to women than to men. The reasons are entirely obvious, especially because women, by and large, must use the bathroom far more often than men. (Who hasn’t witnessed long lines in front of women’s bathrooms while nary a male entered the men’s facility?) This altogether unremarkable incident, however, got me thinking about the many ways women still remain disadvantaged in our society.
Sure, I recognize that women have made considerable progress in recent decades and can point to notable advances and achievements. But I’m talking about situations that usually exist under the radar and that rarely are factored in when considering the relative standing of men and women in contemporary America. Though the times they are achanging – and the numbers may bear this out – it’s still likely that most couples await more eagerly the birth of boys rather than girls. And as girls begin growing up they face challenges and threats most males are spared. Girls get “periods”, a phenomenon unknown to men. Often it means that each month difficult and uncomfortable days can be expected. In recent years girls face increasing pressure to engage in sex and to perform sexual acts once considered out of bounds. Date rape seems to have become a menacing fact of life for females as they move from high school through college and the years beyond. Being held captive for extended periods by males, while not common nevertheless, dramatizes women’s vulnerability. Indeed, personal security remains a consistent concern in the lives of girls and women. Unlike most males, they must remain ever vigilant when they are out and about, cautioned to be aware of their surroundings, the time of day, whether or not they’re alone and what they are prepared to do if assaulted (flight, self-defense, pepper spray).
The pressures continue. Women rarely feel comfortable appearing in public without make-up. Many spend considerable time applying all manner of facial enhancements (plus refreshing their makeup, especially their lipstick, throughout the day). Few venture out without their pocketbooks, which leave them vulnerable to “purse snatching” and subject to the frustrations associated with rummaging through oversized and overstuffed bags. Unlike men, a large majority of women believe that out in public they must wear high heeled shoes, which certainly enhance legs and ankles, but often produce unwanted clatter, limit their pace of movement and often produce physical discomfort. Despite all their effort, women are thought to “age” sooner than men, who frequently are able to attract and select females considerably younger than they are.
Only women become pregnant and must endure many months of increasing discomfort and distress. Giving birth has its pleasures and satisfactions, but that may only be in retrospect. Babies need their mothers, require their complete attention and care – an exhausting experience for mom. And domestic bliss may not last. Women still are called upon or left to do most of the housework, cooking and shopping. Unfaithful husbands are everywhere; physically abusive partners far too common. Women are expected to care for elderly parents. Men have their “excuses” and pitch in far less frequently. Divorce obviously harms both of them, but then the burdens single mothers bear can be crippling. If the marriage lasts, wives typically outlive husbands. As a result women find themselves living alone for years after the deaths of their spouses.
Millions of women in America lead productive and fulfilling lives, loving and being loved by men. But that does not alter the fact that in our society they often have a rough time of it. (admittedly, in many many other societies conditions are far worse.) The most obvious obstacles they face will eventually be overcome. Still many will remain reflecting as they do either natural differences between the sexes or arrangements in which men have defined and determined the contours and conditions of women’s lives.