So it’s a fall morning, and I’m sitting in one of our three local diners, eating my scrambled eggs, french toast, and sausages. I sit alone at my table; most of the other tables are filled with codgers of various ages in John Deere “gimme” caps and slightly-past-prime bib overalls. The air smells like bacon, maple, and coffee. The waitress, who is also the owner, rushes from table to table, serving pancakes, pouring coffee, and chatting up the codgers. Outside the steamy windows trees are bright red, yellow, and orange blurs.
Inside, the codgers chat about things of interest to codgers–beef prices, machinery repair, apple harvest, and, of course, politics. Always politics. At the table closest to me two codgers are nearly incandescent over the iniquities of a local county supervisor. I am new to the area and it turns out the supervisor is from over the border in the next county, anyway, but this in no way diminishes the codgers’ ire. The supervisor is a woman.
The waitress/owner swirls through and drops pancakes, sausage, syrup, and coffee on their table, and the codgers trade conversation for happy mastication. And then, into the silence, the younger of the codgers says this. “Yup, wimmen and power…wimmen and power…turrible combination…turrible combination…” The older codger bites a sausage savagely in agreement.
And there I sit, a woman. A single mother. A business owner. I realize that I am one of the women to whom the codgers are referring. It’s a strange feeling. I grew up around here, in farm country, on a farm–a place where chauvinism is tolerated on the basis that “women aren’t as strong as men.” As the daughter of a father for whom that excuse buttered no parsnips, to use a localism, I learned early on that jobs needed to be done, and if I didn’t have the shoulder strength to turn a wrench I’d just better hustle my butt over to the scrap pile and find myself a nice long pipe to slip over the wrench handle to increase my leverage. Or get the air wrench. Or put a spinner wrench on and stand on it and use my body weight to do what my shoulders couldn’t. For a man who til the day he died believed that women needed to accept second-class status, my father was unswerving in expecting more, not less, from his daughters when it came to job performance.
There are arguments to be made about the dangers and disadvantages of growing up like I did, but the truth is that all those years of having to face my irritated, impatient father taught me that first, being female was no excuse for not getting the job done, and second, that if I didn’t have the physical power to accomplish a task I’d better use my head and find or invent a lever or a bigger wrench. While it would be perhaps nice to be able to see myself as a woman in some circumstances, life is full of circumstances where gender should play no part.
I consider speaking my mind to the codgers, and discard the idea. Because they are codgers and I am a stranger they would listen more or less politely, pay their bill, and then walk out, self-righteous in the knowledge that I had just proven their point–women have gotten above themselves, and the world would be a better place if the laws against smacking the little woman were a little less stringent.
I am perhaps doing the codgers an injustice, and this would be just a funny/sad story if it weren’t for what’s happening in the United States today. A look at the reproductive rights legislation under consideration in Washington D.C. and across the nation is frightening for a common thread behind much of it–the belief that women and power are a ‘turrible combination.”
Why? Because legislation that limits free access to the most reliable means of birth control, and deprives us of the tools we need to determine if and when childbearing should happen, deprives us of equal opportunities across the board. The truth is women and men are not biologically equal. Men are bigger and stronger. Men don’t create new people out of their very blood and bones. Men don’t experience morning sickness, loosening ligaments, labor. Men don’t have to worry about milk leakage. None of this is their fault. It’s biology in exactly the same way that it was biology that determined that my shoulder muscles would not have the mass and power of a man’s shoulder muscles.
And in exactly the same way that I was only able to do my job on the ranch because I had access to the tools that would equalize the playing field, we women of reproductive age need unfettered access to the tools we need to determine if or when we are in a position be bring a child into the world. Without access to reliable birth control and safe abortions women are literally at the mercy of their bodies and of every man they encounter, simply because of biology. Without that access women cannot hope to compete equally in the labor force, in the executive suite, in marriage, and before the law.
Lower wages for women have long been justified on the basis of biology–women “take time off when the kids get sick,” “miss work when they have their periods,” “aren’t strong enough to do the jobs men do.” The glass ceiling is justified by arguing that women cannot be both parents and executives, and that they will of course choose their parenting responsibilities first if they are any kind of mothers at all.
Here is the truth: it IS hard to both parent and pursue a career. Children DO require time and energy that we women might otherwise devote to our careers. But the solution isn’t simply barring women from competition–it is in providing them with the tools they need to take biology out of the equation, where it needs to be, and make competition about skill, creativity, and motivation.