*In 1966 the Godfather of Soul recorded a song called “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” that accurately summed up the predominate thought in the world regarding gender relations: men accomplish all things of value and women are accessories.
Ironically enough James Brown gained a number one song with this message at the same time as the women’s movement was beginning. But perhaps this shouldn’t be unexpected because as much as women attempt to redefine the narrative of American history to include them as central actors, there is the inevitable push back from (mostly men in) society.
This is essentially what has happened in the last week in the cases of Danica Patrick and Sandra Fluke.
Danica Patrick, a professional race car driver, has not enjoyed great success in her chosen vocation. Nevertheless she has secured off the track revenue as a spokesperson primarily because she is very attractive. Patrick recently objected to having her identity reduced to the phrase “sexy girl.”
Sandra Fluke is a law student who has recently become a bit of a celebrity because of her pursuit of contraception as part of the universal health care bill pushed by the Obama administration. She has been brought to the nation’s attention more so in the past few days because Rush Limbaugh, a popular conservative radio pundit, alleged that Fluke was of low moral character for demanding contraceptives be part of the government health care program.
Each of these women was/is acting according to a status quo that was supposedly changed already. Women are theoretically able to earn a living as professional sportsmen; women are theoretically able to enjoy sexual relationships without having to give undue thought to pregnancy. However these issues that one might assume had already been decided were points of contention. Danica Patrick is not taken seriously as a driver. Instead by constantly referring to her as a sexy girl, commentators relegate her to the role of reward for the male drivers rather than competitor against them. Fluke is cast as someone more like an reckless nymphomaniac rather than a responsible woman who wants to avoid having a sexual relationship dictate the course of her life.
100 years ago it would have been rare for a woman (unless she were a domestic worker) to work outside of her home and unthinkable for her to be in a profession in which she regularly sought to prove herself better than men. Much more common was that women were one of the rewards men tried to attain through success in their careers. By making Patrick’s racing ability secondary and frequently objectifying her, commentators are trying to turn back the clock to when it was a man’s man’s man’s world.
100 years ago it would have been rare for a woman to engage in any real family planning and unthinkable for such planning to occur outside of marriage; birth control was more of a concept than a practice. Sex was an activity that carried the inherent risk of producing a life that would need care-taking that largely consumed a woman’s time and resources. By labeling Fluke as someone of low morals Limbaugh paints with a broad brush any woman who wants to engage in sex while minimizing the possibility of becoming pregnant. It is another way of going back in time to a period of American history when men were more dominant in society and women could be categorized as mothers and soon-to-be-mothers.
Of course someone will point out that it’s true that Patrick earns money because of her physical appearance; it’s true that she has not won many races. Likewise it seems that Fluke is not the average law student; she has a background in activism and allegedly chose Georgetown because of its position in the debate of employer provided contraception. But these are exactly the reasons that make these cases worth following.
It is a no-brainer to be outraged when a female driver who wins every race is still identified as a reward for the men she is competing against. The real test for how society has advanced is when the woman in question is a fair to middling competitor; at that point will she still be accorded the respect due her.
It is easy to side with young women in college who seem to have all the potential in the world and could be derailed by starting a family too soon. The rubber hits the road when the woman in question seems to be a seasoned activist who consciously chose to take on this issue.
The tough cases are the ones by which society will be judged. And the question is: are we still living in a man’s man’s man’s world? Does a woman have to drastically outpace the men in her field to be considered a valid equal? Are women going to be reduced to their biological capabilities?
Or have we progressed?
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org