The national news media frequently reports on the deprivations suffered by women in some foreign countries. Opinion writers suggest that democracy would greatly improve the status of women in those countries.
Women’s progress in America has certainly benefited from democracy. Women gained the right to vote as a result of a constitutional amendment that took effect in 1920. Although that constitutional right has not been uniformly and consistently available to all American women, it has facilitated women’s gains, but other things may have contributed more to women’s progress than democracy.
My parents were ages 16 and 18 when American women gained the constitutional right to vote. In my father’s family there were 10 children who survived to adulthood and there were seven children in my mother’s family. The men and boys did farm work, with horses, and worked in coal mines. The wives and girls did everything else.
There was a lot of else. The houses were small. Cooking and laundry required heating on a coal or wood burning stove. Both families had a separate shed behind the house that was called a “summer kitchen.” They moved the cooking range to that shed in the summer. Otherwise, it would have been too hot to live in the house. Monday was laundry day. That chore required pumping water, carrying water in buckets, heating water and scrubbing piles of smelly clothing on a brass scrub board. Tuesday was ironing day. That required heating the iron — a piece of iron with a handle — on the coal or wood burning range and trying to avoid burning the clothing. It was drudgery work. My mother, who had grown up in that environment, lived long enough to eventually enjoy central air-conditioning and travel on commercial jet airliners. The modern technology that she appreciated most was an automatic clothes washing machine.
The wives and girls planted and tended the gardens, and preserved fruit and vegetables and meat for winter. Of course, they also cooked for more people than some restaurants, and they baked bread, another hot job. They sewed all the clothing for everyone in the family. Through it all, the wives kept giving birth, ensuring the future. In that era, death in child birth was common, and children frequently died of communicable diseases. Life was harsh.
Technology, the state-of-the-art technology that delivered safe piped water, electricity, public sanitation, labor-saving devices, great advances in medicine, and motorized transportation made life better for all. Modern contraceptives made it possible for women to avoid exhausting themselves rearing large families.
Public education, although not a constitutional right in America, has been widely available, and college education has been reasonably accessible. Currently, 60 percent of American college students are women.
It is technology and education that reduced drudgery labor, increased women’s lifespans and now gives women the opportunity to pursue activities of their choosing.
Democracy — if it functions properly — is better than all of those other forms of government, but it is not a substitute for technology and wealth production. During the current and previous presidential administrations, the U.S. Government has engaged in egregious assaults on constitutional rights and laws, and most of us hardly notice. But, if the water doesn’t run when we turn the faucet handle, the lights don’t come on when we flip the switch, the sewers back up, the gas station has no gasoline, or the grocery store shelves are empty, we notice. Democratic procedures can be used to enhance the status of women, or they can be used to restrict the rights of women. But technology has been a consistent liberator.
Jack Stevenson is a retired military officer. He lives in Florida.