This morning at our class on 20th century British literature here in Nottingham, England, we discussed Virginia Woolf's wonderful book-length essay, A Room of One's Own.
In her book, she relates that she was asked to lecture on "Women and Fiction," but this broad topic leads her down the path of wondering why so few women had written (to that point) and what conditions would be necessary for women to write.
She writes that all she can do is offer "an opinion on one minor point—a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
The text is much deeper than that of course, as she examines the history of patriarchy in England and the deep inequalities of wealth and opportunity that existed between men and women. One quotation in particular caught my eye as useful for discussion:
Moreover, in a hundred years…women will have ceased to be the protected sex. Logically they will take part in all the activities and exertions that were once denied them. The nursemaid will heave coal. The shopwoman will drive an engine. All assumptions founded on the facts observed when women were the protected sex will have disappeared…
"Well, it's been almost 100 years since she wrote that," I said. "What do you think? Have women ceased to be the protected sex?"
Immediately one of the female students said "No." She explained that women's bodies were still "protected" regarding their reproductive rights. I said abortion was legal in the U.S. Another female student (we have seven females and one male) responded that individual states can curtail the right to an abortion by limiting the window of time in which it is legal, or restricting the age at which a young woman can have an abortion without parental consent.
I then asked about equality in the workplace. Can a woman today, to use Woolf's phrase, "heave coal?" One student said that women were still limited from doing certain jobs that required physical labor—that is, they could be in the military or employed as firefighters, but they were not always allowed to do the heaviest work.
After class I checked out these claims. A New York Times article from May 2017 reported that, "After the Obama administration ordered the military in 2013 to open all combat positions to women, the Army developed gender-neutral performance standards to ensure that recruits entering the infantry were all treated the same." The article went on to say that in boot camp, "men and women lug the same rucksacks, throw the same grenades and shoulder the same machine guns."
The case of firefighters is different. In some cities women firefighters who have not passed the physical test have been allowed to graduate from firefighting school and take jobs as firefighters. But that is because women's groups have successfully argued in court that the physical tests were more rigorous than they needed to be and in fact were set up to deter and limit the number of women firefighters. About six percent of all firefighters in the U.S. are women. Here in the United Kingdom, fire chiefs have eased the "ladder lifting" tests that all new recruits must go through to allow more women and less-strong men into the service (Daily Mail, April 11, 2011).
So regarding firefighters, the student was right—though the situation was more complicated than at first glance.
Well, I see that like Virginia Woolf, I have now wandered into territory I hadn't intended to explore—women firefighters! Back to the class. One student said that while we may not think as much progress has been made as we'd like, if Virginia Woolf were transported from 1929 to today she would likely be thrilled with the steps toward equality for women. We nodded in agreement.
I ended the class with a little statistical quiz on women's equality in the workplace that I had picked up in a quick tour of the internet.
How many U.S. women senators are there? One student said 46, another six, another 20. There are 21.
How much do women earn on the dollar compared to men, according to the Census Bureau? One student said 70 cents. Not far off: it's 79 cents for all women, 60 cents for black women and 55 cents for Hispanic women.
How long will it take for the world to achieve "global gender parity," according to the 2015 World Economic Forum? "Fifty years," one student said. "Not even close," I said. "Try 177 years." The class gasped. And in the United States? 2058.
"You'll be 61 by then," I said."Great," one female student said, "women's equality just when I get old."
"Old!" I exclaimed. "Watch it. I turn 61 this year."