Necessary protections for women to ensure fair treatment in housing and employment, to mandate equal pay for equal work, to further enforce laws against sexual harassment and domestic partner abuse and to reinforce existing state laws assuring access to abortion are all admirable components of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposed legislation now before the state Legislature.
That this legislation is still necessary nearly 100 years after women achieved the vote, I was going to argue should be unnecessary in these days of women’s liberation. But with the recent hearings held in Congress about the military’s inability to control physical violence against women within its own ranks, it would seem we’ve not come such a very long way, baby, after all.
It’s been an often bitter, always contentious, battle over the centuries to grant all who are human the reality of the dicta that all men are created equal, with equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And the battle has centered on just who — of which sex or color or religion or nationality — shall be considered a “man.” In our country over the past two centuries, the debate has focused mainly on gender and skin color — women and racial minorities.
Equality for non-whites, after great political upheaval, often violence, and always controversy, was finally settled by law. The civil rights and voting acts of the 1960s assured equality with enforceable legislation. But although women succeeded in exercising their right to vote nearly 100 years ago, we are still arguing over their right to the liberty of their own bodies, whether or not they must continue a pregnancy, begun under no matter what circumstances. This liberty still appears to be a right reserved for courts and legislatures composed chiefly of men.
In our state of New York, the governor’s intention to secure women’s rights to an abortion, reserving the choice to continue a pregnancy to those who must carry, deliver and subsequently assume responsibility for the child, is still causing considerable debate. The argument is between those who would preserve a potential life within a women’s body, whether or not this is what the woman chooses, and those who feel that decision is reserved solely for those who must do the work.
If women do belong within that ambitious 18th century claim of universal quality, with their own right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, there should be no need to debate the limits of their personal freedom. According to previous centuries of thought on the subject, including our own, it has been generally agreed that personal freedom within a community exists as a right until it infringes directly upon another’s safety or well-being.
But, of course, there are many debatable nuances surrounding the quality of other’s comfort and well being. If the idea of a potential life on this earth destroyed causes discomfort within another, does that other have the right to command its preservation? And may that command exist without personal responsibility for that future life’s nurture and support? In plain language, can a legislature command a woman to bear a child?
Keeping it real
Not so long ago, women’s liberty was severely limited as potential breeders. As such, the paternity of her children was assured. In some parts of our world, this confinement of women still exists. However, in our state, women are no one’s property, certainly belonging to no man. Quite often they are shouldering the burdens and responsibilities customarily expected of men. They may be providing the majority of their family’s support. Not incidentally, these responsibilities are at times the reason for their deciding not to bear and nurture another child, a decision made in favor of the welfare of her existing children.
But these are the details, practical matters which a legislature, religion or conservative community rarely pauses to consider, confining the debate of a woman’s fate strictly to the realm of ideology and doctrine, as they are wont to do.
I would suggest the issue is not about the destruction of a potential life so much as it is about the future of that life once it is present within a community. A constructive future for that life doesn’t depend upon doctrine or ideology, but nurture and support. A community that cares for the sanctity of each life will be a nurturing community. Each new life will be welcomed by all, properly encouraged and provided for. As far as that ideal is concerned, we again have a long way to go.
As we have in the failure of our highest military commanders to control sexual attacks within the ranks, most often by a male outranking a female member of his unit, we also have a long way to go towards true gender equality. Thus, it is necessary for the state Legislature to secure Gov. Cuomo’s propositions favoring true equality for women into law.
What is considered appropriate treatment of those who are physically, economically and educationally weaker than those who prevail in power changes slowly. As in the civil rights legislation of the ’60s, first there must be a rule for a change in a long-standing practice, legally enforced, then individual changes in both behavior and belief.
Barbara DeMille lives in Rensselaerville. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.