Digging Deeper: The Petticoat Rule

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I still remember when my mother first got the right to vote in South Carolina. I look around and see the ballot is even more significant now. These are dangerous times for women. Why recently, six women, unaware of each other, stepped forward to say that a presidential candidate’s conversations were creepy, his actions bordered on assault, his loud denials were shams, and the women are being vilified. The message: do not think critically. Follow blindly. Be silent. (You may wear shoes.)

It’s a woman’s duty, bi-partisan sectors of the country are loud to proclaim, to let herself be talked to suggestively, to ignore risque overtures, and not be upset if a man touches her thighs, hips, and breasts once in awhile, without her permission. This sector sternly demands women forfeit their safety and self-respect.  The latest incidents show the media speculating on “why” victims speak out. I had hoped that blaming and doubting women about improper sexual advances was passe, but a dark cloud lingers.

How different it was in my mother’s generation. Southern conservative Democrats—the same people who are now Southern conservative Republicans, add in Northern carpetbaggers (everybody who moved South from Ohio wasn’t liberal!)–made the rallying cry of segregation the protection of the flower of white womanhood. This protection unleashed a brutal hate. In 1955, 15-year-old, Chicago-born Emmett Till got lynched; kidnapped, brutally beaten, missing an eye, his body sunk in a Mississippi river with a cotton scale weight around his neck for less than a presidential candidate is reported to have done.

So deep is the need to slime Obama that a segment of people and power are willing to overlook women being grouped and propositioned. To tarnish the President by proxy—the sly innuendo (“oh, hell . .”) he probably did it/does it/wants it too—that all men do—and have the right (if they want). This is dangerous ground.

Not one of the Late Eight has condemned violence against women and children. In the deepest, most tragic of analogies, pundits smugly agreed male child rapes committed by a former college football coach “distracted” from the candidate’s controversy, never fully framing as linked these aggressive, despicable acts against women and children.

By week’s end, the candidate’s remarks about Nancy Pelosi and Anita Hill clearly signaled a deep-seated misogyny. Henry “Scoop” Jackson lost his Washington state US senate seat for this kind of behavior. Today a Republican candidate with two paid claims, two public appearances, seven reports and collaborations against his denials leads the pack. In these times, we have moved from issues to incident. It’s unfortunate that in the media, such behavior is being discussed—not condemned.

In a time when women were put on pedestals (which means unlike today, it was not okay to be wanton in public), they were also restricted socially and politically. SC’s Ellison Durant “Cotton Ed” Smith along with 16 Democrat and 8 Republican US senators voted against women having the right to vote. The South Carolina legislature voted overwhelmingly against it at the state level, in 1919, and finally got around to approving the 19th amendment in 1969 (although it had been law long before). Mississippi finally approved it in 1984. This was what Sarah Palin called “our” America.

Women now make up more than 50% of the registered voters. But in SC, where the new Governor is a woman and a second-generation immigrant, women are less than 10% of the state’s 124 House’s members. Why aren’t SC women running for office? Democratic women in the Texas legislature could also use some help. Currently, the Texas Senate and House only have one Democratic woman among 31 Senate members and one woman among the 150 Representatives in the Texas House.

262 women filed to run for the US House during the 2010 elections. For the first time since 1891 (the 96th Congress), the number of women serving in the 112nd Congress will drop from the previous Congress. Democratic women will drop from 58 to 48. Republican women will increase from 17 to 24, for a net loss of three.

Among the new representatives on both sides of the aisle, watch Terri Sewell, the first black woman elected to Congress from Alabama, a Selma native and a graduate of Princeton, Harvard Law, and London’s Oxford University. Also from Alabama, Republican Martha Roby, who served on Montgomery’s city council, beat her former mayor for a Congressional seat. Republican Kristi Noem, South Dakota’s only Congress member, sees a balanced budget as a main priority; nevertheless, she has received $3.58 million in federal farm subsidies since 1995. She also received 20 speeding tickets! One of her budget cuts might be the courts.

Keep an eye on Democrat Karen Bass, former Speaker of the House in California who brings experience and vast vote-herding skills to the legislative process. So does Hawaii’s former House Speaker, Democrat Colleen Hanabusa. Four on the nine new Democrats elected to the 112th Congress are women. The first Chinese-American woman to serve in Congress, Judy Chu of CA, was re-elected last term. She replaced Labor Secretary Hilda Solis in a California district.

Wyoming was the first territory in which women gained the vote, in 1869. Wyoming, pressured by federal officials and Congress, rejected Congressional demands to take the vote away from Wyoming women as a condition of joining the Union. Wyoming sent word by to Washington by telegram it would withdraw its application and remain out of the United States “100 years” rather than join without women’s suffrage. In 1925, Wyoming elected the nation’s first female governor, Nellie Tayloe Ross, by 8,000 votes. Her first speech called for tax cuts, government assistance for poor farmers, banking reform, and laws protecting children, women workers, and miners.

Women did–believe it or not–oppose the right of women to vote! These women endorsed “the belief that women can be more useful to the community without the ballot than if affiliated with and influenced by party politics.”

A National Association Opposed to Women Suffrage circular called “Household Hints.” argued “the votes of women can accomplish no more than the votes of men.” It offered these reasons:

Because 90 percent of women either do not want it or do not care.

Because it means competition instead of co-operation.

Because 80 percent of the women eligible to vote are married and can only double or annul their husbands’ votes.

Because in some States, more voting women than voting men will put the Government under petticoat rule.

Because it is unwise to risk the good we already have for the evil which may occur.

A century earlier, two SC sisters anticipated these objections. The Grimke Sisters were among the earliest advocates of women’s rights. Sarah, the family’s middle child, and Angelina (“Nina”), the youngest of 13, advanced from privileged daughters of plutocratic slave holders (their father was Chief Justice of the SC Supreme Court) to becoming abolitionists engaged in anti-slavery protests, to finally embrace the rights of all oppressed.

Angela: “I recognize no rights but human rights. I know nothing of men’s rights and women’s rights; for in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female.”

Sarah: “I ask no favors for my sex, I surrender not our claim to equality. All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks, and permit us to stand upright on the ground which God has designed us to occupy.”

Stand upright on the ground which God has designed us to occupy.

A SC lowcountry native who once worked in the fields, Victoria DeLee, whose house was burned and life was threatened during the civil rights movement, ran for the US Congress from the SC lowcountry in 1971. She campaigned on an independent party; her flyer calls for voters to elect a wife and mother who was “a winner.” For her work in securing voting rights, she received an honorary doctorate from Amherst College. She died in June, 2010, her work recalled and honored by a faithful network of those whose institutional memory remembered its benefits.

Texas-born Lucy Parsons, born enslaved in 1853 of African, Native American and Mexican heritage, who married an ex-Confederate in 1871 and fled to Chicago, became an activist before women could vote as a stalwart of the labor movement. Once called by the Chicago police “more dangerous than a thousand rioters,” among her memorable quotes about democracy, she voiced “never be deceived that the rich will let you vote away their wealth” and that “governments never lead, they follow progress.”

These times are dangerous. Women and voters are under attack. The Right has declared a field day on women. Properly, Barack should be leading from behind; we should get this: our common voices need to come to the front, each one like a thousand. Who among us is standing upright?

Do not retreat from the ground we were designed to occupy.