Women’s struggle for self-determination and the pursuit of happiness is one that has not come without bumps and bruises or outright smackdowns. Lest we forget, we’ve selected to note some milestones along that cobblestone path, some large and historical, and some small but meaningful, the “unintended allies” that smoothed our way and made our lives a little easier. And, though we honor them standing in Jimmy Choos (thank you Dr. Scholl’s Massaging Gel Inserts) or Birkenstocks, the song remains the same — that it is, and always has been, about choice. In no order of importance other than a loose timeline:
“God may have made men and women, but Colt made them equal” goes the saying. And it’s true. With the rifle, prairie women suddenly found some equal footing with men at least in terms of self-defense. The firearm doesn’t have the best pedigree as far as “advancements” in the history of mankind, but, for women, the gun gave them an advantage they did not previously have. The 19th century introduced small ladies’ pistols that could slip tidily inside a hand warmer or a purse for safety or … whatever. The gun truly was “the great leveler.” It was a crap shoot, though, as far as how being armed was perceived. Calamity Jane was not seen as feminine, whereas Annie Oakley was.
It continues to startle us how recently women had to fight for their right to a legislative voice. In 1848, the first women’s rights convention was held in New York at which 68 women and 32 men signed a Declaration of Sentiments outlining grievances. The Suffragette engagement that ensued was a long, pitched battle, which made famous the efforts of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. The 19th Amendment was ratified on August 18, 1920, with Tennessee being the deciding vote. Harry Burn, a Republican from McMinn County, was listed as undecided and had previously voted against the amendment. What no one could have known at the time was that Burn carried in his pocket a note from his deceased mother urging him to vote for ratification.
3. The Telephone
Stated briefly, female bipeds with our highly developed frontal lobes process all emotions by talking about them. And we already know who invented the phone. But Mr. Bell (to whom the patent was granted in 1877) could never have anticipated the massive amount of comfort those wires would afford the fairer sex in times of crises, be they “real” emergencies or just the kind involving the heart.
4. The demise of the corset/the flapper
At the beginning of the 20th century, women were still cinching up their bodies like sausage casing for a beau ideal that nearly killed them. The corset was responsible for a number of problems including the displacement of internal organs and difficult childbirth. Enter the flirtatious Flapper, a wave of rebellious, saucy young women who hiked up their dresses, bucked convention and paved the way for future feminists. Their new “loose” style was also responsible for the death of the corset. We like our internal organs just where they are, thank you, and childbirth is hard enough. So, good riddance! That is, of course, unless you choose to wear a corset, which is another story entirely.
5.The Electric Starter
Before the electric starter, cranking a car was akin to offering up a digit or two in trade for a ride to the other side of the county. It was hard and dangerous, and women didn’t like doing it. When Henry M. Leland’s friend, Byron Carter, died from a starting incident while offering assistance to a female driver, he and fellow electrical engineer, Charles Kettering, decided it was time the automobile was as easy to start for women as it was for men. And they succeeded. Women were now free to roam the country — if not exactly encouraged to do so, and they could in style; the 1912 model Cadillac became the first car to replace the hand crank with an electric starter motor.
6. The Washing Machine
Women worked roughly 100 hours a week keeping hot squares on the table and cleaning the home before electric appliances. Catharine Beecher, an early advocate of simplifying housework, called laundry “the American housekeeper’s hardest problem.” Of course, it took a house with proper plumbing and electricity for which we are all thankful. In 1908, the Hurley Machine Company of Chicago introduced The Thor, the first electric-powered washing machine. And, just like the typewriter, which both opened doors for women and shut them, the washing machine kept women down on the farm, metaphorically speaking, but at least it was now considerably easier doing chores there.
7. The Tampon
Think about the options and then think about the convenience of the tampon. “Sanitary” pads can go on sporting “wings,” landing strips or the protection of a small mattress, but they will never beat the comfort and convenience of a tampon. The applicator tampon was submitted for patent in 1931 by Dr. Earle Haas, a physician from Denver. Dr. Hass later sold the patent of the applicator tampon to Gertrude Tendrich, who founded the Tampax Company for mass production.
8. World War II
That’s right, sister, the Second World War! The enormous requirements for labor and talent during World War II shifted women out of the kitchen and into the airplane hanger (Rosie the Riveter) as well as the inside of a cockpit, and it was a very big step “outside.” Working women were no longer an anomaly. As early as 1930, the War Department had considered using women as pilots but then concluded that women were “too high strung.” In 1943, two women’s aviator units merged to form the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program and broke ground for female Air Force pilots who would follow in their footsteps.
9. The Birth Control Pill
“The Pill” was approved by the FDA in the early 1960s, upon which the Catholic Church (and others) screamed that sex was for procreative purposes only and that disengaging sex from making babies would render women promiscuous. Did it? Probably. Who cares? The point was moot because the birth control pill was delivered on the cutting edge of the sexual revolution that helped close the gap of the double standard and which hit mainstream America in the early 1970s. The Pill was a key player in the economic role of women in that it could stave off the age at which women first married allowing them to get an education.
10. Title IX
This piece of legislation with the narcoleptic title enacted in 1972 states that no person shall be excluded on the basis of sex from any education program or activity receiving federal money. Most people associate Title IX with sports but, in fact, the legislation also impacts access to higher education, career education, education for pregnant and parenting students, employment, sexual harassment, standardized testing and technology. A big chin guard off to Congresswoman Patsy Mink (the first female minority to join the ranks of Congress) who steered the legislation through a contentious (and often silly) battle.
11. Hormone Replacement Therapy
More commonly termed HRT, the now popular bioidentical hormones, as well as the old synthetic standards, give many women yet another fighting chance — this time against the effects of menopause. For many, HRT entirely alleviates the hot flashes, sleeplessness and mood swings associated with menopause. For others, the therapy gives women renewed sexual vibrancy and vigor and, for that, men are grateful, too. The controversy still rages as to whether or not they are safe, effective or should be part of the aging process at all. But, take away some women’s HRT, and it would not be a stretch to advise locking away the firearm.
Honorable mentions go to Alessandro Volta for the battery and our own judicial system for the restraining order.