A Woman’s Place Is…

For the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day next week, the poverty-fighting group CARE is releasing a brief titled “The Top 10 Myths about Women.” For each myth, CARE will honor a “myth-buster” who did something remarkable to dispel that particular piece of sexist folklore during the last 100 years. Myths on the list include: “Women can’t be trusted with money” and “Women’s empowerment comes at the expense of men.”

My personal favorite on the list is the doozy, “A woman’s place is in the home.” In keeping with CARE’s project, I’m going to take a moment to imagine what would happen if that wish actually become reality.

The problem with the glowing picture of the happily baking housewife is the flipside: If women are home, they’re missing elsewhere: among professors, researchers, law schools, courts, Congresses, media, business managers and religious hierarchies.

And what happens when women are largely absent in the halls of power? Consider a few scattered examples:

  • In the Old Testament (Judges 19:22-29) depraved men pound at a door, demanding a male guest be turned out to be raped. A concubine is sent out instead, to “use and do whatever you wish.” The woman is raped and abused throughout the night. At daybreak she staggers home, falls down and dies. No one seems too upset at her suffering. The concern back then was over defiled property–the concubine. Whether you take this story as historical fact, or simply as evidence of the writer’s bias, a male-dominant power structure is in play.
  • See anything odd in this argument about why rape should be illegal? “Women’s power to withhold or grant sexual access is an important bargaining weapon… it fosters, and is in turn bolstered by, a masculine pride in the exclusive possession of the sexual object… whose value is enhanced by sole ownership.” How about the lack of concern about women’s suffering from violence and violation? Nope; women are instead straightforwardly called sex objects that are owned by men. The above explanation comes from the 1952-53 Yale Law Journal. Needless to say, that issue’s editorial board [PDF] was almost entirely men.
  • In 2009 Arizona Senator John Kyle declared to an 83% male Senate that maternity leave needn’t be mandated since “I don’t need maternity care.” Well, if a man doesn’t need it, clearly it’s not important. You have to wonder if he’d be so brazen in a Congress that was half women.
  • More recently, in the current 83.6% male House of Representatives, Pennsylvania Rep. Joe Pitts feels hospitals should be able to refuse to terminate pregnancies even to save a mother’s life. Others want to slash support for international family planning and reproductive health care. On the state level, Rep. Bobby Franklin of Georgia introduced a bill to criminalize some miscarriages. As The New York Times summed it, a war on women is being waged.
  • Finally, soon after Justice Sandra Day O’Connor exited the Supreme Court, leaving an eight men and one woman jury, the ban on “partial birth” abortion was upheld. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the sole remaining woman, noted, the ban saves no lives, but makes the procedure more dangerous for women.

We need women out in the world in places of power. Not surprisingly, women med students are pushing for abortion training at Bay Area universities (most prominently UC San Francisco and Stanford) so that women’s lives can be saved.

When women’s place is in the home, women are at the mercy of the patriarchy’s ways of seeing. And that is more than a little scary.

Photo from Flickr user notionscapital licensed under Creative Commons.


Georgia Platts holds a Ph.D. in sociology from UCLA and currently teaches sociology and women’s studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, California. She has occasionally lectured at San Jose State University. Her specialties are psychology of women and social psychology. As a qualitative sociologist, she’s interested in the personal identities, emotional worlds and realities people work to create as they interact in everyday life. She is currently working on a book on motherhood. Georgia also volunteers with RESULTS, an anti-poverty group that works to economically empower the poor through adequate health care, asset building and education, with a strong focus on women and girls.