31 August 2013

Rights Are Not Mandates; Geography Is Not Destiny

Here in New York, many people--particularly among those with whom I have worked and otherwise spent a lot of time--attribute progressiveness or backwardness to geography.  When they hear about hate crimes and oppressive laws, they are quick to dismiss them as vices of people who live south of the Potomac and between the Appalachians and Rockies.  Some think that the line between civilization and barbarism is the Hudson River.

I'll admit that I've fallen into that sort of (non)thinking from time to time.  However, today I came across an article that makes an extremely intelligent and informed observation of gender rights and equality.

The piece in question comes from the Battle Creek Enquirer.  Now, the first thing I think of when someone mentions Battle Creek is the Corn Flakes I ate yesterday morning or the Rice Krispies the morning before that:  The Michigan town, of course, has long been the headquarters of Kellogg's cereals.

(In case you're interested:  I ate both cereals with fresh blueberries.)

The article appeared in commemoration of Women's Equality Day, which came last Monday.  Ninety-three years earlier, on that date, the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, passed.  The writer of the article, Bill Schroer, noted an interesting irony:  The day before WED was Go Topless Day.

Well, it's an irony to folks like me who would never, ever set foot in Hooter's (or, at least, would never admit to doing such a thing).  But, Mr. Schroer doesn't see it that way.  After all, he says, if men can take off their shirts on hot days, why shouldn't women have the same right?  As he points out, it's done all the time on beaches and in parks in Europe.  And in New York, the State Supreme Court affirmed that it's unconstitutional to require women to wear tops where they're not required of men.  Judges in Ohio and in some places in Canada have come to similar conclusions.

The arguments against women going topless (In most states, it's still illegal for women to publicly breast-feed; in other places, it generates bewildered or hostile stares.) have been, as Schroer points out, couched in morality, or someone's idea of it.  The same was true for men taking off their shirts:  Until the 1930's, it was illegal for them to do so almost everywhere in the US.  The sight of a man's nipples was believed to be ungodly; the same pseudo-religious prohibition still binds women in most parts of this country.

As Schroer so astutely explains, a right is not the same as a mandate.  No one is requiring women to go topless; he and others are simply calling for the right to do so.  Most of us have rights we never exercise; for many women, going topless could be one.  

That is the very essence of an equality movement:  People gaining the rights that other people have.  For example, whenever a suffix is called for, I use Ms.  That is not required of me; I could just as easily use "Miss" and, if I were married, "Mrs."  Many women I know--some younger than I am--continue to use those titles; I use "Ms." out of personal preference and because, I'll admit, it's a bit more socially acceptable among educators, artists and other people around whom I spend much of my time.

Likewise, I often wear skirts and dresses out of choice.  Had I been a biological cisgender female born twenty, or even ten, years earlier than I was, I would have been required to wear such garments to school and, most likely, on whatever job I worked.  In fact, depending on where I lived, I might have been required to wear them any time I ventured outside the confines of my living space.  But now I have the choice to expose my legs (which, many people have told me, are nice) on warm days, or to cover them in trousers when the weather is colder or on other occasions when I can't go bare-legged but don't want to deal with pantyhose or tights.

Sartorial selections may seem like relatively small matters. But, as Bill Schroer points out, they are emblematic of the state of gender equality, or lack thereof.  Leave it to a man from Michigan to understand that.  

Then again, I shouldn't be surprised that someone from the Great Lakes State should have such an understanding of human rights.  After all, New York is third among all states (trailing only Texas and Virginia) in the number of recorded executions.  On the other hand, in 1846, less than a decade after Michigan became a US State, its Legislature became the first English-speaking government in the world to abolish capital punishment.  That law has never been repealed; to this day, Michigan is one of the few states never to have executed anyone from the day it was admitted to the Union.

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