Does a Woman Control Her Body? – Breast, Rugby, Soccer and Abortion: The Oppressive Connection

December, 1999 – There may have been little connection between abortion and rugby until October 30, 1999 when 13 members of the Women’s Rugby team of Ohio State University decided to take a bare-chested group picture in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Of course the “topless” women found themselves at the center of controversy and in trouble with school officials. This incident reflects a fast developing combination of athletic exuberance and feminism at its best and traditional male chauvinism and female oppression at its worst.

Male chauvinism: No one can credibly argue that the status of women has  not appreciatively changed since Elizabeth Cady Stanton drafted a “Declaration of Sentiments” in 1848 enumerating areas of life where women were treated unjustly. But to best understand the harsh environment women faced not long ago one should be familiar with the obstacles they had to overcome. In Staton’s age women could not own property or obtain a higher education. They where taxed and had to submit to laws without being allowed to hold public office or vote. Husbands had legal power over and responsibility for their wives to the extent that they could imprison or beat them with impunity. In short, women were robbed of their self-confidence and self-respect, and were made totally dependent on men.

Elizabeth Stanton

Stanton, her mentor and friend Lucretia Mott, and other visionaries organized the first women’s rights convention to address these and numerous other oppressive practices leveled against women. The convention met in Seneca Falls, New York on July 19-20, 1948. During the two days of discussion the “Declaration of Sentiments” and 12 other resolutions received unanimous endorsement, with a few changes. Ironically one resolution proved to be too radical for many of the forward thinking women and men gathered at the convention. A great debate ensued over what today is considered by many to be a basic human right, enfranchisement: the right to vote. Many of the women’s self image, as women would not allow them to believe that they were equal to the task of governing. The patriarchal system in place then and today ensures that a group of people will always doubt women’s capabilities in relation to men. The resolution passed in the convention with a slim majority, but the United States did not recognize women’s right to self-government until 1920, 72 years later.

Lucretia Mott

While most women saw the right to vote as fulfillment of their goal of equality others realized that it was only the beginning. They knew that women still had not achieved equal status to men, but for the first time women had the means to gain equality. With the right to fully participate in the political process anything was possible. During the years between 1919 and 1960 women began to organize both politically and socially. The National American Woman Suffrage Association transformed itself in 1919 into the League of Women Voters to help women learn to use their political clout wisely. The Department of Labor established the Women’s Bureau in 1920 to gather information about women in the workplace and to advocate for women. The American Association of University Women was formed in 1921 and African-American women formed a parallel organization, the National Association of College women in 1923. Also in 1923 Alice Paul and the National Woman’s Party introduced in congress the forerunner of what we know today as the Equal Rights Amendment.

Mary McLeod Bethune

Women were elected to public office across the country. Nellie Tayloe Ross of Wyoming was the first woman elected governor of a state in 1924. Bertha Knight Landes of Seattle was the first woman elected mayor of a sizable U.S. city in 1926. Hattie Wyatt Caraway was the first woman elected to U.S. Senate in 1932. She represented Arkansas for three terms.

Women from all walks of life found voice in their newfound freedom. African-American women continued the tradition of Soujoner Truth as advocates of women’s rights through political participation. Mary McLeod Bethune organized the National Council of Negro Women as a lobbying coalition of black women’s groups in 1935. The NCNW developed into a major force fighting job discrimination, racism, and sexism. Crystal Bird Fauset of Pennsylvania became the first black woman elected to a state legislature, by an overwhelmingly white district in 1938. Lesbians Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian organization, was founded in San Francisco in 1955. By 1957 the number of women and men voting is approximately equal for the first time.

Althea Gibson

Athletic exuberance,  feminism: Sport has been an arena in which Americans have found role models to help lead the way through the maze of discrimination and prejudice. Jackie Robinson breaking the baseball color line, Althea Gibson winning Wimbledon, and Billie Jean King beating Bobbi Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” are examples of our widening the definition of equality through sport. But the playing field has not afforded women the same opportunities it has men. The road to sport runs squarely through educational institutions and before 1972 there was little opportunity for women to be athletes. In 1971, only one in 27 girls participated in high school sports. As a consequence, there were few athletic role models for girls and young women to emulate.

June 23, 1972 set the stage for a dramatic turn of events when President Richard Millhouse Nixon signed the Higher Education Act, which under Title IX prohibits sex discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. This legislation passed in the wake of the “Second Wave” of the women’s rights movement. The act proved to be a pivotal moment in women’s sports. It opened a floodgate of caged athletic exuberance. The change in these past 29 years has been extraordinary. Athletic scholarships for women have rose from $100,000 in 1972 to $179 million in 1997. Female high school sport participation increased from 294,000 in 1971 to 2.4 million in 1995. The number of female college athletes more than tripled from 31,00 to 110,000 in the same period. This explosion of women participation in sport has led to increase national interest in women’s sporting events such as the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament and the arrival of Women’s professional basketball. Girls are participating in traditionally male dominated sports in increasing numbers. In 1995 309 girls played on high school boy’s baseball teams, at least 320 girls played high school football, and more than 800 competed on boy’s wrestling teams. Research has shown that girls who participate in sports are less likely to get pregnant, and more likely to graduate from high school. Sports promote good health, increase self-esteem, and teach lessons in teamwork.

Female oppression: Unfortunately federal mandates cannot change centuries of patriarchal attitudes. After kicking the winning goal of the 1999 World Cup, Brandi Chastain of the U. S. Olympic Women’s Soccer team pulled off her shirt and fell to her knees in the thrill of victory. Instead of celebrating with Brandi, some people chose to shift focus from the team’s success to “look she showing her sports bra.” Chastain’s actions sent shock waves through men and women’s sports all the way down to the Howard County School system in a Washington D.C. suburb. A November 6, 1999 Washington Post story reported that Don Disney, the coordinator of athletics for Howard County schools, made it clear in meetings with athletic directors that there will be no sports bras without shirts to cover them. Of course someone pointed out that if girls must keep on their shirts boys should too. So the rule was extended to both sexes. The fear seems to be that the impressionable young girls may follow Ms. Chastain’s example and shed their tops. One Loudoun County School Board member observed how

Brandi Chastain

commonplace sports bras have become. “You see them in the grocery store, you see them in gyms across America, you see them everywhere.” She pointed out that Chastain’s action may reflect “women’s acceptance of their strength more than their sexuality. They want to show off their powerful body. And we let men do that, so why can’t women?”

Which brings us back to women and their chest. The discrimination against the rugby team is obvious. Men walk around and push out their bare-chest without fear of reprisal. But for women, there is a different standard of dress.

A point of controversy and obvious double standard is the traditional garb worn by many Islamic women, covering their bodies from head to toe with only eyes exposed. During the U. S. military operation in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq women soldiers were asked not to go into town and most of the Saudi men would not speak directly to the female soldiers. The Saudi women covered their bodies’ head to toe while the men were allowed more liberal dress. Many critics point to this practice as an indictment of Islam’s treatment of women especially in comparison to the “West”. While the observation has validity when comparing the degree of oppression felt by women in their day-to-day lives, the indictment is dishonest in that the restriction on women is the same. Women in the United States may have more relative individual freedom than women in Iran or Saudi Arabia, but U.S. women are not free to be simply people. Just as in the Islamic countries, U.S. women must remember they are not men.

So should women even play traditional male sports, and if so, can they dress like men? “Well of course women should play rugby. We can no longer stop them from forming their own leagues and playing whatever game they want, but women cannot be allowed to take off their shirts. Seeing bare breast in public is obscene, may give small children nightmares, lead to men chasing women uncontrollably, and add to the decline of America’s morale values. These women must be punished for such a display.”

Taken From –

A Fair and Just World According to Men

Margaret Sanger

Abortion: The agenda for the “Second Wave” of the Women’s Movement that began in the late 60’s and continues today was set in 1914 by the extremely controversial women’s rights visionary Margaret Sanger when she published the first issue of The Women Rebel. Sanger’s monthly advocated a militant feminism, including the right to practice birth control. The first two paragraphs of Morality and Birth Control, an article written for another one of her publications, Birth Control Review, quickly sums up what could serve as a baseline view for any of pro-choice advocate.

“Throughout the ages, every attempt woman has made to strike off the shackles of slavery has been met with the argument that such an act would result in the downfall of her morality. Suffrage was going to ‘break up the home.’ Higher education would unfit her for motherhood, and co-education would surely result in making her immoral. Even today, in some of the more backward countries reading and writing is stoutly discouraged by the clerical powers because ‘women may read about things they should not know.’ “

“We now know that there never can be a free humanity until woman is freed from ignorance, and we know, too, that woman can never call herself free until she is mistress of her own body. Just so long as man dictates and controls the standards of sex morality, just so long will man control the world.”

Feminist groups are committed to many issues, but one could claim that the center of today’s U.S. Women’s Rights Movement is birth control and more specifically abortion. Birth control and abortion seem to be the issues women organize around across all socio-economic and political boundaries. These issues symbolize for women the ultimate control of their destiny. The foundation of the Pro-Choice position is the belief that a woman has the right to decide how her body is to be used including when or if to carry a fetus to term.

If we set aside reproductive freedom and family planning issues I think most people, even the conservative right, would agree with the basic premise of a woman’s right to control her body? When coupled with abortion the subject becomes much broader and complex. But for a moment let us set aside reproductive questions and ask are women and men allowed equal dominion of their personal bodies or are women still hearing, they “may read about things they should not know”?

Unfortunately the status of women is such that they still do not control their own bodies. Men have determined society’s sexual mores and the family structure. The idealized family has been the man as the head provider and decision maker with the women confined to the role of bearing and caring for children. “Keep them bare foot and pregnant,” as the saying goes. Men, by controlling the family dynamic, have made women feel helpless. Men have held all the advantages in this relationship. Although the stereotypical family has changed considerably over the past 40 years due to women gaining more socio-economic and political power, and same sex couples openly expressing their relationships, there is still tremendous pressure on women to conform to the traditional norms of motherhood and good womanhood, as well as the continued perpetuation of patriarchy. Any doubts? Just look at the roles we continue to teach our children through our own actions. We continue to dress our girls in pink clothes with little bows, and dress our boys in blue clothes holding a toy football. Our society sends signals to children about being good little boys and good little girls instead of explaining how to be whole people. One would be hard pressed to think of a television show where the women is the head of a two-parent family. The woman’s and man’s incomes and or career prestige is either equal or the male is the primary provider. Of course there have been families where the male is missing making the women the primary breadwinner by default. There have been few if any househusbands but housewives abound.

There are far too few movies depicting women leading men in need of guidance or saving men in distress. They either depict women having to overcome sexism (G.I. Jane), being saved by the strong male hero (The Body Guard), or succumbing to the manliest man of the herd, (007). Women are constantly scantly clad while men are in full dress. Even in love scenes you will constantly witness men half to fully clothed while the women are near to wholly naked. A perfect example of the double standard is the acceptance of male football fans painting their bare-chest with the colors of their team and displaying hysterical fan-mania. The usually beer bellied white males are looked upon as being fun loving, crazy fans who cause no harm and add to the excitement of the event. Is there a chance that a couple of fun loving bare-chested women seen on national TV would be perceived as harmless and allowed to display their painted breast week after week?

The widely accepted double standard of dress applied to the Women’s Rugby team of Ohio State University is a clear signal to a woman that society will not protect her right to control her body. This seemingly innocuous, typical act of male chauvinism underscores more personal and devastating invasions of a women’s physical sovereignty. The statistics are numbing.

The number of female victims of intimate violence declined from 1993 to 1998. In 1998 women experienced an estimated 876,340 violent offenses at the hands of an intimate, down from 1.1 million in 1993.

In both 1993 and 1998, men were victims of about 160,000 violent crimes by an intimate partner.

Somewhere in America, a woman is sexually assaulted every 2 minutes The U.S. Department of Justice

Between 1995 and 1996, more than 670,000 women were the victim of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault. National Crime Victimization Survey. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 1997.

In 1996, only 31% of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to law enforcement officials – less than one in every three. National Crime Victimization Survey. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice, 1997

Approximately 68% of rape victims knew their assailant. Violence against Women. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1994

Approximately 28% of victims are raped by husbands or boyfriends, 35% by acquaintances, and 5% by other relatives. Violence against Women. Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Dept. of Justice, 1994

Of the total women murdered 88% are killed by men where men of the total number of men murdered 11% were killed by women. 1999 FBI Uniform Crime Reports

The above statistics clearly show a woman cannot expect society to respect her right to bodily sovereignty in obvious circumstances. Why should a woman trust the will of society on personal and complex issues like reproductive freedom? In my estimation neither side of the Pro Life/Choice debate is grappling with the full range of the issues. To reduce the conflict to bills, lobbies, laws, and dockets is to divorce emotion from the lives of those effected by a women contemplating ending a pregnancy. It is to ignore the reasons and human cost associated with the woman’s decision. Abortion will remain inextricably tied to a woman’s right to control her body as long as our society does not protect a woman’s basic rights of safety and self-determination. No other group in American society has such high levels of naked aggression leveled at them. Imagine if 88% of all European-American murders where committed by African-Americans, or if 1,000,000 Hispanics-Americans where being victimized by European-Americans each year. The political and social fallout would be enormous. Women on the other hand are expected to weather daily attacks on their humanity.

There cannot be a substantive discussion about abortion when our society has not been able to overcome prejudicial, puritanical beliefs that lead to open and violent discrimination against women. The double standard of dress applied to the women’s rugby team and Brandi Chastain is a symptom of the broad and deep-rooted system of female oppression that is widely accepted in American culture. I believe that a woman’s personal safety and the politics of abortion are intertwined. We must broaden the conversation to include so that we can hope to address the Pro Choice/Life issue that divides America so deeply.

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About Michael T. McPhearson

Currently Michael is executive director of Veterans For Peace and co-chair of the Don't Shoot Coalition, A Saint Louis based coalition that formed in the aftermath of Michael Brown's police killing death in Ferguson, MO. From August 2010 to September 2013, Michael worked as the National Coordinator with United For Peace and Justice. He is a former board member of Veterans For Peace and as well as Executive Director from 2005 to 2010. He works closely with the Newark based People’s Organization for Progress and the Saint Louis centered Organization for Black Struggle. Michel also publishes the expressing his views on war and peace, politics, human rights, race and other things. Michael also launched website as an effort to change the discourse and ignite a new conversation about Dr. Martin Luther King’s message and what it means to live in just and peaceful communities.