A Woman's Worth
I came across this incredible timeline from The Guardian, entitled “Women’s rights and their money: a timeline from Cleopatra to Lilly Ledbetter” and was blown away at how far we’ve come, but also how much of that progress happened in the last 50 years of human history.
For Women’s History Month, I’m pondering a woman’s worth.
It wasn’t that long ago that our fathers were bartering with potential suitors for our placement in their home at a competitive price. It seems we were a currency in the business transaction called marriage. Our worth was the dowry our families presented, our child-making capabilities, and the ability to make a home. In the case of desperation, widows and spinsters or married women with incapacitated husbands were allowed to work and/or own property like taverns or stores.
In 1881, France grants women the right to own bank accounts. Amazingly, the United States didn’t allow for this until 1975. The year I was born.
In 1938, a federal minimum wage law was passed in the U.S., entitled the Fair Labor Standards Act. This was meant to equalize common pay differences between men and women for hourly jobs. I guess before that an employer could pay a man $50 a day and women anything they felt like. There was even a law passed later in the 1970’s (Schulz v Wheaton Glass) that made it illegal for companies to change a job’s title so that they could pay women less than male co-workers. Sexual harassment in the workplace wasn’t even a defined legal term until the 1980’s.
I’m reminded of how lucky I am to live in a country at a time when women can be responsible for our own future. Now, how we choose to interpret and take advantage of that freedom is a personal choice. I thank god that we have the right to say no to destructive or abusive relationships or situations that crush our spirit or devastate our finances. The concept of a wife as property or possession objectified us and left us exposed and vulnerable. In my view, a widowed woman was an unfortunate but privileged status to maintain. This situation was one of the only ways that a woman could keep the family wealth and make decisions in her own name. What women would want to marry again after that, knowing that the next husband would have a right to everything, including owning her.
Flash forward to 2021, as I sit here writing this as a black woman, a single mother, a homeowner with a college degree and a professional job. My reality 50 + years ago would have been stark and depressing. I do not come from excessive family wealth and great societal influence. I had to work for years in all different types of jobs. My time as a model would have deemed me some type of “sex worker” just for having my picture taken and sharing it. My time as a bartender would have defined me as a desperate and lower-class spinster. The college degree I worked my butt off for would have gotten me a low pay position at some company if I was lucky, making a fraction of my male counterparts. My capacity to dream and envision a magnificent life and climb societal ladders would have been crippled, and my daughter and I would have been doomed to a life of judgement for not having her dad as a part of our family.
We are no longer bound to antiquated ideas that being an unmarried mother means you are doomed to a life of poverty, moral chaos, or another dubious marital arrangement under a new husband’s guardianship.
The world is our oyster, and we live in a country that offers women a million ways to feel worthy, reinvent, educate, and support ourselves. In the U.S.,1,817 new businesses were started by women every day, between 2018 to 2019.
A woman’s worth is no longer determined by a marital transaction. I do believe marriage can be sacred and beautiful, but not if it is toxic beyond repair. We no longer have to be a belittled version of ourselves in a horrible life partnership. Let’s be reminded this month that we are independently worthy and have the freedom to fight for ourselves and own the life we want, and also remove life situations that do not serve us. We also have the freedom to choose a partner that makes us glow, to choose love, and not be a pawn for the sake of old traditions.
In 2020, there are about 11 million single parent households in the U.S., of which 80% were headed by single mothers. There really is no reason to be cowering in the shadows of society, feeling ashamed. It’s safe to say, our worth these days comes from a place of self-determination.
In the case of want versus need, modern relationships can be envisioned as more of a want than a need. This can equalize the playing field in relationships and redefine marriage and family rules. The power dynamic becomes more fluid and so do traditional notions of what it means to be a woman, and a man for that matter.
A woman’s worth is self-defined. Our capacity to imagine our destiny and what we believe we deserve in life is our freedom. Let’s remember this as we celebrate Women’s History Month this March.