A lot of people see feminism as superfluous in America. After all, people don't view me as "less than" because I am a woman. (Do they?) I can appear in any courtroom or boardroom and be taken just as seriously as a man. I have enjoyed access to the best educational resources in this country and have had the opportunity to do pretty much whatever I want without any gender-based limitations. This country is feminist nirvana, right?
Well, perhaps-- IF you are a white, heterosexual, conformist, middle-class, college-educated woman. For people like me, any biases I face are very subtle. But hang out with the rural poor for a while and it's like feminism never happened.
Of course, I don't want to paint this demographic of rural poor people with too broad a brush. The rural poor people I met (in my virtually all-white county) are not necessarily representative at all. The people I met are generally those I encountered through my work in the criminal justice system or through the civil rights and plaintiffs' cases I currently handle. I got to know certain families through their constant interaction with the criminal justice system. I can diagram the family trees of the five families whom I saw the most when I was a prosecutor. Generations upon generations and cousins upon cousins were all in trouble with the law on a regular basis. And in these families, the view of women was unequivocal: girls and women are sex objects to be dominated.
In those families, there is no consciousness of feminism whatsoever. Incest and wife-beating are a way of life. Male privilege reigns supreme. Parents often gave their 12 or 13 or 14 year old daughters "permission" or even encouragement to have sex with much older boyfriends. One very young girl told me that she went to her father for help because her 20 year old boyfriend was pressuring her to have sex and she didn't want to. Her dad told her to sleep with him already, because "there's nothing worse than a tease." So she slept with him and promptly got pregnant. Her parents had taught her that giving her boyfriend what he wanted was the most important thing, regardless of the consequences for her.
Another young girl came home in tears and told her parents that an older male cousin "forced" her to give him oral sex. Her father went to the cousin and said, "I know how these young girls can be, but please don't do this anymore." The father was satisfied because the cousin apologized and "even" offered to split some firewood for the father.
Domestic violence by men upon women seemed to be par for the course. One teenaged mother who was regularly batted around by her boyfriend reported the assaults to her parents on an ongoing basis. They counseled her to stick with him for the sake of the kids and try not to provoke him. They told her that he would mature as he got older. On one occasion, he even held a gun to her head. From her perspective, the state's efforts to intervene didn't help her much. When he was put in jail, she was forced to give up her job and go on welfare, because he was no longer there to watch the kids while she worked the nightshift. That's the last time she will ever report an assault.
Most victims view their problems as the idiosyncracies of the people involved. "He was just worried about what I was doing or who I was with because I came home late." Or, "I started it because I told him he wasn't a real man." Or, "It's just the drinking." But at least one woman who had been both molested and beaten by male family members when she was growing up saw her situation in stark terms of men's seemingly inevitable power over women. She told me that her father's beatings taught her during her teens that "men are in charge" and that "there is nothing we can do about it" except try to placate them.
These are the women who are going to lose the opportunity, in places like South Dakota, to have any chance to control their fertility by means of birth control or abortion. These are the women we greet with incredulity when they finally report an assault because they don't immediately leave the assailant. These are the women who know the consequences of living in a community where their perspectives and interests are not valued in any way because they are women.