A look at the U.S. Constitution, and how Terminology used in the early beginnings of the U.S.A. has and will continue to make life harder for women.
Systematic marginalization of women in the United States is often attributed to general societal standards throughout their history, however, this essay will argue that although that concept is not technically incorrect, it leaves the question of where sexism is rooted largely unanswered. There is no denial; society and human nature in and of itself is sexist, and always has been; however I will argue that the systematic oppression built through centuries of legislation rooted the foundation of sexism within the law, while in unison with the largely superficial but undeniably vast importance placed on literal interpretation of written law.
Literal interpretation had been developed through precedents set by the judiciary that are historically incapable of empirical rationale, which is proving to be critical in modern law as a method of ensuring law without predisposition to prejudice. The United States constitution’s use of loose terminology lends itself to this prejudice, all while being considered natural law. In addition, the societal pressure continued to ramp up throughout history in the most seemingly appropriate way: conduct. The conduct of how to treat a woman throughout history in the United States was based on politeness, kindness, and respect. However, with this, of course, came the suppression of female voice and a political saviour complex where laws and decisions were made for the best interest of women, from the eyes of men.
The marginalization of American women was systematic. However, not wholly direct. Initially, laws and societal standards were written and described in terms of man as an all-inclusive term for humanity. Examples of this pronoun bias can be found littered throughout the U.S. Constitution. As laws and the impact of authority advanced, the use of these terms turned from guidelines to the foundation of a nation. With this, came a newly found interpretation of laws which focused on writing legislation with a direct meaning, and interpreting established laws far more literally. It can be argued this shift built the foundation for systematic sexism. The pre-existing legal standard of U.S laws was based in general terminology which undoubtedly favoured men when interpreted literally. As the United States government and its general society continued to develop and modernize throughout the centuries, this newfound fascination with legal interpretation along with the increasingly difficult nature of changing laws – especially laws deemed foundational (natural laws) – directly hindered the effectiveness of social change; the foundational nature of laws gave an incredibly exploitable counter-argument in favour of those opposed to proposed change. Consider in a contemporary context, the 2nd Amendment, an amendment which is so vastly flawed and completely detrimental to modern society, yet is so incredibly well protected and effectively untouchable due to the terminology used.
An important factor is the demographics of those in power, or with influence on the justice system. They are, of course, men. White men. The aforementioned period of reevaluation and interpretation of laws was like most other political shifts i.e., slow, tedious, and methodical in nature. What comes from these shifts is decades of societal change. Social views on the written law were now seen as fact, and the population’s views were not necessarily any more sexist, for that would be nearly impossible, but now it was an injustice ingrained in the legal system. A legal system wherein countless centuries of legal precedent forced the notion of male superiority, a system that required direct conflict with the previous legal verdict in order to institute basic human rights.
Interestingly, as ‘changes’ were made to the United States Constitution, they weren’t changes at all, but merely additions. The most notable addition pertains to voting rights. The initial amendment which dictates who is eligible to vote, and who can not be discriminated against reads as follows: ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.’. This amendment, unlike many others, does not even use male terms and seems all inclusive for all citizens, yet even under this terminology, somehow, the right for women to vote was not deemed a matter of citizenship, but a matter of the male terminology used in a separate amendment: the 14th amendment, which stated that any ‘male’ of 21 years or older is eligible to vote. A supreme court case, Minor v. Happersett which occurred in 1875, ruled that although women were considered and eligible for American citizenship, this did not grant them the right to vote, regardless of how seemingly clear it is that the 15th amendment only specified citizenship as a requirement for being eligible. The case ruled the simple fact of Minor being an American citizen did not give her the right to vote. Evidently, the dedication employed to keep women out of the polls went beyond all reason. It was not simply a defence of how the constitution was written, it was a full blown attack against the suffrage of women. Legislatures not only made women have to go out of their way to be able to vote, but it was also men going out of their way, bending interpretation as desperately as they could to keep women out of the polls. It was not until August 18th, 1920, that an additional amendment (the 19th amendment) was made which declared that, ‘The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.’
Moving on, while examining the slave trade, a peculiar, yet vastly common theme arises. The false validation of good treatment of women. In the prime of the slave trade, a time in which the debate about slavery from a societal acceptance standpoint was non-existent, this theme stayed true. The slave trade was just how things were. It was the foundation for the economy of several powerful nations, especially the United States. From an oddly specific, and an unorthodox standpoint, the treatment of female slaves on the surface level was like any modern job with a political working environment in that women are ‘treated well’ and seen as ‘valued’ employees, but of course any opinions/suggestions voiced by them inherently require further consultation, and the man six months new to the office is ‘far more qualified’ for the position you’ve wanted for five years. As with corporate managers now, corporate managers then followed the same path, albeit in a far more abysmal occupation. They are, of course, the slave masters. Slave masters gave themselves the shameless pride in finding comfort in how “well” they treated women. Women were ‘given’ the best of the slave work. For they were the “lucky ones” who were offered the preferred jobs in the plantations. (working inside, doing simple housework, no grunt labour) But of course, the choice was never theirs. This view is inherently flawed, as of course, in order to ‘treat them well’ they had to first forcefully assimilate them into a life and trade they never asked for or consented to be in. In addition, their positions were exploited (i.e. rape and callous family separation). This phenomenon carries itself through the roots of American society, as when considered in a contemporary context, women are still silenced, especially in their sexuality and body rights i.e., Arkansas altered a law pertaining to who must consent to an abortion; previously only the mother had to consent to the abortion, as the fetus was considered her flesh, now, however, the fetus is considered equally the mothers and fathers flesh, and this applies to both pregnancy as a result of consensual and non-consensual sex. The concept that women are treated well on a personal, social basis, yet are utterly silenced upon speaking their mind, or being granted choice in their life path was formed as a result of the early beginnings of the law and continues to this day.
In conclusion, it is clear that societal standards are not the sole cause of women’s struggles; rather, those standards joined forces with the United States legal system to ensure that women would continue to face obstacles and hurdles no man would ever have to face. In addition, the amendments added to the constitution made in order to give women their fundamental rights were simply that: added. In the soul of the nation, the earliest and most foundational core, women are considered fundamentally lesser. As the nation moves forward and continues to progress towards acceptance and equality, not only will women have to face their male counterparts, but the entire U.S. legal system.