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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Jailed for Freedom: Saudi Arabia And Women's Right to Simply Move Around

Saudi Arabia – the great ally of fascist billionaires who try to run the world via their lobbyists in Washington, DC – has again jailed women who had the temerity to drive cars.  The women's fight for the right to do so has retroactively led to prosecution on the grounds that they aim "to undermine the kingdom's security, stability, and national unity."  Several witnesses have told the Associated Press that while they were imprisoned, the women were tortured, beaten, shocked with electricity, and sexually assaulted. 


This is far from the first time this and other important feminist issues have arisen, and not just in that authoritarian kingdom.  Women's right to move about and travel without male escort is a relatively recent right:  even in the 1920s, for example, Greek law did not allow a woman to emigrate without members of her family.  Even in America not much more than a hundred years ago, hotels refused to rent rooms to a woman alone, on the grounds that they probably were prostitutes.  My own mother remembered when hotels demanded to see a marriage certificate before giving a room key to a couple.


These and other basic civil rights still are lacking in much of the world – and our government enables the dominators by looking the other way when it comes to women.  Remember when we went to war to – ostensibly – protect Kuwait from invasion by Iraq?  I hoped that one outcome would be that Kuwaiti women would get basic civil rights and they did – for six months in 1999, until the parliament overruled the emir's liberating edict.  Women struggled again until 2005, when parliament passed an enabling bill, but we never heard much about that, did we?  Certainly our government did nothing to encourage real democracy there or elsewhere.  Instead, we just spend more trillions on war, with most Americans not even trying to understand the differences between Iraq and Iran or Kuwait and Yemen, or anything about the status of the area's women. 


It is so ironic that -- as Babylonia, Persia, Israel, and other societies -- this area was the cradle of civilization.  But it's only been since World War I, almost exactly a century ago, that the region's inhabitants began to interact with the rest of the world, and their ancient patriarchy still persists.  Endless warfare continues from the days of the Old Testament on through to today's mandatory Islam.  The only thing that has changed is that now warfare is largely funded by outsiders, especially the US.


It doesn't have to be this way.  Canada's government had the moral courage to formally complain to the Saudis about this recent human rights abuse, accepting the possibility that an argument on behalf of women would anger Saudi Arabia's authoritarian leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.  Sure enough, the prince got mad and the kingdom cut diplomatic ties with Ottawa.  Canadians seem unconcerned, however, and I believe the hurt will be much more on the Saudis than on our neighbors to the north.


But our government?  Our concern about these women?  Although they are largely grandmothers and retired professionals, they are being prosecuted for their activism in obtaining the right to drive.  A recent report from the Associated Press quoted Michael Page, an official with the Human Rights Watch:  "The Saudi prosecution is bringing charges against the women's rights activists...  The authorities have done nothing to investigate serious allegations of torture, and now, it's the women's rights activists, not the torturers, who face criminal charges." 


How much do you expect that the Trump administration will do about this?  How much do you think that Hillary would have done?


Jailed for Freedom:  The Vote


A century ago, in 1919, when World War I had just ended and Middle Eastern nations were emerging under the British Empire, brave women in America were jailed because they wanted to vote.  Oddly enough, there was no controversy over female drivers here, perhaps because at first there were no drivers' licenses at all, and after states began to issue them, women already had demonstrated that they were safe drivers – safer than men.


States also control voting rights, although less so now than then.  All western states except New Mexico had granted women full enfranchisement before the first eastern state, New York, did so in 1917. Women reasonably asked why they had to pay taxes on the same basis as men, but – in direct contradiction of the old mantra about "no taxation without representation" – their rights in a so-called representative democracy depended on state lines.  If, for example, a woman moved from California to New Jersey, she would lose her right to vote.  That seemed just plain un-American, and women wanted an amendment to the US Constitution that would be applicable everywhere. 


Former slaves had been granted the right to vote with the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted after the Civil War.  Although it used the word "citizen" and had no language limiting enfranchisement to black men, that was the way that the Supreme Court chose to rule when women went to court for the same right.  Quoting the Bible more than the Constitution, the justices declared that states were free to discriminate against women, including unmarried women who were taxpayers.  Thus discrimination against women was enshrined into the law.


For the next half-century, women worked for a constitutional amendment to overrule the Court.  The 16th Amendment authorized an income tax; the 17th called for US senators to be elected by the people, not by state legislators as had been the case; and the 18th Amendment allowed a national ban on alcohol.  Women's right to vote was the 19th Amendment, formally added to the Constitution on August 26, 1920.  National women's organizations are already deep into plans for the celebration in August of 2020.


But right now, in the spring of 2019, we should be acknowledging the women who chained themselves to the White House fence to force attention to the issue.  They began that in 1917, soon after the US entered World War I, and of course police found women's shocking behavior also to be a threat to national security.  The women continued, though, and hundreds willingly subjected themselves to arrest.  Several were jailed several times. 


Lucy Burns, a New York Irish Catholic who had studied abroad, introduced the British technique of prison hunger strikes.  After she went without food for three weeks and was near death, her jailors force-fed her -- a painful medical procedure back then.  Her story and that of other hunger strikers were daily headlines, and the depth of these women's commitment to political equality made a profound national impression. 


The nation showed that in the 1918 mid-term elections, which were very analogous to those last year:  we had waves of change in both 1918 and 2018 with millions of women demanding equality.  Like Nancy Pelosi, the leaders in 1918 were politically sophisticated and targeted well.  After they defeated opposition senators, the 19th Amendment passed out of Congress by the necessary 2/3 majority on June, 4, 1919.  (Anyone want to plan a party for that centennial, which is coming up soon?) 


Then women (and some feminist men) followed up by going to state capitols to meet the Constitution's mandate for ratification by ¾ of the state legislatures, which means both chambers – or a total of 76 positive tallies.  This was not easy, especially because it called for a special legislative session in most states, but on August 26, 1920, the 19th Amendment was added to the Constitution.  In November, American women everywhere could vote in the presidential year of 1920.


In 2020, I doubt if even the most conservative of politicians would speak against women's right to vote – but that wasn't the case in your great-grandmother's day.  It happened because activists were willing to go to prison, just like the Saudi women who want to drive.  Voting doesn't matter so much there, as the kingdom still is a kingdom, and no one's vote really matters, but we, the original anti-king nation, should object to that.  Please ask senators and representatives why it is.  Let's learn a lesson from our peaceful ally, Canada, and join the movement for global women's rights.


Jailed for Freedom:  Birth Control


Deep into the 20th Century, sex education was a taboo, especially for girls and women.  One result of this biological ignorance was huge rates of venereal diseases, and countless women died without understanding the cause of their illness.  It was not preventing pregnancy, but instead preventing women's deaths from venereal diseases, that first got Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger into trouble with the law.  When she wrote about syphilis in a progressive magazine in 1913, she was threatened with arrest and fled to Europe.


Upon her return, she joined her sister, Ethel Byrne, in opening the nation's first birth control clinic in 1916.  In a blue-collar section of Brooklyn, it aimed to fit women with diaphragms that Sanger had smuggled in from Holland.  Both Sanger and Byrne were mothers, and they also were professional nurses whose experience showed them the damage done to women's bodies with excessive pregnancies.  That others agreed was clear in the fact that almost 500 women visited the clinic before police closed it down ten days later.  Charged with creating a public nuisance, the sisters spent thirty days in jail.


As was the case with the women who were jailed because they wanted to vote, the authorities may have won the battle but lost the war.  The issue began to be discussed, and some newspapers wrote empathetically of these well-intended, middle-class women imprisoned for sharing their professional knowledge with needy women.  The majority of the public, however, long would associate contraception with prostitution, and the sisters' trial by an all-male jury resulted in a verdict of guilty. 


They won a partial victory in 1918 when an appeals court determined that physicians, but not birth-control advocates, could give advice on preventing venereal disease.  For decades thereafter, condoms and similar items were labeled "for the prevention of disease only" – while millions of Americans, mostly male, actually bought them to prevent pregnancy. 


Again, states had an excessive amount of authority over personal freedom, and those with large Catholic populations banned the sale of contraceptives or tried to limit them.  The last cases on which the US Supreme Court overruled state laws were in 1965 and 1972 in Connecticut and Massachusetts, where laws demanding proof of marriage to purchase contraceptives were overturned.  And now you can buy them on the shelf of almost any grocery store – because someone cared enough to be arrested and jailed.



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