What are we going to do about the women?

Violence against women is on the rise, including the murder of trans women, rape as a war crime, child marriages, and attempts to deny women’s agency over their bodies

Elayne Clift (elayne-clift.com) has written this column about women, politics, and social issues from the earliest days of this newspaper.

BRATTLEBORO-Back in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when agrarian and rural lifestyles gave way to urbanization following the Industrial Revolution, everything changed for women in dramatic ways.

As the late Barbara Ehrenreich pointed out in her important book, For Her Own Good, tenement living left women in despair as a total cultural and economic tidal wave began.

Some of the luckier ones found work as seamstresses, maids, and other low-paying jobs, but the changing world affected all social classes. Karl Marx realized this when he wrote The Communist Manifesto, as the old world order was rapidly changing and a new order began to take shape.

"All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away," he wrote. "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at least compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind."

That melting down and remodeling of a new order led to the prevalent male question: What are we going to do about the women?

For women in all social classes, the question was personal - and, as we now know, "the personal is political."

Victorian mores were questioned and rejected, women's instincts trumped obligation, and the question became: How will women survive in the modern world?

As Ehrenreich wrote, "The women who lost years of their youth to depression, who first tasted liberation from grinding jobs and sexual exploitation, who poured their hearts into diaries while their strength drained into childbearing and child rearing all lived out the Woman Question."

It's a question that takes on new meaning in a world in which women are still doing grinding work, still being subjected to violence, sexual exploitation and abuse, and now, once again, having their bodies held captive by men who are deeply threatened by women's agency or equality.

* * *

Let me begin by asking this: What are we going to do about the women in India, whose grinding work keeps supplying companies like Coke and Pepsi with sugar?

As a March story in The New York Times revealed, those two companies have turned the state of Maharashtra into a brutal system that exploits women and children who work there.

According to the Fuller Project, on whose work the Times story is based, women of childbearing age are subjected to unnecessary hysterectomies and sterilization so they can keep working indefinitely.

Young girls are pushed into illegal marriages so they can work with their husbands cutting and gathering sugar cane. If they miss work for any reason they are required to pay a fee, making them indentured servants.

Or what are we going to about the women in Gambia, where, according to a March article in The Washington Post, the National Assembly voted to overturn a ban on female genital cutting, which would make Gambia the first country in the world to roll back such protection?

One has only to hear the first-person accounts of the horror of female cutting, or FGM, to know how horrific it is.

I heard those accounts in Sudan and at United Nations world conferences. Young girls are restrained while parts of their genitals are removed by rudimentary instruments in unsterile conditions, without anesthesia, by barbers or village women, often for the sexual pleasure of their future husbands. Women who give birth after having been cut are sown up tightly to satisfy their husbands. Those who survive the procedure frequently suffer serious, life-threatening infections, infertility, and the absence of sexual pleasure.

The men in Parliament who want the rollback say it upholds religious beliefs and cultural norms. The United Nations and World Health Organization estimate that over 200 million women and girls have survived FGM, but that is likely an undercount.

* * *

What are we going to do about the missing and murdered Indigenous women, honored by the Native American artist Nayana LaFond in a portrait series, "Portraits in Red"?

Subjects range in age and offer a stunning wakeup call.

"When you've experienced something like these women have you want to claim yourself again," LaFond says. "You want to speak up and be heard in a safe way. That's why I do this work. I am claiming my own experience and turning it into something positive. I hope I'm creating change."

Then there's the female students at a New Jersey high school whose photos were digitally altered by artificial intelligence to become pornographic images of nudity and sexual activity and sent to their male classmates last fall.

The retired commander of the New Jersey State Police internet crimes task force reacted this way: "What worries me is the amount of suicide for the children, and the bullying aspect. When you can make an image of someone, it really becomes problematic."

It is problematic already. Other schools across the country have reported similar incidents.

And then there's the recent spate of young women being hit forcefully in the head and face as they walk the streets of Manhattan, suffering serious wounds and concussions, reported on MSNBC as I write.

* * *

It just doesn't end, with violence against women growing in various forms, including the murder of trans women, rape as a war crime, child marriages, and attempts to deny women's agency over their bodies using the draconian Comstock laws of the 19th century.

The question - What are we going to do about the women? - remains relevant, alarming, and urgent.

What, indeed, are we going to do about women?

Voting blue in November is a good start.

This Voices column was submitted to The Commons.

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