by Bethany A. Hoppe: Raspberry Vogue
March is National Women’s History month, which dates back to the first International Women’s Day in 1911. Much like “traditional history,” where women have been left out of the majority of our pivotal moments in history, women with disabilities have been left out of our collective oral and written histories, too.
Studying women with disabilities in relationship to the feminist movements has become a rather new adventure for me. I know that I was born at a critical time on many levels. In 1970, The Disability Rights Act, which began its movement in the mid-1960’s, was written into law.
Also, on a personal note, the year I was born, surgeons at Buffalo Children’s Hospital, New York, took brave and drastic measures to set the course for my life, having been born premature with Spina Bifida. Family legend has it that the surgeons argued over my body on the table. Thankfully, the innovative, aggressive physician won, and in an unprecedented move, he surgically broke my back and reset it, thereby eliminating a lifetime of pressure, pain, and the need for a shunt.
I believe I was born in an excellent year.
During the first wave of feminism, women wanted the right to vote. And while we look at those pioneering women admiringly today, at the time they were balefully unpopular – even in the minds of other women. The small group of educated women and laborers in America worked to achieve the vote, which was awarded them in August of 1920 in the state of Tennessee. From the beginning, the suffragists movement was headed by bourgeois women – privileged women who had at their disposal the luxury of time, resources, literacy, and finances. The working class or labor force women felt left out and were often bound to a double day; their fulltime factory job in the daytime, and their domestic family work in the evenings. The women who needed rights the most were frequently the very women who were working in the homes of the elite, washing their clothes, cleaning their houses, and raising their children before returning home to do the same for themselves.
After women achieved the vote, not all women had access or permission to exercise their rights. It would take years before all women--of all classes and all races-would be, as citizens, equal. At the time, race and class were the primary difference. Women with disabilites were not part of the equation.
Decades passed before the second wave of feminism developed in the 1960’s. These reformations dealt with women’s equality in the work place, and it fought the all-powerful cult of domesticity. Again, even the women were split among themselves regarding the goals of women’s rights. Some felt that feminism took away a woman’s femininity, as well as men’s masculinity – while the feminists worked towards removing the systems of oppression that kept women in their current status, without choices. So two parallel female forces went to work – one to preserve the way things were, and one to change how we approached marriage, contraception, childbirth, work, and wages. This time around, black feminists rose and ensured their own representation and voices were heard. The class division, though in the turbulence of the racist 60’s, was more balanced than during the first wave where black female rights were not part of the conversation. Finally, black women were speaking out against racial, class, labor, and economic issues that faced specifically black women in their unique experiences, which were far different than those of middle to upper class white women. Again, women with disabilities were not part of the equation – even though at the time, through coalitions with non-disabled established entities, people with disabilities were beginning to address hospital conditions, treatment options, access, and safety. The concept of women with disabilities was not yet a singular subject.
Now, here we are in the midst of the third wave of feminism. And it is a totally different ballgame. Feminism is no longer looked at as middle-to-upper class white feminism, with a separate entity of black feminism as a blanket statement. Instead, feminism is viewed from a global perspective, encompassing everyone. A collective, collaborative approach hinges itself on coalitions that address issues faced by all women, regardless of class, race, nationality, sexual orientation, or economic status. Women with disabilities are now participating.
What is unique about the disabled woman’s perspective is that women with disabilities cover all categories within women’s issues. Disability is not limited to race. It is not picky about sexual orientation. It does not decipher class. And it occurs around the world. It is something that can become part of anyone’s experience in a split second. It exists.
It is visible and tangible. As a force, it is one of the most non-discriminatory factors we have next to being human. Disability is pervasive, and it reflects the current gender statistics that indicate there are more females than males in the world, meaning there are more women with disabilities than there are men with disabilities. This means there are more women with disabilities that need access to proper healthcare that not only addresses women’s specific needs, but also meet specific disability needs.
Current statistics show that disabled men are healthier than disabled women, they suffer fewer infections, have fewer hospital visits and stays, and resume normal life quicker post-injury. They hold more jobs, though they are not paid more than their non-disabled male peers. They are more often married, and experience far less divorce post-injury. They live more independently in safer neighborhoods, they take care of themselves better, and they live longer. And they are less discriminiated against, and experience far less violence. They are more prone to become active in sports both with congenital disabilities and disability due to injury.
It seems that by the numbers, the disabled population reflects the non-disabled population.
Yet there is more. Women with disabilities often face what is commonly called Double Oppression. First, according to feminism, they are oppressed because they are women. Secondly, they are oppressed because they are disabled. What the theory of double oppression does for women with disabilities is make the percentage of violence against women in this category soar, while making the percentage of women in this category who are married/in a relationship and employed plummet.
What can we do about it? Everything!
We - women with disabilities - can do exactly what non-disabled women within the third wave of feminism are doing: Utilize the power of the Internet and easy access to the media to our advantage.
In 1911, women communicated through letters, speeches, meetings, and conventions. They traveled by train. Everything took an excruciatingly long time, particularly compared to today.
Today, with global Internet capabilities, web sites, digital conferencing, social networking, blogs such as this, YouTube, film making, documentaries….messages and images are able to be distributed across the globe in the matter of seconds. Access to support systems that cross class, economic, and language barriers are instantly possible.
I want to ask each of you that reads this to do something: This Women’s History Month March 2012…I am asking women with disabilities to post, upload, speak, perform, write, and reach a global audience and make yourselves visible. If every women with a disability chose just one of the following options: write to a blog, contribute or generate a chat-room or discussion board, upload a speech, video tape your dance, your monologue, your vocal performance, write to your congressional representative, volunteer at a children’s hospital or rehab center, register to vote, register to become a member of a women’s organization near you….the shift of our presence would be noticeable.
If we agree that women with disabilities should not be a statistic, then let’s each do something to combat at least one aspect of those statistics in any way possible. If we agree that women with disabilities are not visible in the media, then let’s each do one thing, however small or personalized, to combat at least one aspect of being invisible in American media. If we agree that women with disabilities deserve not only top healthcare as a women, but top healthcare that is specialized, then let’s each write to our representative on behalf of one another.
Pick any one of these important aspects of being a woman with a disability, and start the ball rolling towards visible equality and representation by women with disabilities this Women’s History Month, March 2012.
Bethany A. Hoppe is a speaker and author who works to promote women with disabilities in mainstream media, who has a disability herself...Spina Bifida. She holds a Masters in communication studies and teaches at Middle Tennessee State University. Bethany writes Raspberry Vogue, a lifestyle blog of a wheelchair diva (www.RaspberryVogue.com).