THE STATUS OF WOMEN IN THE WORLD TODAY
Since the early days of the Industrial Revolution women in Europe and North America have made considerable progress towards equality with men, although much remains still to be done. Of course, the industrialization of Western countries at first had not improved the status of women, but had degraded them even further by exploiting them and their children in factories as cheap labor. In the preceding relatively prosperous agrarian culture women had worked on an almost equal footing with men and had been skilled in many occupations. Families were still "producing units", and women received recognition for contributing their substantial share. The factory system changed all that by breaking up the traditional extended family with its large household and by giving people specialized monotonous tasks behind perpetually moving machines. Women and children were, however, paid much less for such work than men, and thus their economic "value" declined. It took many decades of struggle before unionization and legal reform ended the crassest form of this discrimination.
At the same time, middle- and upper-class women were increasingly confined to the home with little to do except to take care of their children. Their husbands no longer worked inside the house, but were absent during most of the day. These idle women often played the role of frail, sensitive creatures who had "the vapours" and fainted in any "indelicate" situation. On the other hand, many of them also became critical of their position in society. They found time to devote themselves to various religious and moral causes and even to become interested in abolition and the women's rights movement. Eventually, both working-class and bourgeois women insisted on change and contributed to the success of feminism. This success still is not total, and, as we all know, even in the industrialized countries women continue to fight for equal rights. Today, however, in addition to economic issues, problems of sexual self-determination have come to the foreground.
It must be remembered, of course, that the relatively liberated and affluent women of Europe and North America are only a small minority of women in the world today. Women in many non-Western countries, and especially in the so-called Third World generally live in a state of subjection and misery. Most of their energy is consumed by a hard and unrelenting struggle for sheer survival. Thus, for them, any talk about "sexual liberation" in the Western sense sounds, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, frivolous. Their concerns are more elementary and more pressing. This became disturbingly obvious, for example, when, in 1975, the United Nations sponsored an "International Women's Conference" in Mexico City. This conference demonstrated a serious communication gap between women from industrial and agrarian societies. It also revealed a stark global picture: More than a billion women (i.e., the majority of the world's female population) live in poor, rural areas. Most of them are illiterate, malnourished, exhausted, or even ill, and are forced to work long hours for little reward. Naturally, men share many of these hardships, but women still bear the greatest burden. In nearly all "underdeveloped" countries boys are favored over girls from the moment of birth, since parents consider sons as a guarantee for their economic security in old age. Girls, on the other hand, marry into some other family. Thus, even under conditions of abject poverty, boys are better fed, clothed, and educated than girls. In emergencies and in case of natural disasters, female needs also take second place. Furthermore, in many poor countries women have few rights and are early given away in marriage with hardly a voice in the matter. Backbreaking work and constant pregnancies then keep them weak and dependent. Attempts by governments and international agencies to raise the general standard of living in poor communities may well have the opposite effect on women by increasing their workload. Under such depressing circumstances, "women's liberation" has a special meaning and, indeed, poses a challenge to the women's movement in the rich and powerful West. Some of the poor countries have, in the meantime, made great strides toward economic progress and, in some cases, such as in the People's Republic of China, a considerable degree of sexual equality has been achieved. It is also interesting to note that in recent times some "developing" nations, such as India, Sri Lanka, and Israel have chosen women as heads of state, an example that still waits to be emulated in Europe and America. On the whole, one might say that the emancipation of women is no longer a "Western" issue, and that its global implications are increasingly being recognized. There also seems little doubt that the demand for sexual equality will persist until it has fully been granted everywhere.