As we ring in 2017, I think it's safe to say that many feminists are feeling rightfully angry, sad, and deeply concerned about the preservation of our most basic rights. We've weathered a difficult election season, where we watched the country elect Donald Trump, a man who bragged about groping women without their consent, over Hillary Clinton, who was arguably the most qualified presidential candidate in history. We're fearful about a wide variety of human rights — including reproductive rights — coming under fire over the next four years. If you're concerned that the rights of women and other marginalized people may soon be under attack, you're definitely not alone.
What makes this even more frightening is the realization that our rights have never exactly been on solid ground — for example, some of the things women couldn't do in 1990 will shock you. (Well, if 2016 hasn't completely taken away your ability to be shocked by anything at this point.)
It's important to note how much progress we've made in a relatively short period of time — but it's also important to remember that we still have so much work to do when it comes to each of these issues, as well as many others. So, let's take a sobering walk down memory lane and take a look at what women couldn't legally do in 1990 — and let's use our anger to inspire us to fight for further progress, even in the face of a sexist government.
1. Women Couldn't Press Marital Rape Charges In All 50 States
One of the most harmful misconceptions about rape is that a woman can't "really" be sexually assaulted by the man she exchanged vows with. Although the criminalization of marital rape began in the 1970s, it wasn't until 1993 that rape within the confines of marriage was recognized as a crime in all 50 states. In 1991, TIME reported that a governmental committee estimated that approximately 15 percent of married women would be raped by their husbands at some point. In 1993, Oklahoma and North Carolina became the final two states to criminalize marital rape.
However, there are still a number of disturbing loopholes — for example, in Ohio, it's technically legal for a man to drug and rape a woman as long as she's his wife. In Oklahoma, it's not a crime for a man to penetrate his wife while she's sleeping or unconscious. And South Carolina has incredibly disturbing codes which state “the threat of use of a weapon” or “physical violence of a high and aggravated nature” must be present in order to prosecute a marital rape case. So, there's clearly a lot of work that still needs to be done when it comes to this form of domestic violence.
2. Women Couldn't Marry Other Women
In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage is a constitutional right in all 50 states. It was a beautiful but seriously overdue milestone to witness. In fact, same-sex marriages weren't legal in any state until 2003, when Massachusetts' highest court struck down the gay marriage ban and ruled that it violated the constitutional rights of same-sex couples. Connecticut and Iowa legalized gay marriage in 2008 and 2009 respectively — but it's still hard to believe that this basic right for both women and men was denied until very recently.
3. Women Couldn't Have Guaranteed Maternity Leave
The Family and Medical Leave Act was passed in 1993, which entitles new parents to three months of leave during the first year of their child's life. Until the passage of this act, women didn't have the right to take any time off after giving birth — if they did, they lost their health insurance and couldn't return to their jobs. Although FMLA is a step in the right direction, these three months are unpaid — so countless new parents simply can't afford the luxury of missing multiple paychecks.
There is still no law that requires companies to offer paid maternity leave, so most choose not to — according to a 2008 survey conducted by the National Partnership For Women & Families, only 16 percent of companies offer this benefit. These damaging policies contribute to the wage gap and the income gap — and America doesn't have much company when it comes to paid leave laws. Papua New Guinea, Oman, and the United States are the only countries in the world that don't guarantee paid maternity leave.
4. Women Couldn't Sue For Workplace Discrimination Unless There Was Proof Of "Injury"
When she was sexually harassed by her employer, Teresa Harris filed a lawsuit in federal district court on the grounds that the harassment had created an "abusive work environment" that violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When her employer, Forklift Systems, argued that the harassment hadn't been "severe" enough to affect Harris' ability to work, the court sided with Forklift.
Harris didn't back down and she appealed to the Supreme Court. In 1993, they ruled in her favor and Sandra Day O'Connor released a statement emphasizing that the focus should never have been on whether or not the abuse caused "concrete psychological harm" — rather, the court should have determined whether or not the conduct was hostile or abusive. O'Connor wrote:
As these four examples show, progress is painfully slow when it comes to women's rights — and we still have so much more work to do. But, now more than ever, we need to fight for our rights in every single way we can.