Women and Morality: What Has (Happily and About time) Changed

The Power of Women in 2020

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“Has the idea of morality changed for us? I mean, one hundred years ago, what was considered moral for women? Certainly we’ve changed, right?”

A female colleague of mine asked me this at a Friday end-of-the work week Zoom cocktail hour. We love discussing complex questions when we get together via Zoom, and the idea of morality is always a topic that prompts a good discussion. She gave all of the women seated at the virtual restaurant food for thought, as it were.

How have the guidelines for morality changed for women between 1912 and 2020? Ideas as to how a woman should act in 1912 certainly differed from the freedoms women enjoy today. To do the question justice, we first needed to understand the definition of the word morality as it was used then and as it is understood to be now, and compare the two.

A woman who smoked cigarettes in 1912 was considered to be on the verge of immorality. That’s not the case today and, if we don’t smoke, we do so for health reasons and not because we fear being seen as immoral. Women drank what were referred to as a “lady’s beverage” in 1912 and not hard liquor, lest she be seen as “wild.” Today, we don’t see anything wrong with having a Cosmo, Appletini or any other alcoholic drink. (Unfortunately, female alcoholism has risen in recent years, but it is certainly not due to immorality.)

Birth control was out of a woman’s hands in the early part of the twentieth century. It was banned by the government — even for married couples. A woman was immoral if she wanted to have sex without the fear of pregnancy and she was seen as “going against the laws of God.” If a woman sought to end an unwanted pregnancy, her usual access was either an unsafe, self-induced abortion or one performed in dangerous and unsanitary conditions by someone who had limited knowledge. There were midwives who did attempt to perform safe terminations, but there were strict legal punishments awaiting them if they were caught.

In 2020, we see contraception as our right. We can enjoy sex without worrying about pregnancy being a consequence, pregnancies can be planned and laws protecting a woman’s rights concerning her own body are still in place in most states. A safe medical abortion is legal.

In 1912, sex outside of a sanctioned married state was sinful and only for “women of loose morals.” Marriage was considered sacred and a divorced woman was shunned from society. Many women lived in miserable and abusive marriages simply because they feared the censure brought about from divorce. Censure wasn’t the only reason a woman stayed married. Legally she owned nothing and had very little rights; no property, no money of her own except what she was given by her husband and no say over the fate of her own children. In extreme cases, a woman’s ex-husband could make certain that she never saw her children again. Divorce is no longer seen as immoral, we’re certainly not censured by being divorced and we have rights that include owing property, custody of our children (joint or otherwise) and earning our own money in an array of career fields.

Any woman who wanted the vote, was interested in playing sports and spoke her own mind openly in 1912 was not only considered morally suspect, she could be deemed “unnatural.” Aspersions were cast on her “womanhood.” Women today take voting as a right, are politically active and vocal and participate in competitive sports.

Are we as moral as our sisters were in 1912? Taking into account the changes in society and equal rights for women, we are. According to The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the term morality has two main definitions. One is “codes of conduct put forward by a society or other group, such as a religion.” With this definition, the morals of women one hundred years ago were dictated by societal constraints and religions, both patriarchal and not women-friendly.

The second definition seems more in tune with our views today. “Any code accepted by an individual for her own behavior or a code of conduct put forward by rational persons” — so personal ethics, not necessarily those of society or religious beliefs.

Morality changes as society changes, and many things once seen as immoral are now accepted as moral. The women in 1912 were as moral as we are today; the only difference is in what was deemed acceptable and unacceptable behavior by society. With a greater voice, women today can state that: “My values or morals may not be the same as yours, but they are just as important and viable.” That statement is morally just.

© 2020 copyright Kristen Houghton

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