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Final Thoughts on Women as Citizens: What Do We Do With Our Freedom

written by Erin Solaro
on May 25, 2010

I would like to conclude my writing here with a few thoughts, not about women in the foxholes, but about where such women may go, and what is the proper sphere of their future lives, which is to say about women, as citizens, in the American Republic.

Man, Aristotle declared (using the word in its literal, gender-specific meaning), is a political animal. The word "political" comes from the word polis — a city-state. The Greeks believed that to be fully civilized meant living in a city-state as a citizen.

Not everyone was eligible, of course. The classical Greek definition of citizen excluded not only slaves, but legal aliens and women. A citizen could own and sell real property, marry freely, determine whether or not his progeny would be allowed to live, and controlled his own labor. His body was absolutely inviolable. Legally, he could not be so much as struck, let alone tortured.

In ancient Greece, a citizen's body and mind were his own, and he could be entrusted with the vote, with jury duty, with participation in deliberation and with the defense of the polis. In fact, a citizen was not free from conscription, which might seem strange for us now because we equate freedom with the absence of compulsion. But to the Greeks, freedom meant public freedom. That freedom began when the citizen left the company of his inferiors — slaves, non-citizens, children, women — and entered the public world to commune and act with his equals. A man who chose not to do so was considered immorally obsessed with private affairs. He was derided as idiotes by his peers. Our word "idiot" derives from that term.

For millennia, women as a class — who have been excluded from public political life — have been idiots.

It's time for that to stop.

In some ways, Western history can be read as the slow and painful work of extending citizenship to everybody, the work of the state saying, "Whatever else you may be in terms of race, ethnicity, creed, economic status, other memberships and affiliations, you are nonetheless one of us. You belong among us as a political equal. In return, we want you to participate actively in the life of this polity. And that includes defending it."

Feminism was revolutionary in its assertion that women, too, were citizens, but the feminist revolution is one that has yet to be fully accomplished, let alone embraced. At core of citizenship is the idea that the citizen's body is hers and hers alone, regardless of sexual history, marital status or childbearing. This idea — of the inviolability of a woman's body — has just begun to apply to women in America, and there are a lot of people are against it. This is why so many of the seemingly intractable issues about servicewomen — the continual willingness to excuse sexual assault and rapists; the utter refusal to understand the female body's capacity for strength and stamina when it is properly nourished; the refusal to permit women entry into the combat arms and possibly kill the enemy, who are usually other men — revolve around the body. They reflect the unspoken belief — a belief that codified into law in many different cultures — that women's bodies don't belong to themselves, and women cannot deny their bodies to others. They also echo back to the ancient Greek laws about citizenship: men whose bodies were their own were citizens; women were not.

The full citizenship of women is not just about the right to hold credit cards, buy real estate in our own names, have access to abortion and birth control and lead openly lesbian lives in which marriages and adoptions are legally recognized. These things are important in themselves — terribly so, to the point of sometimes being matters of life and death — but what they represent is vastly more important. They are part of a woman's citizenship and freedom, the right of a woman to fully inhabit her own life and participate fully in the life of the polity (in this case the American Republic) as a public and private equal.

America is now in a dreadful economic situation, the worst since the Great Depression. In this 21st century, a century that will, within a generation, likely be the worst and bloodiest century our species has ever endured, women, as citizens, should have full equality and freedom, including the right to determine defend themselves and their republic, to participate in combat with their bodies. And then American women (along with American men) will confront an existential question: what do we do with our freedom?

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