Such as Earth and Sea and Heavens High

Karen I. Olsen

I was free, am free and shall remain free, such as Earth and Sea and Heavens High. Why is it that women who pursue freedom, and the right to equality under the law, are everywhere accused of encouraging immorality, and of cultivating loose morals in themselves? All my life, I have seen and heard such messages flying fast and furiously from nations and cultures throughout the world. For generations, people of my gender have dreamed of freedom, of a time and culture where current ideas of liberty, justice and equality actually apply to them, only to be accused of promoting prostitution, moral chaos and the disintegration of the family. In what way does my pursuit of the birthright of freedom cause the decline of morality? Why should my demand for equality as a citizen translate to the collapse of marriage and family life? And yet these accusations are hurled at us merely because we desire to live as free people, and attempt to make these dreams a reality. These accusations are ridiculous, but I hear them every day. The lies have been told for so long, they are taken as gospel by people who should know better. I long for freedom, therefore I must be a whore. I demand justice and equality, and so society is in postmodern moral decline and going to hell in a hand basket. I ought to feel ashamed of wanting freedom, give up this quest, and retreat back to the domestic sphere where I "belong,", whether I like it or not.

Examples of these arguments could fill an anthropological textbook. Women's suffrage, at the turn of the twentieth century, was predicted to increase the divorce rate (how it would do such a thing is anybody's guess, but it must have been s elf-evident to right-wingers of the 1920's). The early Christian movement of the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D. quickly caved in to cultural strictures keeping women out of the public sphere, and taught us that it was "shameful" (that is, unchaste or indecent) for women to speak in church. Today, in Afghanistan, women are caught in a waking nightmare because the current regime considers it an "obscenity" to allow them to live, study and work as free citizens. In Rwanda, women who are intelligent and outspoken are accused as witches and poisoners. In Japan, the drug Viagra was approved for prescription sales before the long-awaited approval of the morning- after pill for women; and women on the pill are viewed by many as potential prostitutes. Women in the United States are vilified and harassed if they are receiving public assistance while raising children alone, while women who earn an independent income outside the home are accused of encouraging everything from divorce to pornography to drive-by gang murders. What do working women and female welfare recipients have in common? Both groups are living independently of a male wage-earner more often than not, and thus are immoral freedom-seekers. And the list goes on to infinity.

I was free, am free, and shall remain free, such as Earth and Sea and Heavens High.

The arguments presented to me against my freedom quest are old, weary and laughable to anyone of adequate intelligence, but that doesn't stop a number of people from offering them anyway. If I wish to do away with old injustices and obstacles to my human freedom, I am told, I must be chronically angry and bitter, I must hate all men, and I am probably a lesbian (as if all lesbians are chronically angry and hate men, a very worn-out stereotype). The corollaries to this argument are that I must accept systemic injustice in order to be emotionally stable, and that heterosexual women who enjoy male company don't worry their pretty little heads over such things. This argument makes no more sense than telling men that pursuing freedom and justice means that they are angry, gay male woman-haters; and, strangely enough, I have yet to hear anyone make this comment. But those who would dissuade me from challenging inequities in the status quo would have me think that to do so is evidence of emotional instability, or of homosexual orientation (if they have prejudicial attitudes toward sexual minorities).

Freedom, for men, is said to advance civilization. Freedom, for women, is said to destroy civilization, as well as the institutions of family, marriage, the economic marketplace and the national birthrate. If I enjoyed full liberty and justice alongside my brother, it would spell catastrophe for society, or so I am told. On what are these institutions constructed, if my fully realized freedom would doom them? Author Danielle Crittenden and her spiritual foremother, Phyllis "Stop ERA" Schlafly, both tell me that a woman's pursuit of equality or egalitarianism in a relationship will drive away the male party, that only a well-advertised submissiveness on my part will keep love alive. But what is a love based on that would crumble if both lovers were on an equal footing? Perhaps it is a concept of "love" that deserves to collapse and decay, that is entirely unsuitable to anyone who values her life and freedom. Perhaps our historic concepts of family are built on foundations that should be shaken up, even overthrown, if they are truly so threatened by my striving for liberty and equality. All of humanity deserves better, and we are likely capable of making better.

I was free, am free, and shall remain free, such as Earth and Sea and Heavens High.

Women have long been taught that freedom is hazardous to their own well-being. In the 18th and early 19th century, I would have been told that freedom, especially in the pursuit of higher learning, would cause me to undergo a spontaneous sex change. At the time, it was believed that male sperm cells were produced in the brain, and swam down the spinal cord toward their ultimate destination. Thus, if I were to develop my intellect beyond a certain point, I would soon be sporting a beard and male genitalia and singing baritone, and my uterus would disintegrate. I kid you not; western scientists and physicians used to believe this. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, women were denied their human sexuality by medical and psychological "experts", and a whole range of physical and emotional ailments were "cured" by the removal of women's ovaries and female genital mutilation. Freedom of both intellect and sexual expression for females were thought to cause illness, insanity, and even death.

Today, my freedom and equality under the law are being blamed for women's high rate of depression, premenstrual syndrome, eating disorders, low self-esteem and negative body image. My mental health is going down the tubes because I can't handle being a free, decision-making adult in the public sphere, or so I am told. Never mind that the public sphere is a highly alienating place, moving at dizzying speeds; or that the U.S. workplace is the least family-friendly, most exhausting one in the industrialized world. Never mind that the media controls so much of our thought and daily routines, and that female success is marketed to us as an achievement requiring unfailing thinness, sexual allure and consumption of the right products. Never mind that success for both sexes is a matter not of who you are, but whom you know; and that an employer's bottom line is vastly more important than anyone's personal dreams and goals. Never mind all that; I am sick and tired because I wanted my freedom, people say; and female freedom, therefore, is an unbearable burden and a curse, and I'd better scrap it all and retreat into my great- grandmothers' narrow horizons if I want to be happy and healthy again. To paraphrase Mark Twain, there are lies, damn lies and recent studies.

Unfortunately, the "good old days" people want to go back to, the "traditional values" we are supposed to recover, are artifacts of a world in which freedom and justice did not apply to me, where a married woman and an enslaved person had roughly the same legal status (at least, it was so under English common law). In this world, I would go through much of my life under the guardianship of a father or husband; they would consult doctors on my behalf, vote on my behalf, go through legal processes on my behalf, and make the most trivial decisions on my be royally shocked if I complained or tried to circumvent their authority. In this world, my virtue and morals would be called into question if I tried to play any significant role in the public sphere, if I published books or articles under my own name, or even if my name were mentioned in print media (one popular comment used to disparage nineteenth-century feminists was that they "wanted to see their names in the newspaper"). There is a reason why we no longer live in this world, and why we abandoned its values: this world was built on a foundation of some people's legal ownership of others, which informed its values, its mores and even its religious beliefs. Eventually, enough people (men, women and children) wanted their freedom, and became sufficiently repulsed by the ideas on which the old world was built, that many of us were ready to abandon these ideas and structures thirty to forty years ago. Now many people want to return to the old ideas and systemic structures, because the new world we desired has not been around long enough to enable us to build new structures and develop new mores and values based upon the love of freedom and equality. But I do not want to live in a world that devalues and constricts my freedom; and no person who believes in liberty, justice and democracy would want me to live thus. My pursuit of freedom is NOT destructive, irreligious, anti- family or neurosis-causing, and it is incumbent upon me and all women not to let the lies cause us false fears and guilt which induce us to abandon our freedom quest. My freedom will not alienate any partner who truly loves me, will not destroy any family that is built upon mutual love and acceptance, and will not damage any society built on the principles of equality, freedom, equal justice and acceptance of change and diversity. My freedom and autonomy will certainly not hurt ME, if they are not thwarted, disparaged, stomped on and demonized at every turn.

I was free, am free, and shall remain free, such as Earth and Sea and Heavens High.

© Karen I. Olsen

Karen Olsen, LairMistress of Kari's Lair: Home of the Virgo Folkie, is primarily devoted to folk music performance, songwriting, freelance writing, and craftmaking inspired by Neolithic European decorative art. Visit her at

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