The Role of Women in America, from Life in the USA: The Complete Guide for Immigrants and Americans

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Life in the USA
The American People
Where Do Americans Come From?

“Honorary Men”: The Role of Women in America
This material courtesy of J. LaVelle Ingram, Ph.D.

It is clear that women in America enjoy much more personal freedom and independence than women in many other parts of the world. This freedom is something we hold dear and one of the things that define contemporary American culture. However, it is also clear that many immigrants, coming from very different-thinking cultures, view such women with at least suspicion and at most contempt. Acquiring a functional view of the women in America might take some re-thinking on the part of some immigrants who may have had little exposure to women in the workplace, women in charge, or even women operating on their own. It might give a more accurate view of the real character and status of American women if you think of them as “honorary men.”

Different cultures espouse widely variant ideas of the proper role and place of women within a society. One coworker, from Egypt, informed me that women did not typically live outside of their parents’ homes there unless they were married. There, a woman setting up “house” by herself is assumed to be setting up a place of prostitution. Why else would she leave the guidance and protection of her family? This way of thinking was completely new to me and would be to most Americans. Here, females, just like males, are expected to move away from parents’ homes and set up on their own in order to prove themselves successful, fully functioning adults. True, a woman can more easily remain at home with her parents than a man can here, but past about age 25 others would begin to look at her askance. So expect the women here to live on their own, in apartments or homes that they own, and consider such a situation to mean simply that such a woman is an adult and that she can afford such accommodations.

Further, in many other places in the world, women are expected to hold marriage and children as their primary goals and interest. Here, women are generally more interested in these things than the men are, but they do not necessarily place them first on their “to do” lists. In America, a woman is just as likely to decide that her education, for instance, needs to be completed before she can consider marriage or family. She may decide that her career needs to develop to a certain point first. In short, an American woman may have the same kind of broad concerns about conducting her life that men have around the world. In the case of men, most folks would consider holding such priorities as prudent in preparing for life’s challenges, but women can still come under scrutiny for the same priorities. Here, it should not be surprising to find women delaying marriage and family into their thirties, forties or even fifties.

Finally, many cultures associate a female’s independence with evidence that she is morally and/or sexually slack. The title of this article is “honorary men” for a reason. It suggests that independent women in America should be viewed through the same lens through which most folks would view men. A young man, living independent of his parents, working on his education or his career, may be morally upright or morally depraved; he may be sexually chaste or sexually promiscuous. His status as an independent man cannot tell you these other aspects of his character. Rather, one would need to meet him and get to know him before one could make such judgments. This scenario is exactly the same for American women. A woman living on her own and conducting her own personal and professional business can run the whole gamut from dutiful, traditional and chaste to self-involved, nontraditional and sexually free. One would need to engage the individual woman in order to find out the truth.

Similarly, American women tend to wear jewelry and make-up, and to many immigrants, too revealing clothing. Yet American women are typically dressing within the norms of social correctness (and beauty) that all women follow in their own cultures. American women of all types even dress more conservatively as they meet the requirements of various workplaces. The few women who violate such codes receive the same shocked and negative reactions from other Americans that they do from immigrants. So, despite the make-up and high-heels, the skirts and the hairdos, remember that these women are meeting the norms of the society. American’s women’s style of dress, then, has little to do with her morals or her character. In short, it might make more sense just to think of us all as honorary men, and proceed accordingly.


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