It’s fair to say that, historically speaking, women have gotten the short end of the stick. Though they have contributed no less than men to the construction and functioning of our civilizations and cultures, they have typically been deprived of any just compensation for their contributions–or even the most basic agency.
Things are somewhat better in 2016, depending on who you are and where you live. The world is, overall, a better place for women than it was in 1908, when women marched in New York City for voting rights and better treatment. But there is plenty of progress yet to be made, and March 8th–International Women’s Day–is as good an occasion as any to recognize that.
The Telegraph has a good overview. One thing that should be obvious in examining the history is how closely tied women’s movements are to socialist movements. Given women’s economic disempowerment over the centuries, it makes plenty of sense that women in search of a fairer society would turn to philosophies that involve redistribution of wealth. After all, is it reasonable to expect that a system built on such fundamental inequality will, in due course of time, transition to a more equal state? Why would a system of oppression rework itself into a tool of liberation? The answer is that it won’t and it can’t. Capitalism, when freed of restraints, can only oppress and dehumanize. Sensible limits on its influence are necessary to protect and preserve the basic dignity of the people.
What does this have to do with women? Plenty. Women’s liberation is sometimes mistaken as the integration of women into the capitalist workforce, allowing them to exit the home and compete with men for jobs. This trend has more or less reached its full potential in the West–women are approaching a level of workforce participation almost on par with men. And yet, the earning potential of women remains significantly below that of men. The gender pay gap persists. Women doing the same work as men still get paid less for it. It’s not an aberration–it’s the norm. It’s also not improving at an acceptable pace. At the current rate of change, the gender pay gap will not be eliminated worldwide until around the end of the century.
But the pay gap is only the tip of the iceberg. In the US in particular, policies that would help close the gap and raise women’s earnings are resisted across the board. Proper childcare for the children of working mothers is expensive and there is often no public assistance available to help defray the costs. The US remains the only developed country with no guaranteed paid time off from work, and this disproportionately affects women who, by necessity or expectation, are more likely to stay at home with sick children than men.
Women’s healthcare also remains under assault. Endless attacks on Planned Parenthood and abortion rights in general, as well as constant attempts to undermine the Affordable Care Act all promise an ongoing fight for women to maintain their hard-fought access to quality healthcare. There’s no point beating around the bush: these represent wholly a conservative agenda, and conservative policies across the country are, intentionally or coincidentally, damaging women, their rights, and their livelihoods. With the growing entrenchment of extreme conservative politics, coupled with their electoral success at various levels of government, the situation is not looking to improve anytime soon.
This is without even getting into problems of domestic abuse and sexual assault, which still occur at distressingly high levels and which, again, overwhelmingly impact women. This is not a good place to be, after a century of celebrating International Women’s Day.
The situation outside the West is often worse–sometimes much worse. There are still countries where women can’t vote, and while women are no longer legally considered chattel or property by any functioning state government, in practice there are many countries where women have few effective rights and little genuine autonomy. Patriarchy is an insidious construct, one that is difficult to shake with even the best of intentions. My efforts to understand its origins were, in fact, largely fruitless. The truth is that male-dominated society is so prevalent and so old it seems to predate recorded history. It likely emerged alongside the development of agriculture, when settled civilization and the retention of property became possible. Men controlled this system essentially from the outset, as far as we know, and over time women saw their power diminished to a point where they had virtually no rights at all.
It is a tremendous achievement that, in the span of a century or so, what took thousands of years to develop has been so radically altered. And yet, we remain so far from a world where women are truly liberated–a world where being born male does not automatically confer privilege and power over others. Women remain second-class citizens in many parts of the world, and even in the wealthiest and most progressive countries, women see their potential limited by institutions and attitudes controlled by men. It’s rarely as simple as men colluding to keep women out, either. As I have noted in the past, injustice can persist simply through inertia and inaction–it does not often require real work to uphold, except when under direct assault.
I, for one, hope it doesn’t take another century for the promise of feminist movements to be fully realized. I don’t know what that world would ultimately look like. Would gender even exist, as a concept? What would the economics be like? What would families look like, given that the stereotypical “nuclear family” is itself a historical fluke? Speculation for a future post, perhaps. For now, I think it’s prudent to recognize and appreciate all that women have accomplished over the past century, and for us all to pledge to make the world a better place for all women.