“Why do we still need feminism in 2015?” someone asked me on Twitter recently. “What has it done lately?”
I actually did a double-take at the question. To me, the answer was obvious—it addresses important issues that affect people I care about, and it takes on problems both subtle and glaring that persist even when legal equality has largely been achieved.
I’ve spent years listening and reading, and those experiences have created a lens through which I tend to view social issues. For me, social consciousness is a learning process I’m continually undergoing, as part of a general broader goal of having empathy for other people, and maybe in the end, understanding the human condition a little better.
I do this partly because I’m a writer—and the better you understand other people, the better characters you write. But I also want to do what I can to make the world a better place—and the better I understand other people’s thoughts and feelings, the better equipped I am to do that, regardless of whether I agree with them on all the details of how the world works or not.
But to try distill all this—both the concrete and abstract—into a few blurbs on Twitter seemed impossible. Naturally, my conversational adversary took my silence as an admission of defeat.
So I wrote this list—15 Reasons We Still Need Feminism in 2015. It’s not meant to be comprehensive, nor it is ranked in order of importance, nor does it necessarily even include the most important ones. What it’s meant to be is 15 real-life issues—social, political, economic, educational—that feminism still has a role in helping to address in the modern world. (This is directed at the Western world, particularly America; international women’s rights is a much bigger topic, but for this I particularly wanted to address things that Americans still encounter in daily life.)
Obviously, with 15 items, these aren’t comprehensive discussions—talking about these problems in depth, with side effects, solutions, and ramifications, would require far more than a few thousand words. Indeed, many stories, articles, and dissertations’ worth have already been written. But next time someone asks me (in good faith or not), why feminism is needed in 2015, well, here are a few reasons to start with. You may agree with some or all of them– or you may think I’ve left out some big ones– but it’s a start.
1) The United States is the Only Developed Country with No Paid Maternity Leave
Every developed country in the world– and many developing countries, too– mandate paid leave for new mothers. That is of course, except for the United States. In the U.S., only unpaid maternity leave is guaranteed by law, and there are several large exceptions to even that. For example, women in corporations with less than 50 employees, or who work part-time, are not guaranteed any paid leave at all by federal law.
Paid paternity leave is also a thing in many countries, to allow fathers to bond with their children and help support mothers as they recover from the physical ordeal of childbirth– but once again, not in the United States.
2) Too Many Clueless Men Still Try to Control Women’s Health Care
Just a few days ago, an Idaho lawmaker made the news when he asked if women could swallow a camera to perform a gynecological exam remotely. This man sits on the board of a crisis pregnancy center, and moreover, helps set the laws governing how and when women can receive health care for an entire state.
Across states and across the country, lawmakers (predominantly male) are ignoring science and setting destructive policies that hurt women’s access to health care solely in order to appeal to a reactionary part of their constituency. Government shouldn’t impose itself between a patient and a doctor– unless that patient is a woman, apparently.
Organizations like Planned Parenthood, which devote a huge chunk of their resources to providing health care of all kinds, are targetted by conservatives because they happen to also provide abortions.
Were “pro life” forces sincerely interested in decreasing abortions, you’d think they might educate teenagers on safe sex (see #10) or focus on the improving the plight of single parents (see #14). Instead, their entire focus is on preventing women from having access to safe, legal abortions, even allowing religious belief to trump factual science in the name of decreasing women’s access to health care. Could it perhaps because their concerns are motivated by base politics rather than any sort of sincere altruistic belief toward either woman or baby? Perish the thought, surely.
3) Women Still Make Less Money than Men at the Same Jobs
The reasons for this are many and complex, but the White House estimates that women make 77 cents on the dollar to men for comparable work. The Pew Research Center pegs that estimate higher– at 84 cents on the dollar– but the gender wage gap is nevertheless present. The statistics also vary by race– while Asian-American women make about 90 cents on the dollar, the figure is 64 cents for African-American women, and 56 cents for Latinas.
Some of the factors at play include that women are more likely to take time off or interrupt their careers for children (see #14). Women may also be more reluctant than men to negotiate hard for salary benefits, for fear of being seen as pushy (see #11; it’s worth noting that conflicts over salary are cited as part of the reason Jill Abramson was fired.) In addition, not only are women often discouraged from asking for raises, but doing so is more likely to have negative repercussions for women.
4) There is Still an Unconscious Bias Against Women in Math and Science
From elementary school through college, there is an unconscious bias exhibited by both men and women against female students and job applicants, probably because these are thought of as traditionally “male” fields. When tests and applications are made anonymous, women score higher than they did if the reviewer knew their gender.
This is deeply embedded in our culture, too. How often, when a man does something particularly nerdy or geeky, whether it be something scientifically brilliant or something rooted in geek pop-culture, is the joke made that he doesn’t have a girlfriend, or is obviously a virgin? As though girls could never find those things interesting? I know plenty of geek girls who would say otherwise.
5) Women are Drastically Under-Represented in STEM Fields
Being discouraged from science and math in their early years often means that when I.T. firms (and other firms looking to fill high-paying jobs in STEM fields) go looking for applicants, there are far more male applicants than female. Moreover, the unconscious bias from #5 doesn’t just disappear as students enter the workforce– it continues to persist, not just in applications and hiring but in corporate culture as well.
This one hits home for me because I’ve seen it play out in my own experiences in the I.T. field. In my department doing software support at a Seattle-area company, our department had 18 people– 1 of whom was female. She was an incredibly skilled and dedicated worker, but often underappreciated– she was often hit on by tech workers and salespeople. Moreover, in meetings, she sometimes felt shunned by higher ups, who would ignore her and talk to her male co-workers even when she was the lead on the project being discussed.
Unfortunately, this bias in corporate culture also serves to drive women away from the field, so as a result this problem tends to be self-perpetuating. The only way to fix it is to be aware of it, and make conscious effort to overcome the unconscious problem.
6) Men’s Voices are for Everybody; Women’s Voices are for Women
Shannon Hale is a New York Times-bestselling author. She’s written over a dozen children’s book and young adult novels; she’s co-written several graphic novels, and one of her books has been turned into a motion picture starring Keri Russell.
Sometimes, when she visits a school, the girls are given permission to skip class to see her, but the boys are not. Why? Because apparently her books are seen “girly.” Boys can’t enjoy a book that has “Princess” in the title or is written by a woman, right?
When we police content by gender like this, we do a disservice both to the women authors who are excluded from a big chunk of their potential audience, as well as the boys who are told that they should only like certain kinds of stories. Girls get to read all kinds of stories, but boys only get to read stories that are judged “manly” enough by their parents, teachers, and peers.
This is a problem, not just because it marginalizes female authors, but because it contributes to the issue of toxic masculinity that I blogged about in my previous post. We need to do a better job raising and educating both boys and girls, and this shit isn’t helping.
7) Men Outnumber Women in Congress by over 4 to 1, and as CEOs by almost 20 to 1.
In the current Congress, there are 104 women out of 535 members, for a ratio of 18.5%. 26 women lead Fortune 500 companies, for an even lower rate of 5.2%. There has never been a woman president in the United States, though that may change in 2016.
There seem to be various reasons for this-- some of them are undoubtedly related to #11. But there is still a bias against women speaking up and taking leadership positions in the workplace, at least partially related to the fact that women who do so are breaking our preconceived unconscious notions of how women “typically” behave. As the linked article states, hopefully this will be overcome as we have more women role models.
8) Women are Still Seen as a Separate Niche Market, Rather than Half the Population
Instances like this are all too common, in which the default is assumed to be “male” while girls and women are seen as a special subcategory that must be catered to separately.
Toys like Legos have become increasingly gendered, apparently supported by marketing research, but even children have noticed and complained. Peggy Orenstein wrote an excellent NYT Op-Ed in which she acknowledges the differences in play that have been found between men and women, but goes on to warn about mixing up nature and nurture. Playing into gender stereotypes from such a young age can have long-term consequences (see #4, 5).
At issue, then, is not nature or nurture but how nurture becomes nature: the environment in which children play and grow can encourage a range of aptitudes or foreclose them. So blithely indulging — let alone exploiting — stereotypically gendered play patterns may have a more negative long-term impact on kids’ potential than parents imagine.
In other words, by shoehorning children into such specific and culturally constructed stereotypes right from an early age, we’re denying them agency, likely with lifelong repercussions. And this is just all the more likely to exacerbate #s 4, 5, 9, and 11. (And most of the others, too.)
9) In Reality and Media, Women are Still Seen as Prizes to be Won, rather than People.
This has destructive effects on both men and women.
For women, it takes away their humanity and turns them into objects– not people to be interacted with, but prizes to be won– or perhaps even worse, prey to be duped and tricked into bed. The “pick up artist” industry doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
Men, in turn, are encouraged to weigh their self-esteem based on how many women they’ve been able to bed; how “virile” they are. For men who are late bloomers sexually, or who suffer from depression, or who are just natural loners, the effects can be incredibly toxic. I’ve blogged about more than once.
The alternative (treating women as people worthy of respect, rather than merely trying to get them into bed) is not only healthier for everyone involved in terms of self-esteem, it leads to healthier sexual attitudes, and happier people in general.
10) The Taboo on Sexual Education Means Kids Don’t Learn What They Need to About Sex—or Learn it From the Wrong Places.
In states across the country, schools are discouraged from teaching anything other than “abstinence only” sexual education. This is despite the fact that study after study shows that abstinence-only education does not lead to abstinent behavior, and that comprehensive sex ed is more effective at preventing teen pregnancy than abstinence alone.
In fact, the societal taboo about having open discussions about sex is so strong that even parents find it awkward, and so children and teenagers may instead learn about it from media, the Internet, and their peers.
Imagine if we had nationwide sexual education that included not just a comprehensive discussion on safe sex and contraceptives, but larger issues such as respect, consent, boundaries, and “no means no” (or even better, “yes means yes”). We could not only help decrease teen pregnancy but perhaps encourage healthier sexual attitudes among Americans of all ages.
This is an issue for both boys and girls, but it’s particularly a feminist issue because of the disparate impact that teen pregnancies have on girls. (See also: #1, 2, 14)
11) Strong Men are Seen as Assertive Leaders; Strong Women are Seen as Divisive and Bitchy.
Because strength, assertiveness, and decisiveness are often seen as “masculine” attributes, women who exhibit these tendencies are often seen as unfeminine at best, or stubborn, condescending, and bitchy at worst. When people break gender stereotypes, it makes people uncomfortable, consciously or not– and that has a detrimental effect on women entering all sorts of leadership and/or high-paying roles.
A very visible recent example of this was Jill Abramson’s tenure as managing editor of the New York Times. Her editorial decisions were praised, as were her skills and effectiveness (the paper won multiple Pulitzers during her tenure), but Politico published a piece extremely critical of her tenure, in which anonymous sources criticized her tone and her brusqueness. (The few non-anonymous sources actually contradicted the thrust of the article.) Here’s a brief sum-up of some of the reactions and problems with that piece.
Unfortunately, because we live in a world where women in leadership positions continues to be a rare thing (and often discouraged, both consciously and unconsciously), women who do make it to the top ranks may actually be more domineering and brusque than their male counterparts (or at least have that side to their personality), simply because they have to shout louder to be heard. But male leaders are given leeway in the personality department that women often do not have.
12) Sexual Harassment is Still Widespread, and too Often Excused with Some Form of “Boys will be Boys.”
There are so many different aspects to this problem it’s hard to know where to begin, For a start,witness the huge debate over the catcalling video that went viral last year. But the outcry was often less about the pervasive nature of street harassment and more about how supposedly men aren’t even allowed to say hi to women anymore.
These responses usually ignored the context of the comments. Even if some women are flattered by it, many more find it annoying or even frightening, and sometimes there’s an all-too-thin line between catcalling and physical harassment. In a world where men are taught to link their self-respect to their success with women (see #9), street harassment can turn to physical violence, or worse, all too easy. Too often men think they’re entitled to women’s attention, and react angrily when such attention is denied. Street harassment is a big issue– and while a small minority of men engage in it, a vast majority of women will experience it.
But catcalling is hardly the worst problem. According to some statistics, one in six American women will be the victim of a rape or attempted rape sometime during their lifetimes. And yet rape is still possibly the only crime in which the victim will suffer as much, if not more, scrutiny than the perpetrator; what was she wearing? How drunk was she?
In cases of burglary and robbery, it doesn’t matter how easy it was to break into the victim’s home or car; it’s still a crime. In cases of physical assault or mugging, it doesn’t matter if the victim was walking down a dark street at 1 am; it’s still a crime. Unfortunately, that same mindset doesn’t apply to prosecution of sexual harassment cases. Is it any wonder such crimes are still drastically underreported?
Part of the problem is that sexuality is still often portrayed in culture and media with some sort of predator/prey vibe, like one party is the hunter or pursuer, and the other is the prize or target that tries to get away, resulting in some delightful romantic chase and amusing hijinks… rather than, y’know, stalking charges. (Here’s a thoughtful video in which Hank Green expounds on this topic far better than me.) This dynamic hurts women by taking away their own sexual agency– by making them an object to be desired rather than a person with desires themselves– and it insults men by implying that they’re more or less animals who can’t actually control their own behavior. “Boys will be boys,” the refrain goes, or “that’s how just how men are.” I find this shirking of personal responsibility incredibly distasteful– own your own behavior, people.
It doesn’t help that we really don’t talk about these topics with kids and teenagers (see #10), thus making them have to infer proper behavior from popular media and their peers.
13) Because Facing Graphic, even Violent Gendered Harassment Online is Still Seen as “Normal.”
An increasing proportion of our lives are conducted in the online world. Social media and an online presence are vital for business and networking. And of course, an increasing number of our hobbies are online– video games, for example.
But for women who are outspoken online, graphic rape and death threats are all too common. And for every one person who actually posts horrible shit, there seem to be another ten who excuse it with “this is just what happens,” as though the fact that it happens is a valid excuse for it. And while both men and women can face harassment online, the harassment women face is often uber-violent, laced with physical or sexual violence, and especially designed to intimidate and threaten.
Like the line between catcalling and physical harassment, the line between online harassment and real world harassment is blurry, especially here in 2015, where the two worlds are increasingly interlinked– doubly so for women in tech. (See #5)
Even women who merely go online for entertainment, not business, face some appalling behavior. Another example arose just a few days ago, Curt Schilling’s daughter was the target of some abysmal harassment, and she didn’t even make the post that started it. Those people, at least, faced consequences, but not everyone is as visible or powerful as Curt Schilling, and most don’t have the power or ability to see their harassers brought to justice.
Such harassment cannot merely become “the way things are online”, or too many important voices will be driven off the Internet, and possibly out of tech entirely.
14) Because Mothers Don’t Get Enough Respect and Support.
America’s social programs are in disrepair, thanks largely to the same clueless idiots responsible for #1 and #2. Single parents of all genders are affected by this, but women disproportionately so. The costs of daycare, education, etc. are all through the roof, with few options for people who are financially disadvantaged except to accrue staggering levels of debt.
Moreover, even outside government programs, there is sometimes a bias against mothers in the workplace. from both women and men. And the difficulties of being a mother in the workplace are often cited as one reason women are paid less than men (see #3)– even if those difficulties don’t affect the employee’s performance. Merely being a working mother is often enough for companies or employers to lower their offered salary.
15) Because Transgender Women Still Have a Long Way to Go.
Transgender women still lag far behind other women in terms of legal rights, as well as the conscious and unconscious biases they face in larger culture. In many places, someone can still be fired for merely being transgender. On top of the legal bias, transgender people face drastically increased rates of suicide and physical violence.
Additionally, they face a great deal of mockery from folks who seemingly refuse to recognize them as a class of people at all—probably none of whom have ever had a conversation with a transgender person in real life. (Either that, or they’re sociopaths, given the stunning lack of empathy required here. It’s much easier to dehumanize people who you have no experience with.) I hadn’t met any transgender folks more than briefly before I moved to Seattle, but now I am pleased to be friends with many folks occupying places all along the gender spectrum. To acknowledge the humanity of these people is not being “politically correct,” it’s just not being a complete asshole to other people. The fact that this is still in dispute, on its own, is enough to make me a strident feminist.
16 (BONUS): Because Equal Rights Does not Mean Equality.
Over the past century, women have increasingly gained legal rights—the right to vote, the right to not be fired for their gender (although the continued lack of paid maternity leave makes this questionable), and in 2009, the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was passed.
But even if equal legal rights are ensured, the idea that the legacy of economic and cultural oppression merely goes away with the signing of a pen is laughable. Regardless of whether you agree on the nature of that legacy or not, it is still something that needs to be considered and studied—and feminism plays an important role in that. Even if we could wave a hand and do away with blatant sexism, unconscious sexism—both on a cultural and a personal level—continues to exist.
Slavery ended 152 years ago, and segregation was outlawed 51 years ago, but the legacy of oppression is still very much real in the African-American community, as evidenced by the disproportionate number of African-American families still in poverty. This sort of damage is lasting, and doesn’t go away the minute legal equality is realized—and while it may not necessarily affect all members of the community (at least not in the same way), the effects are certainly noticeable in larger trends. And to simply ignore those trends with a wave of the hand and a “you’re on your own, figure your own shit out now” is not only callous, but ignores the reality that we all live in the same world.
It should be noted that equality improves society for everyone– almost all the problems I’ve talked about here, which women face, will help men too if we address them. Single fathers face many of the same issues as single mothers. Transgender men face many of the same issues as transgender women. Both boys and girls suffer from the consequences of growing up in a society where we rigidly enforce sexual taboos and gender stereotypes, and shutting women out of STEM careers means that the entire world is deprived of new voices, ideas, and solutions. Gendered career stereotypes hurts everyone– we could certainly use more men in the nursing and teaching fields, for example.
You’ll also notice how many of the reasons are linked, how some factors into and influence others, creating larger overall systems of bias and oppression that need to be dismantled. (That overall system, and the way it affects us both consciously and unconsciously, is often termed “Patriarchy”, despite the fact, as mentioned above, that it hurts both men and women.)
So that’s my list. 15 seems like a lot, but it’s barely beginning to scratch the surface. It took me about a week to write this, but merely by staying plugged into the news, every day I saw 2 or 3 new articles and incidents that could have been fodder for this article. (Some I added, some I didn’t.) What did I leave out? What do you think is the most important reason we still need feminism?