In the wake of the Women’s March, one thing is clear — we haven’t resolved a debate that has been at the heart of feminism since 1848. What, if anything, does women’s equality mean? Does it mean we’re equal with men? Does it mean something else based on our physical and social status as women? And it’s 2017. Don’t women already have equal rights in this country anyway?
A woman named “Christy” articulated this stance quite succinctly, in a post that went viral shortly after the March (and, of course, there was an accompanying hashtag, #NotMyMarch).
There have been a few good rebuttals to Christy’s line of argument. Most say something like “Yeah, because millions of us marched for those rights in the past, UM, HELLO, and wow, girl, you are really white. How nice for you!”
Right on. And also, I hate to tell you, Christy, but your “equality feminism” argument is bunk.
Why? Let’s review! Settle in, dears, and pour something strong into that coffee. You’ll need it.
The Seneca Falls crew spends a lot of time and energy trying to convince dudes that ladies are equal in every way, and therefore deserve rights. Vaginas don’t matter! This accomplishes: almost nothing.
(I’m slightly exaggerating, of course. The Married Women’s Property Act passed in New York in 1848, and later in other states, was a key feminist reform hard-won by the early suffragists. And yet it was one of the only reforms of the century explicitly designed to improve women’s legal status.)
All the Congressmen wake up, and decide women are definitely equal. Here’s the Nineteenth Amendment, and legal birth control, and abortion, and jobs, and everything else! Just kidding.
Instead, women have to turn to arguments of sexual difference to convince men it’s worth it. The gist is that women are weaker, but also gentler and nobler, and therefore improve democracy and elevate the republic. This “equivalence” strategy works better, obviously, because it plays right into patriarchal assumptions about women’s capacity, and finally it exhausts President Woodrow Wilson enough that he decides agreeing is just easier than fighting a bunch of crazy you-know-whats who chain themselves to his fence.1
The Nineteenth Amendment is passed.
Around the same time, women’s rights reformers also use the strategy of difference to get a bunch of other “rights,” including access to higher education and the passage of protective labor legislation. This approach widens women’s opportunities for single-sex education, but continues to keep them out of schools attended by men, and curtails their access to most jobs based on the theoretical possibility that they may give birth at some point. Meanwhile, birth control and abortion remain completely illegal. Women put up with this state of affairs because it’s better than nothing.
Oh, and along the way, white women suffragists sell out people of color (see Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and the Fifteenth Amendment) and erect a society in which their political and social rights are specifically based on racial exclusion and oppression (see Jim Crow, Pantsuit Nation etc.). This is a key part of the strategy to win the vote. White middle-class women peddle the notion that they deserve it and other rights, but only so they can protect themselves (and their fellow white middle-class men) from the myriad dangers that people of color and immigrants present.
The “feminism of difference” strategy fades away, as women try to dredge up their actual rights out of the dangerous swamp of equivalency arguments. Single-sex protective legislation (rightly) begins to be eliminated on the grounds that it denies women equal opportunity. Women finally eke out their rights through the courts to serve on juries, use contraception, open their own bank and credit accounts, attend school with men, get abortions, and so forth. The Fourteenth Amendment is every woman’s best accessory. “Equality” arguments make their return in full force in the women’s movement.
Well, here we are, squarely in the wheelhouse of equality feminism! And what’s happening? Gender-neutral laws have increased women’s obligations of citizenship, while doing nothing to address the inequality perpetuated by the lack of resources addressing their reproductive capacities. No-fault divorce laws increase women’s financial responsibilities, while failing to rectify the pay gap or the paucity of affordable childcare facilities. Anti-pregnancy discrimination laws and the Family and Medical Leave Act provide the absolute minimum of employment safeguards for pregnant and nursing mothers.
Laws like Title IX have increased women’s access to education, yet women consistently remain shut out of the careers and earnings for which that education is supposed to prepare them. Under ostensibly gender-neutral healthcare policies, women pay more overall for sex-specific procedures like abortion or hysterectomies, and are denied insurance coverage for “preexisting conditions” — which often includes prior treatment for domestic violence or having had a caesarian section. (The Affordable Care Act made some of this illegal when it took effect in 2014 — but if the Freedom Caucus and others get their way, kiss these protections goodbye!)
In the military, women have been granted the right to serve, but are subject to retaliation and dismissal if they utilize their legal right to report rape or assault. Recently, a military whistleblower exposed a private Facebook group that consisted of thirty-thousand male military members sharing women service members’ photographs. Their commentary consisted of vulgarities, and, naturally, rape threats. As Buzzfeed writer Anne-Helen Peterson wrote on her Facebook page “30,000 men were part of this group. No one said a thing.”
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ It’s fine, we have legal equality!
Feminism after the Women’s March
Christy, you’re right. The Women’s March doesn’t solve any of this. But you’re also mistaken if you think you live in a world where you, as a woman, navigate your future entirely on your own merits, free of any institutional or systemic barriers. (Just ask women of color. Or trans women. Or immigrant women. Or lesbian women. Or single mothers.)
What’s even more clear is that in the struggle for rights, women have had to figure out how to play by men’s rules. First, they acquiesced to patriarchal stereotypes in order to achieve some advancement of rights. The abandonment of that strategy, and the return to an equality framework, finally resulted in more substantial achievements in the late twentieth century. But in beating the drum for sex equality with men, women have had to give up more than they gained in return.
The trick we need to figure out in order to uphold a successful, post-Women’s March feminism is getting what we need – without resorting to policies that either acquiesce to men’s harmful ideas about women, or embracing ones that aim to recreate for women the male experience — all in the name of “equality.”
- OK fine. That’s also slight exaggeration. Even as a Democrat, Wilson was relatively supportive of the idea of women’s suffrage, and maintained cordial relationships with several women in the suffrage movement. Return to text.