[NOTE: I had the honor of attending a talk with Gloria Steinem recently. She was at the forefront of the women's movement in the 60s in the U.S. and has continued to spread her message since then.]
A friend told me recently that she does not believe in the values behind feminism because women are not oppressed in today’s society. Personally, this completely disheartened me. To hear a young woman say that oppression is nonexistent in the United States made me realize that this is the attitude of many women, especially those brought up right after the 60s and 70s feminist movement. This was the first point Gloria Steinem brought up in her talk. Just like many people feel that racism is no longer an issue and that minorities are not discriminated against, people see feminism as obsolete. Steinem emphasized that we are only forty years into a one hundred year movement. There is still work to be done and progress to be had.
With affluent people like Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama, equal opportunities and equal respect movements like in the 60s have clearly made headway. But what about the less affluent people? Just as Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn stressed in Half the Sky, Steinem made the point that change happens from the bottom up and it happens with the people who are being discriminated against and those who live the problems. She made four main points addressing the question of where are we in the feminist movement.
First, while we have made progress in family dynamics from the traditional 50s housewife, the stereotype of the stay-at-home mom is still seen in a negative light. It used to be, Steinem said, that the most dangerous place for a woman was in her own home. As a nation today, we have collectively agreed on that value that domestic violence will not be tolerated anymore. Instead, however, women are suffering in other ways. Stay-at-home moms are horribly undervalued, which makes it hard for them to find a decent job or return to their old job even if they were qualified before having a child. Many women suffer from post-partum disorder for which there is very little support, and makes the process of raising a child and finding work even more difficult. Steinem also pointed out that many women are afraid to go on maternity leave out of fear they will lose their jobs or will not be able to support a family if the maternity leave is unpaid. Why aren’t the men worried?—Steinem pointed out. The stereotypes of the 50s family are still engrained in our minds today, even if families no longer operate in such a way, that stereotype continues to be the standard.
Second, American culture, in its entirety, is still very much divided in terms of gender roles, religion, politics, economics and the social hierarchy. Gender roles have very much to do with the old stereotypes that are no longer applicable to modern day, but are still used as a norm. Instead of basing ideas off of gender roles, or gender stereotypes, why not base them off of gender skills and abilities. A man does not have the ability to breast feed his child for obvious reasons, but he can still change her diaper, hold her and be the caretaker. A woman may not be as skilled at being a construction worker as a man because she did not bulk up in her teen years for this career, but she can still be the architect or the advisor. In general, we need to base our biases on skills and qualifications rather than perceived roles. Based on this idea, women and minority groups have been able to break into predominantly white males fields, such as politics, engineering and even the church. While women are still fighting for respect in politics (with help from women like Clinton and the women who bred the protests in the middle-east), minorities are speaking out and having their ideas represented in politics, women and minorities are surfacing and even out-numbering white males in academia, and women are gaining ground in religion. Steinem elaborated on the progression of religion, which started out as a polytheistic, spiritual connection with the Earth, turned into a monotheistic worship, created God who is a He and made women the product of a flawed, evil force that must be reborn perfect by man, and finally, eliminated the woman entirely from religion in the symbol of the mosque where there is no female representation present. Religion is the ultimate hierarchy created by man to give reason to generate authority and power, and make women believe they are sinners that must be reborn through men. This is the concept behind baptism, Steinem said, and the priests, ministers and pastors tend to be men who cleanse people of their sins. This hierarchical structure is how we tend to organize most aspects of our lives, from auditoriums and classrooms to businesses and politics. The good news is that women are becoming more prominent in the church force and bringing back the spiritual aspect behind religion, but until women are able to have their voices heard in the creation and alteration of religions, progress still needs to be made in the way women are perceived in religious texts.
Third, women in the workplace are still devalued and thought of as inferior. From personal experience and observation, this has to do largely with the fact that many women battle just to be taken seriously as business women in the workplace. Again, stereotypes of the career woman are still used even though they are irrelevant. Steinem pointed out that while women have made progress from the 55 cents or so on the dollar we made compared to men a half a decade ago, we are still only making 79 cents on the dollar compared to men. There is no reason there should be any difference in salaries based on gender. Again, we need to base differences in treatment based on skills and abilities.
Lastly, Steinem touched on violence against women, which is our most flagrant evidence that women’s oppression still exists. Sex-trafficking is so widespread in the United States that police call the trafficking path from Los Angeles to New York the Minnesota Pipe Line. They find girls handcuffed to beds and strewn about the streets and buildings, all part of this national sex trade. Some of the worst of the sex-trafficking abuse happens right next to the most affluent parts of the country. In a developed nation such as the U.S., there is no excuse for this vile of an offense. But it happens because the affluent people in the country are convinced that women are no longer oppressed. They see nothing but the clean, well-mannered politics within their own walls. I was a victim of such ignorance. I’ve grown up in a wealthy community with a comfortable, safe lifestyle. Three years ago, my neighbor was kidnapped and trafficked to Oakland. After eight days the police found her and verified that she had been sex-trafficked. No one ever thought something like this could happen here. She was taken by a boy who attended her same high school, a very wealthy high school at that, at the local grocery store where everyone from CEOs to stay-at-home moms go every day. Sadly, very few remember this event happening. It takes people, men and women, who have been exposed to these crimes of oppression to never let the public forget that it is happening and it is happening right here.
Gloria Steinem is truly a missionary of achievement and hope for the future of gender equality, but the movement has only begun, and we need to continue her work if we want to see change happen. It starts in our own homes, and only then will we see change happen in the workplace, in politics, in social justice and in religion.