The professed aim of feminism is to ensure the social and political equality of men and women. Nice as this sounds, the blandness of the statement is often instrumentalised as the reason you too are a feminist – whether you like it or not. No one could possibly disagree with it and therefore everyone by default must support it. On the face of it, fair enough; there doesn’t seem much to disagree with.
But what is this equality beast anyway?
In my discussions with friends around socio-economic and educational inequality, a typical conversation might go like this:
- It’s unfair that we have an elitist education system in which some people get a better education than others, better befitting them for high-paying jobs, purely because they’re able to pay for it
- Wrong: money isn’t the only factor in whether a child does well at school; other factors include health, work ethic, parental encouragement to achieve, etc
- Health is partly an economic problem; people in the lower income bracket can only afford unsanitary living conditions or poor quality food, so it’s unfair
- Wrong: health isn’t the only factor in whether a child does well at school other factors include work ethic, parental encouragement to achieve, etc
- Work ethic is partly an economic problem, relating to wider social disenfranchisement around high unemployment and low wages often concentrated in lower-income areas due to lack of access to education and prospects, so it’s unfair
- Wrong: work ethic isn’t the only factor in whether a child does well at school – what about non-economic factors such as family circumstance?
Birth and genetics seem to be the problem whichever way you look at it: in an unequal society, the accident of your birth into a rich family determines the type of education you receive and your life prospects after that; in a society in which all social inequalities are set at nil, nature introduces its own inequality at source by the chance combination of genes, making one person clever, one stupid; one aggressive, one amenable; one hard-working, one lazy – and thus better or worse befitted to an astral career.
In other words, it’s impossible to correct for the ‘natural’ factors arising from genetic diversity, which make it difficult to achieve a fully financially equal society – even under Communism. Does the same apply to the treatment of women and men? It would if there were proven biological differences. I’m not sure there is a definitive answer as to whether women’s brains work differently to men’s, though there are clear differences in hormonal makeup and physical capacity. The obvious differentiator of pregnancy and childbearing seems to be where a lot of these questions come to the fore. The man who gives up his seat to the pregnant woman, but not to the man standing next to her, treats his fellow commuters unequally on the basis of gender. For some, this kind of thing can be a source of resentment:
Pet peeve: pregnant girls that say they can’t do anything because they’re pregnant. Like bitch, you’re pregnant not disabled. Get up & do it – Zuly Perez (@iamzuly10) 28janvier 2016
I’d argue instead that this is only fair and just treatment of a pregnant woman – because it renders what is due and kind to someone suffering a disadvantage; in the same sense that a wheelchair ramp is a just and fair accommodation for people who can’t walk.
So fairness and equality aren’t the same. Applying the same test to all the animals is equal treatment. Yet no one wants to be the fish asked to climb the tree. Instead, what we mean is we want to be treated justly, in accordance with our unique talents and skills, and surely also in accordance with our inborn capabilities.
For some forms of feminism, attaining equality seems to have taken the form of surveying human history and the apparent boons that men have had and seeking to attain these in turn. Education, work, reproductive rights, suffrage, hookups, attaining power and prestige, leaning in, not being pregnant, are the boons, but not all of them are unproblematic. It is often some of these more marginal, or more controversial, concerns that are presented to us (mainly on the internet) under the broad and inoffensive banner of feminism’s stated aims.
Presenting all of these at once as desirable goods does nothing to challenge the status quo that we so railed against, however, but merely reinforces it. Education and suffrage don’t really have a downside, whereas hookup culture and the unrestrained pursuit of power do. More meaningless uncommitted encounters with more partners suits women (in general) less than it suits men, because women disproportionately bear the brunt of the consequences of that lifestyle in a way that men do not (I’m talking about pregnancy again). The same goes for the race to the top. Aggression and self-aggrandisement, at least one of which is fuelled by ‘male’ hormones, have in some traditional high-flying careers been the means of elbowing our way to the top – but have also been blamed for driving the financial crisis.
Now we want a slice of the pie, but note that we’re told to just ‘do it’, rather than ‘do it [ethically] better’. Instead of reversing the status quo of power and dominance, feminism seems only to have played into it, to have brought women into the same model of darwinistic competition rather than challenging it. Wolfess of Wall Street anyone?
I believe this is because we confuse equality with fairness and justice, with the perhaps undesired consequence that women now also have the same disadvantages as men – fighting on the front line at risk of death, or having to stand on the tube even while pregnant. This approach is in general wrong, since we have established that fairness and not equality is a better criterion for right action when it comes to dealing with difference. The other reason we haven’t moved forward enough is that while there is an assumption that a status quo of male privilege and patriarchal oppression has subjugated women since the dawn of time, the greatest hallmark of these structures, the will to power (expressed as ‘my body, my choice’ and my advancement), has become the peculiar sacred cow of feminism that we are all, because we are all feminists, supposed to subscribe to. So while we may now be more equal, we are not necessarily improved.
It would be easy to blame our foreparents for the current deficient situation that has been practised and objected to over the centuries. I guess they were busy with concrete challenges like getting women the vote. But I have yet to see theorised a ‘better way’ of doing business, our love lives, and society in general that raises standards rather than extending bad standards to women, and that brings something perhaps distinctly female to the (boardroom) table. Still, I’ve started reading the actual Lean In, and we live in hope.
And hey, I heard the hardest thing about being a woman was deciding what to wear in the morning. So I guess I won’t worry my little head …