“Equal” To Whom, Exactly?

The “ForbesWoman” blog recently had a three part post by Victoria Pynchon, entitled Why I Returned to the Womens’ Movement (parts II and III).

She explains how, back in the early 1970s, she was moved by feminist icons to pursue a law degree. But when she got to law school, she stopped working for the feminist cause:

I made a consciously clean break with the women’s movement and feminist politics in my first week of law school when when I decided not to join the Women’s Caucus – now King Hall’s Feminist Forum. I did not want to be a “woman lawyer.” I just wanted to be a lawyer. And the farther away from women’s issues I was, the easier I assumed it would be for me to become something I know only in retrospect was impossible – a genderless professional.

So I concentrated on my studies, graduated in the top ten percent of my class, and took a job as a plaintiff’s personal injury trial attorney because I didn’t want to be stuck in a well-paid job with BigLaw writing research memos for Dow Chemical or the Boeing Corporation.

I wanted to be the real deal, as macho a lawyer as attorneys can be.

I wanted to be a trial lawyer.

With a major untreated panic disorder.

She then goes on to discuss how she spent the next forty years in (her words) “denial” and “characteristic optimism,” creating for herself a niche “inside the challenging but soft cocoon of a law firm where I believed sexism had passed away at least fifteen years earlier.” Until, eventually, she went back to read articles from the earliest issues of Ms. magazine – she was struck by how some of them seemed to speak to her present circumstance, even though forty years had passed. One of them, in particular, was this quotation by in a 1971 article by Gloria Steinem:

Even if we achieve a little success in the world, and think of ourselves as “different,” we don’t want to associate with our group. We want to identify up not down (clearly my problem in not wanting to write about women and not wanting to join women’s groups).

Why, wondered Ms. Pynchon, did she never want to identify herself as a woman lawyer? She thought about the things she had heard over the years from male professionals, her colleagues and peers:

What I saw were lists of top neutrals (the 100 best this and 50 finest that) that were 90% white men. And what I heard from lawyers included the following:

1.I don’t tend to hire women because I don’t think my male clients will be able to relate to them
2.I hire women when I think I need someone who will be compassionate
3.I’d hire women as readily as I hire men . . . though . . . come to think of it, I never have hired a woman mediator or arbitrator
4.I hired you because there are lesbians on the other side of the case (really?)
5.(Looking straight at me) I don’t know any competent women mediators
6.(Looking straight at me) I don’t know any women mediators
7.I don’t think women are strong enough to make the other side do what they don’t want to do
8.I don’t think a woman can close a deal
9.I hire women when the case involves women’s issues
10.My client would never agree to hire a woman

So she got pissed off, had another “click” moment, and thought about why she had abandoned the words “feminism” and “feminist” thirty years prior (“Just say ‘women’s issues,’” [her husband] advised. “The word ‘feminism’ makes people angry.”) She looked up the definition of the word:

Feminism: A social theory or political movement supporting the equality of both sexes in all aspects of public and private life; specifically, a theory or movement that argues that legal and social restrictions on females must be removed in order to bring about such equality.

Seems pretty harmless and uncontroversial to me. Who doesn’t support the equality of both sexes and who wouldn’t argue that legal and social restrictions on women should be removed?

Of course, right? Who doesn’t support equality?

Well, let’s take it one step further, and look up the definition for “equality.”

: the quality or state of being equal: as
a : sameness or equivalence in number, quantity, or measure
b : likeness or sameness in quality, power, status, or degree

“Equality,” by definition, requires comparison. Are the piles of apples equal, or does one pile have more than the other? Are all nurses paid the same, are all carpenters paid the same (and, if we’re being really radical, are nurses paid the same as carpenters)? If feminism is about equality, then feminism is – and always will be – about a comparison between men as a class and women as a class. Ergo, the huge amount of ink and woman-hours spent on the pay gap between men and women. Some feminists (including big names – Steinem, Greer, et al) have pointed out that we will never achieve “equality” in this so long as child-bearing and motherhood are “undervalued.” Yet that just continues a system which values people as producers – would really be better off with a system which saw pregnancy and child-rearing as an inherently public affair, and women’s bodies as “natural resources”? Would that not simply continue a system which applies “market values” to the environment?

I remember once having a discussion with a young man who was very supportive of the concept of “equality” – he’d be happy to have female soldiers and female firefighters and female police officers “so long as they can meet the same requirements as the men.” That meant, for instance, that women needed to be able to do the same number of push-ups as the men, and they needed to be able to “meet the test for carrying somebody out of a burning building.” Point out that push-ups aren’t really relevant to the job and are based on standards of male strength and muscle groupings, point out that women are fully capable of getting somebody out of a burning building if they’re permitted to carry them in a way which befits our bodies’ capabilities, and his answer was, “Look, either they can do the job or they can’t.”

We are missing the forest for the trees, focusing on relative privileges when we should be focusing on the class-based system itself.

We’re in a system set up by males. The pushups are an easy example, but what about systems which reward competition, aggression, and manipulation, as Ms. Pynchon began to realize alternative dispute resolution was doing (notwithstanding that it had been set up to do the precise opposite – give parties an opportunity to talk over and mediate their disagreements)? What about a system which sees a male default, and anything “particular” to females as “other”? I took interest in how Ms. Pynchon noted she was suffering from a panic disorder, given how they affect women in our society more often than they do men because of social problems and violence affecting women – our society is all but designed to force women to “fail.”

Perhaps more importantly, “equality” as a goal means that we have already lost, since a true advocate of “equality” is not only concerned with the well-being of women – if “equality” is the goal, then should “feminism” concern itself with the well-being of males in traditionally “female-dominated” fields such as nursing? Should “feminists” argue for the “rights” of men in custody battles? Feminism then becomes obsessed with statistics of various stripes – economic, health, longevity, happiness – which are important in showing the reality of female oppression but not so useful when it comes to pinpointing the causes (and of course, anti-feminists are always ready with “statistics” of their own). In the meantime, the idea of “equality” requires a comparison, which entrenches gender and sex. As Ms. Pynchon noted, becoming “gender-less” is impossible in a society in which gender itself is the means of differentiation and oppression. And of course, we have to spend all of our time thinking about men – what are men doing, what are men getting, how are they getting it, why aren’t we getting as much – we’re still stuck focusing on a male-created world and will be doing those same comparisons – forever.

And all of this talk of “equality” ignores the elephant in the room – reproduction. The average woman in the United States spends “5 years being pregnant, recovering from pregnancy or trying to get pregnant” and “spends 30 years trying to avoid unintended pregnancy” according to the Guttmacher Institute. In other parts of the world (including “developing” nations such as India), the “average” woman will spend all of her reproductive years either pregnant or lactating. A woman who is pregnant or lactating has no “equivalent” in a male model, and our society – from our economic structure to our medical structure to our legal structure – has no real way to respond to a female who is pregnant (or could be pregnant, or has been pregnant, or has the capacity to be pregnant).

I am not interested in trying to prove myself in a male-invented game, on a male-chosen stadium, with males as the referees. The inequalities we face help showcase the problem, but they are not the problem in and of themselves, and until we change our underlying social structure they are inherently unfixable.

I want freedom. “Fuck” equality.

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3 Responses to “Equal” To Whom, Exactly?

  1. Lisa says:

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!! I have debates with people about this all the time. People read Webster’s definition of feminism, and that’s where the learning stops. They take that definition – with the E-word – and read it as gospel. Meanwhile, I’m trying to talk about ending institutionalized sexism and exploitation – and they think I’m crazy. Hence, they view feminists in general as “crazy” because we’re trying to talk about issues that are so embedded in their worldview that they can’t begin to separate themselves from them – or they are uncomfortable addressing them.

  2. Wow! What an interesting discussion of issues this is. I have to ruminate. Of course feminism is about freedom and the re-structuring of the workplace so that it is as woman-friendly as it has always been men-friendly. I’m interested in reading further. Right now I’m focusing on training women how to negotiate their true market value, i.e., their value in the hands of their market rather than the value they believe themselves to have (always far less than men believe their value to be). So I’m primarily working at the one-woman-at-a-time level while others work at the structural level. Those of us working one-on-one support those who are working group by group, sector-by-sector and industry-by-industry. As well as those working state-by-state and nation-by-nation. It hadn’t occurred to me that equality is too narrow a term to encompass everything that needs to be changed and I thank you for the insight.

    • Wow x2! Thanks for reading, and for commenting.

      I agree there are a lot of ways to approach the problems we face, and many (even most?) of our efforts are going to operate within the pre-existing social structures. As a practical matter, a lot of the issues women face are so pressing that there isn’t much alternative. But there’s a qualitative difference, it seems to me, in efforts which focus on “equality” as an end-goal versus something more expansive. A lot of problems just can’t be addressed satisfactorily, if at all, when talking about “equality,” and that was the point of my post.

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