A funny thing happened on the way to the internet today. First I ran across Time Magazine’s special report on the “State of the American Women”. And then I read an LA Times interview with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the controversial author of Infidel: My Life.
Ali was born into a Somali Muslim family and sought asylum in the Netherlands, where she wrote the screenplay for a film about women’s treatment under Islam. There’s much more to her story, but to cut to the chase: Theo van Gogh, the filmmaker, was killed shortly after the film aired, and Ali has been under threat of death by Islamic fundamentalists ever since. She now lives under guard in the U.S., and works for the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
Two different views of the women’s movement: the first, how far we’ve come. The second, what we’ve ignored. Another wake up call? Put the two together and it helps you put your own private angst in perspective.
But let’s start with TIME. In the lead essay, Nancy Gibbs provides an overview of a survey on gender issues conducted by TIME and the Rockefeller Foundation. Gibbs tracked our progress — and the work ahead:
In 1972 only 7% of students playing high school sports were girls; now the number is six times as high. The female dropout rate has fallen in half. College campuses used to be almost 60-40 male; now the ratio has reversed, and close to half of law and medical degrees go to women, up from fewer than 10% in 1970. Half the Ivy League presidents are women, and two of the three network anchors soon will be; three of the four most recent Secretaries of State have been women. There are more than 145 foundations designed to empower women around the world, in the belief that this is the greatest possible weapon against poverty and disease; there was only one major foundation (the Ms. Foundation) for women in 1972. For the first time, five women have won Nobel Prizes in the same year (for Medicine, Chemistry, Economics and Literature). We just came through an election year in which Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Tina Fey and Katie Couric were lead players, not the supporting cast. And the President of the United States was raised by a single mother and married a lawyer who outranked and outearned him.
It is still true that boardrooms and faculty clubs and legislatures and whole swaths of professions like, say, hedge-fund management remain predominantly male; women are about 10% of civil engineers and a third of physicians and surgeons but 98% of kindergarten teachers and dental assistants, and they still earn 77 cents on the dollar compared with men. They are charged higher premiums for health insurance yet still have greater out-of-pocket expenses for things as basic as contraception and maternity care. At times it seems as if the only women effortlessly balancing their jobs, kids, husbands and homes are the ones on TV.
Still, Gibbs ends by implying that those gender wars? So over. At least if you are American and middle class.
All the shapes in the puzzle are shifting. If there is anything like consensus on an issue as basic as how we live our lives as men and women, as lovers, parents, partners, it’s that getting the pieces of modern life to fit together is hard enough; something has to bend. Equal numbers of men and women report frequent stress in daily life, and most agree that government and businesses have failed to adjust to the changes in the family. As the Old Economy dissolves before our eyes, men and women express remarkably similar life goals when asked about the importance of money, health, jobs and family. If male jobs keep vanishing, if physical strength loses its workplace value, if the premium shifts ever more to education, in which achievement is increasingly female, then we will soon be having parallel conversations: What needs to be done to free American men to realize their full potential? You can imagine the whole conversation flipping in a single generation.
It’s no longer a man’s world. Nor is it a woman’s nation. It’s a cooperative, with bylaws under constant negotiation and expectations that profits be equally shared.
Our work here is done? Well, not quite. But we’re getting there, according to another TIME essay by Maria Shriver. In “The Unfinished Revolution,” she first reflects on what she learned from her mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a road warrior for the role of smart and independent women in American society. Stepping back into her role as journalist, Shriver talked to women across the country and found them incredibly stressed about their families, their finances and work-life balance.
While there’s much to cheer about these days on the equality front, we still have a long way to go. Women still don’t make as much as men do for the same jobs. The U.S. still is the only industrialized nation without a child-care policy. Women are still being punished by a tax code designed when men were the sole breadwinners and women the sole caregivers. Sexual violence against women still is a huge issue. Women still are disproportionately affected by a lack of health-care services. And lesbian couples and older women are among the poorest segments of our society.
Which brings me back to my mother. I know for sure that if she were alive today, she’d say of this report, “It’s about time!” In articles published after her death, so many people were quoted as saying, “If only Eunice had been a man, she could have been President!” “If only.” My mother learned from that. Her message to women was “Don’t let society tame you or contain you.” Today she could run for President. And I believe she would win.
Well, then. Kinda makes you want to slap yourself on the back and hum the iconic advertising jingle — “You’ve come a long way, Baby” — that once linked feminism to skinny cigarettes. Until, that is, you juxtapose TIME’s assessment of women’s progress with Ali’s view — the LA Times piece was entitled “Feminism’s Freedom Fighter”. From the interview:
Will any country ever go to war for rights and women’s safety?
It looks like it will not happen. But I am very, very optimistic — not about going to war but about human beings changing their minds. You’ll remember how communism was stigmatized. The big problem is [how] to define the protection of women’s rights as the problem of the 21st century. If the world does that, [women's inequality] will become like the eradication of apartheid — people will insist that it’s wrong, it’s wrong, it’s wrong, and that’s when change happens.
What changes people?
I’ll give you an example. The Sudanese woman who decided to wear trousers, and when the world rallied to her support, she doesn’t get the lashes. It is this kind of unbending persistence. Human trafficking — girls kidnapped and then forced into prostitution — that is economic exploitation. That can be eradicated by going after the traffickers, by providing education and eradicating poverty. Where women are put in veils, where their genitals are cut, where there’s “honor killing,” where half the population may not go outside without a male guardian — that cannot be dealt with only by talking about poverty. You have to tackle those principles.
We fight for flex-time. She fights against honor killings. Made me think. You?