From the opening pages of “The Shriver Report,” a collaborative study between Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress, the writers stress over and over that we are at a tipping point. Women comprise almost half of the nation’s workforce, amplified by the effects of the recession (which may not be as positive as we think – see my post on Equal Writes for more thoughts on just why fewer women are getting fired), and looking back over the past forty years, it seems that we have much to celebrate. Forty years ago, the first class of women was entering Princeton. Now there is an even balance between men and women. Doesn’t that mean that we’ve finally achieved equality? And shouldn’t we have some kind of triumphant backward look, like the Shriver Report, surveying how far we’ve come?
Except we haven’t. The Shriver Report, in declaring that we now live in a “woman’s world,” is misleading to an astonishing degree. Its measures of equality show nothing about the way that women actually live or think, especially young women, who are noticeably absent from the report. Jessica Pieklo has a post from earlier this week about how a woman-friendly attitude is absent from pretty much every policy-making institution. Joanne Lipman has a great op-ed in the New York Times detailing just why the Shriver Report doesn’t accurately represent women – but it’s particularly damaging for young women, who already feel alienated from the kind of “look how far we’ve come” mentality that shines through every page of the Shriver Report.
A few years ago, when I was a freshman, a friend, Chloe Angyal (who later founded the campus feminist blog that I currently co-edit) published an op-ed in our college newspaper titled “How to be a feminist without anyone knowing.” This title was not exactly accurate – in the article, Chloe entreated women on our campus to become more comfortable with the “f-word”, pointing out that they probably were feminists already. But most women (and men) my age are reluctant to call themselves “feminists.” This is because, for many, the word “feminist” evokes images of man-hating, angry women who are actively trying to elevate women above men. This is, of course, not an accurate representation of feminism, but it’s one that has stuck persistently through the backlash of the 1990s and still exists today. Progressive young women would rather identify themselves as “equalists” or “humanists” than feminists. The idea of a “woman’s nation” is almost as offensive as a “man’s world.” We assume that because we are numerically equal, there is no progress left to be made – any further agitating must be because of those shrill feminists who want to be better than men.
Lipman is spot-on when she says that “Part of the reason we’ve lost our way, part of the reason my generation became complacent, is that many of us have been defining progress for women too narrowly. We’ve focused primarily on numbers at the expense of attitudes.” This is the problem among young women – we assume that because there are equal numbers of men and women in a particular field (for example, the undergraduate population of Princeton) that we have equal opportunities and are treated equally. We don’t delve into the messier parts of campus life – for instance, the fact that a disproportionate number of student government members are male, or that the eating club leadership is almost entirely male-dominated – because it doesn’t seem to matter. Because we are equal in numbers, there must be another reason that there are few women – it can’t be related to gender.
Crowing over how far we’ve come in the women’s movement not only alienates young men and women, it gives us more reasons to be complacent. If Maria Shriver and the Center for American Progress are telling us that we’re living in a “woman’s nation”, then gender discrimination can never be a legitimate cause for complaint. How will this affect the already gaping silences about sexual assault on college campuses? What about the fact that women still make 78 cents for a man’s dollar? The fact that insurance companies aren’t required to cover birth control? To women of my generation, those aren’t gendered issues. They aren’t even necessarily important issues. And that’s a frightening thought, especially for people like me, who are trying to fan the dying flames of third-wave feminism amid accusations of irrelevance.
Shriver writes in the opening chapter, “Women have a new kind of power in the workplace, in the marketplace, in the boardroom, and in the bedroom. Women have as many definitions of power as there are women to use it.” That’s all very well for Shriver to say, but what about women who don’t want, for whatever reason, to use that power – who haven’t been taught that it’s necessary and valid to be powerful, independent and respected because it doesn’t seem “relevant” anymore? Those women attend my institution, think that gender “isn’t a big deal,” assume that they won’t face discrimination when they graduate, think that we’ve come far enough.
If we want true progress, we need to step back and, while celebrating the accomplishments of the past forty years, make a candid assessment of what we have left to do. There’s a lot. And young women need to be included in the conversation – or we will stay right here, stalled and taking small steps backward.
Photo courtesy of Diana Zuniga.