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The Shriver Report Neglects Young Women

The Shriver Report Neglects Young Women

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.

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Photo courtesy of Diana Zuniga.

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16 comments

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9:10PM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

Saying you are for equal rights and equal pay but are not a feminist just doesn't make sense. We may be a world with more opportunities for women than there used to be fifty years ago, but we are far from equality.

8:38PM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

Fowler, not to be rude but you're kind of an idiot. When you start off bashing women's rights by using the term "feminazis" and then ask us to not demonize men..well you are demonizing yourself. There are a few groups and/or people that wish to elevate women above men but that is not the majority. There will always be people that go a little too far on any issue but the majority of us just want to be equal and in order to do that you have to make a big fuss or else you will not be heard. Sometimes you have to push too hard in order to gain an inch. Also where are you getting your facts about women abusers? What is that all about? That is completely ridiculous and you know it. The reason we NEED specific laws to protect women is because we have different issues and different problems than men. Thats not making women superior, it is simply recognizing that we have different needs. Men dont need laws about birth control pills obviously. Its just common sense.

1:14PM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

Hey, instead of segregating ourselves out or requiring us to wear nametags categorized into separate groups by gender, race, religion, overweight or whatever--why not just call us for what we are...human or just plainly people? Why not...

12:49PM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

Years ago when working for a Sexual Assault Center I was a member of the feminist organization NOW, I had to remind another NOW member not to say things like "all men think women can do is be a secretary and some women don't have any ambition or talent to do otherwise,” as if being a secretary was something bad. It was comments like this that made some feminist NOW members seem ignorant. My employer was angry & she immediately made me an administrative assistant with a raise. I had worked non-traditional jobs, but preferred and was proud to be a secretary. Later I became a coordinator for a hospital. Yes I advanced, but was it was a doubled sided sword in those days. I was a single parent working as a secretary and supporting my child alone. I was a feminist, fighting against "some" men's backward ways of thinking about women and even "some" women that thought they were progressive thinking feminists. It seems today that both genders think those who have the most $ and the most toys define success. By whose standards? Being a feminist back then had many responsibilities and the first was to have been a support system for other women and their choices. No we don't have it all yet, there is much work to do for equal rights for all.

12:40PM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

If anyone thinks that we are living in a 'women's world', they are in need of extensive therapy.

12:34PM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

My comment was directed to Mr. Fowler.

12:33PM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

It is naive to assume that, if only people could "accept that we are equal in every legal way", the most qualified candidate will always (naturally!) get the job and be paid fairly. Popular culture is a massive force to reckon with. Even the most fair-minded among us have a bias, as Dawn W eloquently stated. Many in charge now grew up watching Leave it to Beaver (or its reruns). "Desperate Housewives" is a popular phenomenon. We still think Eve was an idiot to listen to that snake.

The trick here is to achieve equality in a world where someone feels it is appropriate to label an entire association as "feminazis". You do not respect the author's plea to allow our young women a modicum of comfort level while striving for equality.

Claiming it is all fine and rosy is a mistake. Using the repulsive term "feminazi" in any context is offensive and destructive.

The "evolution" that you so blithely expect will never occur in this environment you help create. I beg you to look around. "Accepting we are equal" will not cause insurance companies to give up profits nor persuade Clorox to stop advertising to women during Mad Men episodes. I'm not a historian, but I don't believe your evolution vs revolution argument holds water. Power struggles generally do not benefit from patience. Just ask the serfs.

While I agree that SOME feminist strategies may be counterproductive, labels and complacency, including Ms. Shriver's biased report, are a whole lot of backward ste

11:51AM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

Take a look at Gloria Steinem's article on The Shriver Report, "It is Not a Man's World or a Woman's Nation," at the Women's Media Center Site, www.womensmediacenter.com and a perspective on Women and Happiness, by Suzanne Braun Levine - "Why Aren't You Smiling, Honey?" at www.suzannebraunlevine.com

Both topics in the news

11:20AM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

I disagree with Christopher. The women's movement in the 60s needed to make a big push and a lot of noise. We were starting from a point of outrage and dealing with the mores of the 50s, which I think might have been the decade that women were most complacent. There just didn't seem to be time to take baby steps and be patient. When you look at the changes from one decade to the next, it was huge. It was like the drugs wore off and we realized how we had been treated for so many years. Mistakes were made but future generations of women I believe failed to run with that ball in a strong enough, though maybe more refined, way. Maybe it was partly because the term "feminist" had a bad connotation. And that was mostly because of the men (and many women) who were afraid of the movement. It's like calling President Obama a socialist. Scare people off with the terminology and make the actions seem like a bad thing. And maybe we saw enough small changes that we all moved on a little too much. I felt when I had my child (a son) that it was important to instill in him the belief and knowledge that women are strong and smart and to be treated as equals. And I feel I've done that well. But I'm amazed at the level of sexism I see in many men of my generation who still "take care" of their wives and treat women like they should do as they are told and not ask questions. And how do we fight that in the workplace when men still control too many of the jobs and even the women wh

11:11AM PDT on Oct 25, 2009

cont'd -3-
Use up your sick leave and vacation time and worry about what's next? One had better fall in the genius category for their boss, or else have $ to get by if they get let go or have a nanny that is steadfast and stays with you as long as you have the $. Lose your Nanny and quit our job so you won't get fired? Well no unemployment for you, it is better to get fired and get unemployment, now try and explain that to the next employer.
I was lucky as when I was a single parent 40 some years ago I had a good employer, a woman's organization that took care of their own and let us take time off for our kids and make up time when it was needed and had job security and peace of mind. Most don't today. We fought for women's rights and childcare issues, violence against women and equal pay and other rights. What happened? We have taken a giant step backward. Just ask most parents of young kids today and really find out what they have to go through. Those who have advanced into high corporate careers can afford to pay their nannies a good salary to keep them. Advancement for some does not decipher into lots of $ and so not everyone can advance happily, and there are just so many promotions and positions available; so what about the rest of the workers? Until we consider all women of all status and finances and their plights, we have not helped anyone advance in the work force or anywhere else.


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