It’s 2020, and from our standpoint in the U.S., what do we see?
On January 15, 2020, the state of Virginia became the 38th U.S. state to vote in favor of ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The ERA would amend the U.S. Constitution to guarantee that all citizens have the same rights regardless of their sex. It would give legal protection against sex discrimination for both women and men.
This piece of legislature was first introduced to Congress in 1923 – nearly 100 years ago – and was reintroduced in Congress every year for half a century. In 1972, the ERA finally passed the Senate and the House of Representatives and was sent to the states to be ratified into federal law. For ratification, it required the support of 38 states. It failed – until this year, when Virginia voted to ratify the ERA. What happens next with the Equal Rights Amendment is still unclear. However, what should be very clear is that the U.S. is no model of gender equality in law. This piece of legislature – which would give women legal protection against discrimination on the basis of sex – has sat in limbo for over 100 years.
Prior to the ERA proposal, the 14th Amendment, which was ratified in 1868 after the Civil War, gave citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the U.S. (including former slaves) and guaranteed equal protection of laws to all “men.” This was a landmark amendment, which had an impact on the civil rights movement later. However, this was also the first time that “male” was written in the Constitution. This has proven to be difficult to change. Although some argue that women are protected against discrimination in other ways, many legal scholars argue that until that is explicitly guaranteed in the constitution, the idea will always be applied in an ad hoc basis. After over 70 years of political battle, the U.S. Constitution was amended to give women the right to vote, codified in the 19th Amendment in 1920. This year then marks 100 years of American women’s right to vote. Yet their protection against sexual discrimination is still not mandated by constitutional law.
Also during the first month of 2020, the U.S. Democratic party has been debating whether or not a woman can be elected as president of the United States. This is a question I ask my students each time I teach about women in South Asia. Each year, my students arrive to the first day of class, their minds full of images of oppressed and veiled women in South Asia. They are quick to assume patriarchy silences South Asian women and to believe sexual violence is rampant in that part of the world. Most students do not know that India had a woman Prime Minister in 1977, that Pakistan had its first woman Prime Minister in 1988, and that two women in Bangladesh have served as Prime Minister, beginning in 1991. Although political dynasties contributed to the rise of these women in politics, it doesn’t change the fact that South Asian countries have had women in the highest political office whereas America has not.
In the context of law, there are also differences. The Constitutions of India and Bangladesh, for instance, give legal protections against discrimination based on sex. (Articles 15 and 16 prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth.) Yet the Constitution of the United States – in a country that portrays itself as a deacon of freedom and equality – does not give legal protections on the basis of sex.
What is intriguing is not just that these differences exist, but that Americans typically don’t believe they exist. Americans, like most in western and northern Europe, are pretty convinced that women’s status in their countries is much higher than anywhere else in the world. The reality is much more complicated – as suggested by the simple observations above. When it comes to gender equality, America is no shining example.
And so it is also interesting that many Americans have a real problem with “feminism.” For a large number of people (speaking anecdotally, based on experiences teaching and reading the news), feminism is a bad word. Most people won’t identify themselves as a feminist – and definitely not in public.
Many Americans also assume that the struggle for equal rights is finished in the U.S., despite evidence to the contrary. Statistics are useful for taking a look at progress toward gender equality, but also revealing are observations made by outsiders, who have lived and grown up in countries outside the U.S. Because it hit a chord, I still have a copy of a 2017 New York Times article entitled “America Made Me a Feminist,” written by Paulina Porizkova. Porizkova was born in Czechoslovakia, grew up in Sweden, was a supermodel in France, and then moved to the U.S. Four different cultural experiences can give someone pretty good 20/20 vision. She observed that, “In America, a woman’s body seemed to belong to everybody but herself,” including her husband, her friends who judged or praised her, and the government that controls her uterus. She also remarked that “the American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it.”
Yes. We’re told we can do anything and everything and then are knocked down if we prove it. We witness that on the political stage when we pay attention to the language and criteria used to evaluate female candidates or to any woman in an authoritative position. A strong white woman has to be careful about her image or she’ll be rejected as a bitch or as overbearing. A strong black woman must be even more careful. A black woman who speaks her mind can’t raise her voice or she will become the “angry black woman” – and that is just downright scary. In her case, gender inequities intersect with racial ones to create a situation in which she is doubly scrutinized.
Then there are the structural inequities. Women are more likely to work in lower-paid, lower-status jobs – they are less likely to be hired or promoted for better positions than men. Based on data from 2019, this opportunity gap results in a pay difference of 79 cents to each dollar earned by men. The discrepancy is even greater for black women, who earn 74 cents per dollar earned by men. Women’s work is evaluated differently from men’s work. Even women who are employed in higher status jobs tend to do more of the “care” or service work. Outside work hours, they’re also more likely to be engaged in other service work such as promoting education, serving on parent-teacher associations, or advocating for healthcare or gun safety. Family care work is also done more frequently by women – even by women employed full-time. Much of Europe faces a similar situation. In other words, despite all of women’s achievements in education and employment, very little has changed within households. Social scientists refer to this childcare and household work as the “second shift,” meaning that even after an 8-hour workday, women return home to do household work. Care work is rarely viewed as prestigious work in our society, nor is it rewarded. If women’s work is less rewarded, then of course their income will be different from men’s. Having read several studies about gender inequities, I could give numerous examples, but the bottom line is that women continue to be disadvantaged in the U.S. because of different opportunities, different values placed on their contributions, and systemic and deep-rooted biases (often also implicit biases). There are also many studies about the consequences of these inequities on women’s health. These inequities play a role in the high infant and maternal death rates among American women of color, for instance, and the health consequences of stress-related conditions that come from women thinking they can and should “do it all.” Women in our society may be told that they can do anything and everything, and many do. Yet that has not ended the challenges they face in society, the home, and the workplace.
Let me shift our vision to a global perspective. For those of us committed to understanding the role of gender in South Asia, Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s “Under Western Eyes” was an early and very influential article that critiqued white western feminists. First published in 1984, this article continues to be relevant to students today as they – and much of western society – still uphold the same stereotypes about “third world” women problematized in her article. In her work, Mohanty critiques western white feminists for marginalizing and ghettoizing third world women through constructions of them as silent victims oppressed by patriarchy and religious restrictions. We see how this tendency persists today as western women are quick to equate the hijab with oppression, to view religious others as controlled by male authorities, and to consider gendered domestic roles as a lack of freedom – without examining the ways in which women in the west may also be oppressed by patriarchal expectations and norms. For instance, in a recent study, Sara R. Farris (2017) demonstrates that in parts of Europe, “feminism” and notions of equality have been co-opted by right-wing parties and neoliberal policies in xenophobic ways to claim that brown and especially Muslim women need to be rescued from their oppressive cultures and religions. Farris uses the term “femonationalism,” which draws on ideas about third world women as oppressed, to describe this particular campaign against migrants and Muslims. As Farris points out, this is akin to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s argument that “white men saving brown women from brown men” served as a justification for colonialism and imperialism. Whether promoted by colonialists, neoliberals, xenophobes, or white western feminists, these constructions of “third world” women as uniformly oppressed promote the very stereotypes that flatten the diverse lived experiences and perspectives of actual women.
Furthermore, Mohanty shows that western feminists’ constructions of third world women as homogeneous and oppressed “are predicated upon (and hence obviously bring into sharper focus) assumptions about Western women as secular, liberated, and having control of their own lives” (1991:74). This construction about third world women, she argues, is actually aimed at raising the status of western women rather than uplifting anyone or portraying the actual diverse lived experiences of real human beings. By conceptualizing third world women as oppressed, western women – including feminists committed to establishing equal rights – make themselves feel better.
Since Mohanty’s eye-opening article, academic feminists have, overall, I believe, done better by paying attention to the historical and societal contexts in which women elsewhere live. Feminists are more likely to ask about other systems of meaning and value rather than imposing their own western frameworks. Significantly, some view their feminist work as contributing to an effort to break down the barriers and power imbalances erected by colonialism and imperialism. We can see this through experimentation in research and writing and by efforts to collaborate across boundaries. For instance, Mohanty has argued for the establishment of political projects shared by both western and third world women. Others have sought co-authorship of their projects or have turned to more engaged and applied research, where material from research can be used by communities to implement specific projects. Feminism today seeks to support heterogeneous critical perspectives and to challenge power inequities wherever they may be.
But this heterogeneous feminism does not reflect the views upheld by most people in the U.S., including our students who tend to assume their lives as women are better than anywhere else. While some of this generation should be commended for taking more seriously LGBTQ rights, they tend to forget that LGBTQ inequities are still part of larger structural and societal problems that have left many groups and individuals disenfranchised and discriminated against. In order to encourage them to look at these larger and global inequities, I begin my classes with Mohanty’s article, aptly titled “Under Western Eyes,” to encourage them to hold up a mirror to their own society before critiquing others.
It has turned 2020, and metaphorically that suggests excellent eyesight. With 20/20 vision, hopefully we can examine ourselves, our complex and heterogeneous societies, and how we are globally interconnected in systems that privilege some groups at the expense of others. Hopefully our vision will improve, and we will do better at creating a more just society.
Ahmed, Sara. 2012.On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
Baldez, Lisa. “The U.S. might ratify the ERA. What would change?” Washington Post, Jan. 23, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/01/23/us-might-ratify-era-what-would-change/
“Black Women’s Maternal Health: A Multifaceted Approach to Addressing Persistent and Dire Health Disparities.” April 2018. https://www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/health/reports/black-womens-maternal-health.html
Equal Rights Amendment website: https://www.equalrightsamendment.org/
Farris, Sara R. 2017. In the Name of Women’s Rights: The Rise of Femonationalism. Durham: Duke University Press.
Meraji, Nusrat Nasim. “The fight for women’s rights in Bangladesh.” September 19, 2018. https://theasiadialogue.com/2018/09/19/the-fight-for-womens-rights-in-bangladesh/
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 1991. “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses.” In Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, edited by Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Anne Russo, and Lourdes M. Torres. Indiana University Press.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2003. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity, Duke University Press.
Porizkova, Paulina. June 11, 2017 “America Made Me a Feminist,” The New York Times. Print.
Roeder, Amy. Winter 2019. “America is Failing its Black Mothers.” Harvard Public Health. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/magazine/magazine_article/america-is-failing-its-black-mothers/
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1994. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. Columbia University Press.
Lisa Irene Knight teaches about religions of South Asia, gender, and cultural anthropology at Furman University, South Carolina, USA.