It’s true. You so often underestimate your own success and progress. You talk about women as if we are ever more oppressed even in the first world, frequently ignoring the great strides you’ve made to bring us to legal, social, and economic equality. Women can vote, work in any field we want, have reproductive choices, and run for office (with booming success – most people seem pretty sure Hillary will be our next president), largely because of your movement. Anyone who so much as implies a threat to women’s rights or general well-being is met with the mob of public opinion sharpening their pitchforks and lighting their torches. If that person is a politician, such a move is often political suicide. (Remember Todd Akin? Right, neither does anyone else.) Women are respected by the general public, to the extent that almost anyone looking to earn some public brownie points says nice things about us, knowing that it will be universally agreeable. People care about our well-being and our position in society, on a level that could even be called compulsive. Even if you want to argue that women still face sexism and related inequality, you’d be blind not to acknowledge that we’ve made some serious progress in both our rights and general esteem, especially considering that 100 years ago we couldn’t even vote.
And you underestimate your pull and popularity as a movement and ideology. Many of you view yourselves as the ideological underdog, often asserting that feminism is a “dirty word,” but it is your movement which guides academia, culture, and policy. You are responsible for changes, good and bad, that affect everyone. You have heavy influence on college campuses, you are at the head of the national sociopolitical discussion of rights and privileges, and you are an issue that matters to every politician claiming to seek social progress (and many of the ones who don’t). Identifying outside of feminism or speaking against it as an ideology or movement, even as a regular citizen, is enough to lose one credibility and respect in most places. I ought to know.
To give you an idea of your influence, out of about 2,500 4-year institutions in the United States, there are roughly 700 women’s studies programs. There are a handful of men’s, most of which are a branch of feminist theory specifically dealing with maleness. The former are arguably inseparable from modern university politics, and have have influenced national politics and policy for decades. The Duluth Model is one good example, which is the standard for how we treat sexual and domestic violence from social work and law enforcement, to hotline and shelter operations, right down to the way we define the crimes, to say nothing of ubiquitous sexual harassment policies in universities and the workplace. All that is informed by feminist academia.
And speaking of academia, as much as we hear about sexism in hiring that keeps women out of male-dominated fields like science, things are changing rapidly. According to a Pew Research survey from 2013, only 10% of working women reported a negative effect on their career due to workplace discrimination. What’s more, a PNAS study from last year demonstrates an advantage for women in STEM fields, who are preferred 2-1 over men for tenure-track faculty positions. Many feminists argue that this new disparity is more due to PR needs and political pressure than a true transcendence of older attitudes toward women, but even if that’s true, consider what that says for the power and success of the feminist movement: It has become a strong enough social and political force that employers are concerned about disappointing its representatives or angering its adherents.
On the PR front, we have International Women’s Day to celebrate women’s contributions throughout history, and there is a Woman of the Year award for our contributions today. There are men’s equivalents, but they are nowhere near as publicized (I’d hazard a guess that most people don’t know there is an International Men’s Day – The Young Turks don’t).
On the legal front, since the 1960’s we’ve had the Equal Pay Act, Roe v. Wade, Title IX, affirmative action, and VAWA, all of which are or have been specifically implemented for women’s benefit and/or protection. Some of these laws have even needed to be updated or reexamined in an effort to prevent discrimination toward men.
In organizations, there’s AAUW, NOW, Planned Parenthood, and countless others. Here is a list of 20 of the more prominent organizations that further women’s causes. Here is a magazine article highlighting the best 154 of them. The fact that these organizations exist at all is a testament to the success of both women and the feminist ideology, never mind their sheer numbers and the influence they have.
On the individual level, the label of feminism may not be as popular as the virtues it advertises, but the vast majority of people support equality for women. In fact, the women’s movement is so popular that it is becoming a selling point, a brand in its own right. You aren’t just appealing or popular. You’re booming. Feminism is a billion dollar industry, raking in untold funds for its array of academic and political organizations, advocacy groups and NGOs, service providers, businesses, media outlets, and public speakers. There are feminist blogs, news sites, literature, game developers, children’s toys, ads, t-shirts, podcasts, coffee mugs, conferences and conventions, and all of them sell like hotcakes. Anita Sarkeesian rakes in $20,000 every time she gives a talk. Any reputable university has a women’s studies program and campus women’s groups (while widely disapproving of men’s). Every academic, social, or political organization must include feminism in its mission statement, hire on feminist academics and advisers in order to declare itself progressive or conscientious, because that is what the people consider progressive and conscientious. Every field of study or work has a feminist interpretation. There is feminist environmentalism, feminist geology, feminist economics, and feminist history (the common use of words like “herstory” should tell us enough about feminism’s popularity and ubiquity). None of this would be the case if your cause weren’t one that mattered to the people, if your ideas weren’t popular, if gender equality and the success and thriving of women weren’t an agreeable collective goal, if the western world were the medieval cesspool of misogyny that you paint it as. I think it’s time to acknowledge that women are winning. Girls, we run the world.
If none of this is convincing, I want to remind you that this is the progress we’ve made since the suffrage movement a mere century ago. For comparison, let’s consider another group that’s been struggling for equality. I’ve already written extensively on the parallels between issues of racial and gender equality, but I’ll do a small recap and add a few other points. Slavery was abolished in 1865 and the 15th Amendment (prohibiting the denial of voting rights based on race) was ratified in 1870. Women got their suffrage in 1920. So black Americans have what one might call a 50-year head start on us historically, but let’s look at where women are compared to African Americans today. We’ll start with the pay gap. The gender pay gap as of 2009 (the latest I can find comparable data on both subjects) is 77% (though in cities, women out-earn men by an average of 8% before they start to have children). As of 2009, women made about 77 cents to men’s dollar. And black people made 61 cents to white people’s dollar. That is slightly better than half of what white people make, twice as big as the disparity women experience, and you could make far less of a case for personal choice being responsible for this than you could for the gender gap. Also, bear in mind that the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act (addressing workplace discrimination against women and non-whites, respectively) were passed within a year of each other.
Furthermore, women today make up 20-30 percent of the homeless (a minority), and black people make up 37% (almost triple their representation in the American population). Female students are 7% more likely than male students to graduate high school. Black students are 18% less likely than white students. About 60% of postsecondary degrees are earned by women, and around 11% by black people. So consider that women have four times as many scholarships as men, as well as 50% more than black people.
Even more seriously, women constitute less than 5% of arrest related deaths, and black people are about a third (with similar disparities in other police treatment and mistreatment). Women receive 63% lesser sentences when convicted of a crime, black people receive 23% harsher ones. I could go on (or you could just read my other article), but you get the idea. Women are actually ahead in a great deal of areas that matter, from treatment under the law to education, and education is a big deal. Just imagine what the world is going to look like in 20 years, when a majority of the educated workforce has been female for a while.
For only having achieved suffrage less than a century ago, the advancement of women’s equality is speeding along, with some highly notable advantages to boot. You’d be crazy not to acknowledge how much progress you’ve made, how seriously you’re taken, and how much power you have over the discourse and policy of our nation and the developed world. You shouldn’t be doomsaying, declaring the west an irreparable patriarchy, or crying that you’re oppressed. You should be patting yourselves on the back and celebrating how amazingly far you’ve come. I know better than to think I can convince you that your mission is accomplished, but I’ll be damned if we aren’t at least almost there.