Gender Jim Crow: How Intenational Women’s Day Reminded Me That I’m Still Not Equal

March 8th was International Women’s Day.

The day initially started as part of the labor movement for better jobs, better pay, the right to vote, and socialist justice back in the early 1900s, but has since morphed into a soft version of the late 90’s “girl power” cry.  Now it seems that it’s a day for women in the developed world to celebrate all their achievements while raising awareness of the hurdles and issues the women in the world still face.

Image from Feminist Looking Glass

Admittedly, I have sour feelings about this new direction  Most of them brought on by the fact that, as a woman, I feel like I’m expected to support the raising awareness part yet still be thankful for the fact that I have this one day to do it on.

One Day.

One day to call attention to women of the world, to talk in language meant to show not only signs of solidarity but of sympathy as well.  One day to address all the gender inequalities of the world and to pat ourselves on the back for “how far we’ve come.”

Well, I’ve got one thing to say to that.

I call Bullshit

I have a bad taste in my mouth because I don’t feel like I should be relegated to the gender ghetto for the rest of the year. I don’t think that my biological sex and my gender obligate me to do anything or behave in a certain way defined by others.  I also don’t think that my sex and gender move me up or down a ladder of quality or equality, much less sanctimony.

I also think that this new “feel good & celebrate women” attitude of International Women’s Day allows one to equate gender inequality with poor, socially and economically marginalized women in developing nations or repressive societies, not wealthy, post-industrialized nations.

When we delude ourselves into thinking that gender inequality only exists in extreme cases, we completely loose sight of it within our own society.  We think that just because women have more visible social mobility, they not only have additional legal rights as well, but they are socially respected and valued by others as well.

Being the COO of Facebook does not insulate you from gender discrimination.

As such, when gender inequality rears its ugly head, instead of critically looking at our society and asking “why does this still exist”, we instead write it off as an exception.

But it’s far from it.  Like racism, it is still in many ways a social and cultural norm.

This is What Modern, Civilized, Gender Inequality Looks Like

The past few weeks in the United States alone – to say nothing of the country’s historical track record – have shown that no matter where they live, women still lack the basic social and legal rights and respect awarded to men.

It shows up the the way we talk about health care, economic opportunities, leadership roles, motherhood, marriage, women’s sexuality, and even, of all things, gas prices.

No matter where you look, there are numerous examples, again suggesting that for all the changes made, there still is this larger, unresolved issue of gender discrimination in the United States.

Some of the most recent instances are:

  • Our sexuality is misrepresented as something we must hide from others to protect ourselves;  if we fail to do so, it means that we were “asking for it”.

  • While it’s illegal to discriminate pay and promotions based on sex and gender, it still happens across race, job fields, and education levels, even for those just out of college.
Monthly salaries for men and women based on education level. Image from GOOD.is

And there is no wide legal recourse that we can fall back on the way there is for discrimination based on race.  In the United States, there is still no amendment to the Constitution that says the sexes are equal.

None.

There are individual laws, like the Equal Pay Act, the Civil Rights Act that prohibit sex and gender discrimination under certain conditions, like wages and buying a home,  but for each of these laws, there are exceptions to the rule.  The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is just one example on how another law was needed to uphold the Equal Pay Act.

And if we just waited to see how things “resolve on their own” — because, after all, we have been making progress ever since the early suffragist movement –we’d be waiting a long time.  Just to take care of the pay disparity could take anywhere between 30-60 years.

What is means is that your own daughter will still be making less than her brother, that’s how far out it is.  If I had a child now, there is a good chance that his or her daughter, my granddaughter, would be the first to benefit from this.

Provided, of course, that nothing gets in the way again.

Why The United States Needs The Equal Rights Amendment

“Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

“Section. 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.

“Section. 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.”

—from the Joint Resolution Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of the United States Relative to Equal Rights for Men and Women

Forty years ago, we almost had it.  The Equal Rights Amendment had passed both the House and the Senate, was endorsed by then-president Richard Nixon and it went onto the states for ratification.  30 states ratified it within a year, and then things slowed to a stop.  By 1979, only 35 states had ratified the amendment – just 3 short of the 38 needed.

And then four states rescinded their ratification.  Despite numerous attempts to extend the deadline, the amendment effectively died in 1982 with only 31 states supporting it.

This is not a horror movie.  It’s what actually happened– and it’s part of the reason why we’re now dealing with the paradox of the well educated, driven woman running into the gender wall and suddenly realizing that she doesn’t have all those rights she thought she did.

As such, we now spend our days assuming that American men and women are equal in the eyes of the law when in reality they are not.  We spend time and pass laws asking whether or not corporations, fertilized embryos, and fetuses are people -and therefore have legal rights– but not women.  And when we work on additional legislation to provide services and legal protection to women, we’re accused of overreaching.

You'd be pretty grouchy if you realized that 40 years ago, your country almost declared you equal to others in all respects according to the law.

It takes something as prominent as a national radio host calling a woman, who testified before government representatives about the importance of including access to women-centric health care as part of a new health care mandate, a slut to remind us that in the eyes of the law, we’re not equal on many fronts.  It’s still legal to discriminate based on sex and gender in a variety of ways.  Even on International Women’s Day.

When we ask “what will the benefit of an Equal Rights Amendment be” lets remember how much Title IX has made an impact in our public schools.  Generations of girls grew up with access to the same education access and funding as boys and they went out and dominated.  You don’t hear too many folks calling that piece of legislation unnecessary.

Yet now these same girls are still running into gender discrimination that their mothers fought hard to undo.  True, recent data does show that single (re: unmarried) women in their 20s are making more than their male cohorts, but the evidence shows that once they hit their 30s and marry, their wages still tank, their upward job mobility slows, and they are judged to be less competent than childless women.  In contrast, when men age and marry, they actually see a pay increase and working fathers are not held to the same strict standards as working mothers.

Women's pay by age bracket and percentage of men's pay, 1978 & 2008

By having an Equal Rights Amendment, it would make it harder for those in power to deny services related to one gender or another.  It would make it harder for companies to continue paying (and by default, valuing) women less than men.  It would open up the field of equality to include questions of social, economic, medical, and political mobility, not just the narrow scope of access to the vote, right to marry and initiate divorce, and have a job.

Granted, there are ways that new laws can skirt amendments but any new legislation has to first ensure that it will not contradict current law.  However, a constitutional amendment would make it even harder for states to claim that they have the final say in deciding women’s issues and legal standings, in much the same way that the 14th Amendment superseded state and local laws from deciding who was a citizen and therefore had the rights to freedom, property, and their own life.

I’d like to close by noting that the Equal Rights Amendment was not something born out of the 1960s.  It’s origins go back to the early days of the suffragist movement in the 19th century.  Actual legislation was first introduced in the United States House and Senate back in 1923 — 89 years ago.  My grandmother wasn’t even born yet, that’s how long American women have been fighting for equal rights.

Since then, the bill has been repeatedly introduced to both the Senate and the House. In May 2011, it was reintroduced by Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) after the 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court against charges of comprehensive gender discrimination by Wal-Mart.  Isn’t it time we truly end this absurd cycle?

After all, we grew up thinking that we’re equal.  Shouldn’t we all get the chance to actually live that way?