Changing the World, One Woman's Voice at a Time
In her book Women and Power: A Manifesto, Mary Beard looks at the ways women’s voices are not heard in contemporary culture and politics, and traces it back to the Antiquity when “to become a man was to claim the right to speak.” Public speaking simply defined masculinity and this influenced the societies we live still in today and the institutions we have. “The point is simple but important: as far back as we can see in Western history there is a radical separation - real, cultural and imaginary - between women and power.”
Although women are more present in the public sphere—in politics and policy-making—our mental image of a powerful person remains mainly male. We may have Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Hillary Clinton, Tarja Halonen (President of Finland), and many other female policy-makers at various political levels, but the way they are treated is revealing of a power imbalance and prevailing prejudice. Angela Merkel, for example, is often referred to as “Mutti” (Mama). Her physical appearance has been the subject of jokes and caricatures - something that Hillary Clinton has been dealing with ever since she entered politics. Like many women in male-centric jobs such as politics and national security, Merkel has had to adrogenize herself by wearing pant suits in order to, it seems, appear more like a man and therefore to appear “more fit for the job.”
It is also well known that Hillary Clinton’s voice has been described as “shrill” or “whiny” during debates. This is a criticism many women who speak out have had to face. Margaret Thatcher tried to change her voice to make it lower. Those who speak out to defend a point of view or attempt to move beyond “women’s issues” have experienced the same kind of backlash. An example of this is the backlash women in the tech industry experience regularly. In an anti-diversity memo that emerged last year, a Google engineer argued that the gender gap in the industry was the result of inherent differences between men and women. If this kind of thinking is not unusual in what is supposed to be an innovative sector, imagine how prevalent it is in those sectors and industries traditionally seen as "manly" such as security and the military.
Having more women in politics, security, and other policy-making jobs is important, and not just for reasons of power balance and equality. As Carol Cohn argues in the New York Times “ideas about masculinity and femininity matter" because preconceived notions about gender influence our national and international policies. What does it mean when women are not sitting at the table? What does it mean when people are only hired based on associations of masculinity with toughness and risk-taking, and not femininity with emotions and empathy?
The Winds of Change?
Since the election of President Donald Trump, there seems to have been a wind of change. There were signs of change before the election. We must not forget that Black Lives Matter was founded by three women, or that the #MeToo movement actually started in 2006 thanks to a black woman named Tarana Burke. Nonetheless, 2016 has invigorated women from all backgrounds and in all levels of society. Women’s voices have gotten louder.
If we look at women in high-ranking public service jobs (legislators, foreign affairs, security, the military and law enforcement) they are now reckoning with institutionalized sexism and gender discrimination in their field. In a recent interview for Global Politico, several women in the national security sector reflected on the challenges they faced early in their careers as they tried to climb up the echelons. On sexism in the workplace, Laura Rosenberger, who served in the State Department and the National Security Council at the White House, asked “how have I forced myself to forget about all of this stuff or somehow make myself think that it was okay? And I think the reality is in the power structures that we face.” Despite the expertise they gained over time, their gender remained an issue. In the security and foreign policy sectors in particular, which remain very male-centric, the milieu seems to assume that women do not have the expertise or, if they do, it seems to be seen as special. As if expertise in these fields was somehow linked to gender.
Women should not be restricted to so-called “women’s issues.” The absence of women in these sectors is not solely a question of gender equality. It affects the way we conduct national and international politics, the nature and content of our policies, and thus our society. In a study published in 2016, the Council on Foreign Relations successfully showed the important role women can play in security thanks to their unique positions in families and communities, which give them critical knowledge, and also because they often raise different issues, such as education and human rights. The perception of women as honest, trustworthy peacemakers is rooted in preconceptions about gender and gender roles, but as the study shows, the likelihood of achieving peace increases when women are included at the table. If the United States is interested in preventing or halting conflicts abroad, they should keep this in mind. Let's remember that, today, women hold more than half the seats of the Rwandan parliament, a country that manages to remain at peace 20 years after the 1994 genocide.
Women Are Taking a Stand at the Grassroots Level
Putting one women in position of power will not change things. Germany may have a female leader, but social change for German women has been slow. For social change to happen across the board, not simply in the top of the echelons, a critical mass of women from all backgrounds need to be politically active.
The Women’s March that took place in 650 cities in the U.S. and around the globe in 2017 was a particular moment in the history of women in the United States - an event that has launched a bigger nationwide if not world-wide movement, not just for gender equality, but for a variety of political and social causes. Women are more politically active since the election of Donald Trump, and this year's protests in the U.S. such as the People's Climate March and the March for Science were predominantly attended by women. In a recent study on “Diversity, Division, Discrimination: The State of Young America” conducted by MTV and the Public Religion Research institute (PRRI), data shows clear differences between young women and young men toward political participation. While many young people see recent protests and marches as pointless, counterproductive, and sometimes violent, the survey also shows that young women have been “more socially and politically active than young men” in the last 12 months on and offline. It is not just young women - women in their 40s and 50s are getting involved as well. What we are seeing in a new political activism by women from all classes, ages, parties, and ethnic groups.
Anger is what seems to be driving this activism. Anger at the election of Donald Trump and what many women think it represents: repressive policies, gender discrimination such as double standards on the employment market, challenges to basic reproductive rights, sexual harassment and misogyny, deteriorating race relations, barriers to immigration, growing inequality, or denial of climate change. More than 6000 groups of resistance were born out of the election.
One example of this new political activism is the organization Vote Run Lead, founded by Erin Vilardi, which teaches women the basic skills needed to get involved in politics, be it in school commission, at the city or state-level or even in Washington. One of the conclusions of the MTV/PRRI report mentioned earlier is that a majority of young women say "not knowing enough about the issues is a reason they would not get involved in particular campaigns or causes” and that “avoiding criticism is a reason to abstain from getting involved.” At Vote Run Lead, women learn how to speak in public and how to start campaigns. Those who attend the organization's intensive training are driven by a desire to change things that matter to them. Another similar initiative is the Women’s Convention, an activism boot camp organized by the Women’s March under the motto “The Women’s Convention is the beginning of a political groundswell, showing that the rise of the woman IS the rise of the nation.”
Women's increased political activism is showing results. More women are running for office, according to the Centre for American Women in Politics. Black female voters played an important role in the outcome of the Alabama elections. Eleven women won seats on the Virginia House of Delegates. Hillary Clinton may not have won the election, but her electoral loss seems to have inspired many women in the U.S. to get more involved and to break glass ceilings themselves. Women, whether they want to run for office or not, want to be influential in areas at their reach. There is a reason why this year's Women's March used the slogan "Power to the Polls."
Where to Now ?
Since the first Women’s March, women’s activism has gone beyond female Democrats wanting to defeat Republicans, as the #MeToo movement has shown. It has become a reexamination of institutional power imbalances.
But can the movement be sustained? Can hashtags such as #MeToo become #ActNow? How can we guarantee that women’s political activism will actually lead to long-term structural change? I mean, the U.S. still has not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment and Roy Moore, a child abuser, almost won the election in Alabama. Women’s reproductive rights are more threatened than ever, both in the U.S. and through the global gag rule abroad. Further, there are still many people who want to see this movement disapear.
A rift has been created between two groups, according to Farah Stockman of the New York Times. Women’s March Inc. and other activists who tried to organize similar marches, are divided over priorities, politics, and tactics. Women’s groups organized along party lines have started to emerge as some activists felt that Women’s Inc was promoting Democrats. The fact that the Women’s March was a multi-issue protest has made it hard at times to find common ground. It is time to set clear goals.
Another important point to emphasize is the need for this activism to represent women who, in the past, were not included in in the women’s movement. That includes African-American women. It also includes undocumented immigrants who fear being sent back to their country if they speak out. For example, the Trump administration refused to allow an undocumented teenager to have an abortion even though the pregnancy was the result of a rape. Who will speak out for her rights? Who will speak out for people who do not have time to be politically active because their economic conditions force them to work two or three jobs. And, finally, in order to be truly transformative, the critical mass of women will also need the support of men, not merely their acceptance. They must become drivers of changes as well.
We must remain aware that change does not happen overnight. As Mary Beard states in Women and Power, "When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice." As 2017 has shown, we have already come a long way. Let us make sure it doesn't take decades to make change real, not just a desire.
Each of these essays has touched on ways in which women have been able to amplify their voices, especially over the past year. What do you see as the barriers women still face, the systems or people still silencing their voices?
The challenges come both from the system and from people who have grown up and evolved in that system and do not want to make change happen.
You have to think about this way: gender inequalities, and many other forms of inequalities, have been engrained in our Western societies and culture for centuries. They are institutionalized, meaning that the society each of us evolved in already has gender inequalities at their hearts.
In my essay, I mention Mary Beard because she traces power imbalances and patriarchy back to the Antiquity. She uses mythology to prove her point. Particularly revealing is the story of the Medusa. Before her transformation into a monster, Medusa used to be a beautiful woman, but men tried to repress her in many ways, including through rape. In our culture, the Medusa is a monster with hair of a thousand snakes and she supposedly turns men into stone by looking at them, thus making her dangerous for men. In the Greek mythology, Perseus slays the head of the Medusa. In Christian symbolism, she is embodiment of evil. To underline the power of this myth, you can look at the 2016 elections. There was merchandise of Donald Trump as Perseus holding the head of the Hillary Clinton as the Medusa looking “hysterical.” There were also other violent images of Trump beating Clinton up.
If you keep this is mind, you understand that stereotypes about men and women, in particular the power that men can exercise over women, have impact the way our institutions and societies were built. It therefore pervades our institutions and societies: education, politics, family-life and communities, entertainment, class… etc. Both men and women learn and “absorb” ideas about gender roles– this happens the moment we are born.
If you listen to the Global Politico interview I mention in my essay, you realize how women 20 or 30 years ago had just accepted the way certain men acted in the workplace, the prevalent sexism . It was just seen as normal for a man to cat-call a woman, to brag about their sexual performances even though women were present, and so on. Some of these women’s comments stood out such as, “I thought that was just a cost of doing business in the Pentagon” or “The remarkable thing is that it’s unremarkable” and “How have I forced myself to forget about all of this stuff or somehow make myself think that it was okay? And I think the reality is in the power structures that we face.”
It will therefore demand a lot effort to change these institutionalized behaviors. This is just the beginning.
What lessons do you think Americans—or the world at large—can take away from the women’s movement over the past year?
Women’s movements are not new. Women have also been part of resistance movements and protests in the 1930s, 60s etc. There have been several #MeToo movements in the past but they quickly lost steam. The difference this time, I think, is that that the anger against Donald Trump’s victory and thus against what he represents, has led many women not only to march, but to actually take action and to set goals for themselves. What we are seeing is organized activism, not just a mere display of anger against individuals. It is not enough to topple of the Harvey Weinsteins and Roy Moores – something needs to come after them. If you want to actually change institutions and systems, you need to set goals and you need to be organized. I also think that social media played a role in the movement because women from different parts of the country, and even the world, were able to connect and organize. The fact that so many women spoke out on social media made us realize how many women are affected by gender inequalities.
The Women’s March is showing positive results: more women than ever are running for office, they are demanding better salaries, they are winning elections or electing leaders who have their interest at heart. The fact that women are getting involved in politics also shows that they care about other issues than so-called “women’s issues.” They also want to deal with economic inequalities, race relations, environmental change, immigration…
What is also important in this case is that the movement is much more inclusive. We see women from very diverse backgrounds. Women of color used to stand on the margins of protest movements because the organized did not include them, did not let them have a voice. This is changing.
It is quite apparent that each of us has been doing a lot of reading on these topics. What are some books, essays, or articles you think are “must reads” for folks interested in learning more about women in the resistance?
First, I would read Mary Beard’s most recent book Women & Power: A Manifesto just to get some background on where gender inequalities come from and how we may be able to move forward. It’s easy to read and she takes contemporary examples (Clinton, Elizabeth Warren…) to show how the past still influences the present.
Difficult Women by Roxane Gray is also very good and is among last year’s best book recommendations. She tells the story of women from diverse backgrounds to show that our experiences of womanhood are both diverse and similar, and that voices of all women need to be heard in this movement.
As I said in my essay, I believe men should not be left out of this movement. Rejecting men and accusing them of every wrong is not going to help. Giving them a role and making them understand where the anger is coming is crucial if we want to change society as whole. I would therefore also recommend Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists, which shows how inequalities, gender roles and misogyny also affect men and boys. I think this may convince many men to join the movement for change.
I encourage readers to read essays, articles and books written by women on all sides – the U.S. being politically very divided these days, it is very important not to stay in your bubble but to listen to other voices as well. We can disagree but listen to others and try to find common ground and establish common objectives. There needs to be a dialogue between women from different political, racial, and class backgrounds. If you are white, follow some African American women on Twitter or listen podcast hosted by women who have different interests and grew up differently.
Lastly, I know each of us marched last year in the Women’s March, and then also attended this year. What reflections, if any, do you have on where we were last January, and where we are now?
I live in Montreal so the march was a lot smaller here than in the U.S. where a lot of the anger that drives the resistance movements is against Donald Trump and his administration. Nonetheless, what I found interesting this year is how the Canadian movement has adapted to Canadian realities. We currently have a government that has adopted a feminist language and wants to enact feminist policies in Canada and abroad. Even though women continuously defend their reproductive rights, the issue of reproductive rights is not part of the debate because the government never challenges them. Canada has welcomed many immigrants and does not feel the need to build walls. We are lucky in that sense. But things are not rosy. In general, I think that Canadian society is more egalitarian event though women certainly face barriers, inequalities and challenges in the workforce. Women have been harassed in the workplace and we have had our load of public denunciations. We have our own hashtag in Quebec, #MoiAussi, which recently became #EtMaintenant (What now) to underline the need to move forward and find solutions, not just express anger. Indigenous women have been particularly involved because their voices used to be silenced even though they are the ones who suffer the most when it comes to impunity for sexual violence. Many indigenous women have been raped, but because racial prejudice is so engrained in our system, investigations were simply never considered by law enforcement agencies. The anger here is very much focused on the failure of the judicial system to bring abusers to justice.
Another discussion more specific to Quebec, is the fact that women want more equality in the couple. The conversation started with a cartoon that explained how women always carry the “mental workload,” meaning that, at home, the woman is always the one who is going to think about what’s missing in the fridge, about the kids’ appointments, when to do the laundry or empty the dishwasher, when to attend parent-teacher meetings…women organize the daily life in the household. This cartoon sparked a discussion about gender roles and how to help women get rid of this “mental workload.”