Inequality seems to be a part of any society that has developed past the hunter/gather stage of existence. One of the most common forms of inequality running through out every type of society is the inequalities between the genders. Typically men have hoarded power in a variety of spheres, and used it to maintain power over women. This inequality has been enforced in spheres of home, economic power, government, and a host of others. Despite institutionalized inequality, there is the possibility that gender equality will exist in industrial society.
Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about inequality in the work place as related to maids. For years in western society, house work like cleaning and cooking was considered something women as subservient wives would do without pay. In recent years though western feminists have struggled and achieved victories in opening up other career paths for women. This has created a situation where many of those families then hire maids to cook and clean. I could relate to what Ehrenreich wrote since my mother is a part time maid and I have often helped her clean different houses. Several of the homes we cleaned belonged to families where the mother/wife was working at a high-income job. I would see first hand how they would treat my mom as though she was just a vacuum. While some of my homes my mom cleaned belonged to superficially liberal people, it was often those people who were the most clueless about basic decency. If you have a dog, and my mom cleans you place in the morning and who find dog hair in the afternoon, guess what, the dog shed since the place was cleaned.
One other instance that stood out in my mind from being an assistant maid for my mom was this one house that belonged to a special ops solider with the US military. He was a bachelor and probably hired my mom because as a man he didn’t want to do a “feminine” job like cleaning. He had his buttons and medals out on display. One of them came from a campaign in support of the Contra’s in Nicaragua. The Contra’s were terrorists who with funding from the US attacked the Sandinista’s and their supporters in Nicaragua. The Sandinista’s were progressives who fought against the dictatorship of Samoza and established many rights for women.
One veteran of the Sandinista revolution was a women, Dora María Téllez. She was recently asked by Harvard University to teach a class, but was denied a visa by the US which called her a terrorist, citing her militancy in fighting the Somoza dictatorship. Even if the US got over it’s long standing policy of messing with the Sandinista’s, one has to wonder how much that decision was prompted by US reservations about a woman who has engaged in violence and led military divisions.
For centuries, the patriarchy has attempted to exclude women from military roles in society. Outside of work as nurses or other non-combat positions, women have been denied study in the arts of defense. I think one can judge how advanced a society is by how much it empowers women with the ability to use violence as self-defense. Cynthia Cockburn wrote in her essay “Gender, Armed Conflict and Political Violence” about Johan Galtung’s concept of “structural violence,” (p. 6). The idea of structural violence is that wherever there is an unequal relationship, that relationship could be called violent. Which that in mind, empowering women to rise up against that kind of violence can only be a good thing.
Consider the Chinese revolution which allowed women to join the People’s Liberation Army and encouraged women to stand up against a culture which promoted foot-binding and other structurally violent practices against women. What has been the result of that? China ranks number 36 on the list of countries with the most women in parliament. The US only ranks at 57.
In our readings we read about China among a number of other countries and issues of gender and feminism in them. One of the big issues for feminists with these countries, is the issue of relativism and universalism. In other words, is there a single standard for womens rights the world over, or is it that each country has it’s own relative rights system?
I think that this debate is often presented in a slanted way though. Because a universalist form of feminism has been perverted and used as the justification for a number of imperialist endeavors such as the invasion of Afghanistan, where President Bush, a supporter of so called “pro-life” groups talked about how horribly the Taliban treated women and that a US invasion could improve the living conditions of Afghan women. The reality is that groups like the Revolutionary Association of Women in Afghanistan have denounced the invasion, and have pointed out that the warlords the US allied itself with were just as anti-women as the Taliban was.
A more accurate form of universalism is one where certain values of equality are promoted around the world, and people in different communities who agree with those values take it up to promote them. For example, the traditional Chinese Confucian culture treated women one way, but after a number of Chinese people read about feminist ideas, they started to promote those ideas and eventually improved womens status by a great deal. Even returning to Afghanistan, wouldn’t it be better to support local progressive Afghans instead of bombing a country to submission?
I prefer this second kind of universalism to relativism, which in many cases ends up only allowing non-western variations of patriarchy to go unchallenged. Typically the relativist is a westerner who proclaims that the West can have high standards for womens rights but that other communities should simply accept gender inequality as an expression of their culture. That same argument could be made about the West though. Look at people like Jerry Falwell. Should their view of women become the norm, simply because it is an expression of American culture?
Not that different regions can’t have different gender expressions. The West could learn a thing or two from different regions of the world regarding gender equality. For instance we read about Igbo women and the traditions they had that empowered them and promoted consensus. (Nkiru Nzegwu, “Recovering Igbo Traditions: a Case for Indigenous Women’s Organizations in Development” p. 446).
So the question becomes, how do we not only challenge patriarchy and gender inequality, but end it? How can we create a society where one’s gender isn’t limiting? I believe that the best way to begin to unravel gender inequality is by first connecting the dots between gender inequality and other forms of inequality. For example, I mentioned earlier that it was important to have an integrated military and parliament. But if the US military promoted women to combat positions, that wouldn’t help eradicate gender inequality since the women would be fighting for the anti-women policies of the US government, and for the class, race and other inequalities that the US government promotes.
First we have to flesh out the connections between gender, race and class. We can not abolish one without abolishing the others, since they are so interconnected. Once we see how they are all connected, we can begin to work with others in our communities to dismantle the chains that bind us.