As the US celebrates the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted white women (yes, only white women!) the right to vote, it's a good idea to make sure we're 100% clear on what we mean with "equality," and whether it's a worthy endeavor after all.
Radical change is not just about becoming "equal to" the dominant class. It's about envisioning something different.
I won't beat around the bush, I believe that dreaming of gender equality is dreaming too small. And I'm not the only one to think this way. Renowned feminist cultural critic bell hooks in the classic Feminism Is for Everybody (2000) criticized the narrow view that equates feminism with gender equality, stating that feminism is, rather, the movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression.
Let's first look at why equality is a not-so-dreamy goal. Then, we'll consider: What's the alternative?
What is equality in an unequal system?
Equality in our current state has meant leaning into a system that's faulty at its foundations. This system is called patriarchy, and it's the gendered structure of power that we all live in. In plain terms, the patriarchy is a system of oppression that privileges white, educated, able-bodied, middle- and upper-class, cis-gender, and heterosexual males. It's the system of power that determines what professional and personal success look like—impacting our own self-fulfillment and life goals. Patriarchy creates the mainstream narratives that we live with, and that many of us take for granted.
Now, equality might seem like a worthy goal, especially in a society based on stark inequalities (not only of gender). Of course, women should be paid as much as men for the same amount of work hours. Of course, women should have all of the same constitutional rights (including the right to control their bodies). Equality is a worthy goal—to an extent.
Leaning into a system that's fundamentally unequal means becoming complicit in toxic power dynamics that still exclude people of color, differently-abled folks, people with a lower socioeconomic status, and members of the LGBTQ+ community.
The myth we've been sold is that we should demand a seat at the table—that we should "lean in," as Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's famous book reminds us. As if leaning in were a matter of individual ambition and drive versus addressing the real problem, which is the sexist table we're all struggling to claim a seat at.
Leaning into a system that's fundamentally unequal means becoming complicit in toxic power dynamics that still exclude people of color, differently-abled folks, people with a lower socioeconomic status, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. It means that we learn to play the game—and often that's necessary for our survival—but we don't question its rules.
The rules of this game are founded on ruthless ambition and a Darwinian mindset that says the strongest person wins, not necessarily the most qualified one. It's survival of the fittest. Additionally, these rules also involve a whole lot of hidden assumptions about what power and authority look like, and whose voices are worth listening to.
What can we do?
What we've been striving for, namely, equality, is only a teeny, tiny portion of what needs to be done. It also excludes huge chunks of the population, and this has almost always been the case. Women of color, for instance, gained the right to vote much, much later than 1920 despite how influential they were in demanding the 19th Amendment be passed. That's why we must look at everything through an intersectional lens. Equality often means that white cis-women become like white cis-men. And so the circle of privilege becomes slightly bigger, but ultimately unchanged. All the while women of color, particularly Black women, continue to be deeply underserved and discriminated against.
Is it hopeless? I don't think so. Here's what we can do:
Look at the system first
Before assigning blame on individual women for not pushing hard enough, it's important that we look at systemic inequalities. We live in a society that's not only unequal by design but one that also makes it really hard for us to achieve any form of true equality within it.
The goal is not to be equal to white cis-men in positions of power, even if Sheryl Sandberg's brand of corporate white feminism proclaims it so. The real goal is to create a more equitable society where everyone gets a seat at the table without having to "lean in." It's the system itself that needs to be challenged, not just what happens within that system.
Understand internalized misogyny
Inequality doesn't just exist "out there." Being born into any society means that we grow up internalizing the beliefs and morals (or lack thereof) that uphold said society's structures. For this reason, we must look at how misogyny is part of our inner structures, as well. You may not realize it, but as women in a patriarchal society, we've been conditioned to identity with the oppressor both against ourselves and against other women. Just look at, for instance, women's fraught relationship with their bodies and consider how we've internalized standards of beauty that are not our own.
That we're all complicit in a sexist society is a hard pill to swallow. However, once you commit to doing the work, unlearning what you've internalized is an incredibly liberating experience.
Envision radical change
Radical change is not just about becoming "equal to" the dominant class. It's about envisioning something different. Sure, change can happen from within through equal pay, family and parental leave, universal childcare, etc.—all of these things are extremely important and necessary. But change can also happen from without.
I believe that dreaming of gender equality is dreaming too small.
That's why my work revolves around tapping into and amplifying women's voices. Because women have radical ideas, though sometimes they may not even realize these ideas, having been raised in a system that encouraged them to make themselves so very small. Since I succeeded in tapping into my own radical ideas, I'm committed to helping women do the same so that we can truly begin to create a better world.
Our fight for equality must come with the awareness that we live in a sexist culture and that sexism is everywhere—in our workplaces, in our schools, at home, in our government, and in our laws. Along with striving for equality, we must choose to actively fight sexism, asking ourselves when and where equality is a worthy cause, and when it just replicates current power dynamics that privilege a limited few.
WRITTEN BYClaudia Consolati