Monday, March 8, 2010

International Women's Day 2010: Equal rights

Happy International Women's Day everyone! (Though I have to be honest, it's hard to wish a "happy" day when there is so much work to be done to help women around the world gain equality.) Some sites you might want to check throughout the day: and its blog, and Gender Across Borders and its IWD blog. Gender Across Borders is inviting everyone to join them in blogging about the day, and I am taking part in that.

"Equal rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all." That is the United Nations; theme for this year's IWD. Gender Across Borders is asking bloggers to think about two questions regarding this year's theme:
1. What does “equal rights for all” mean to you?
2. Describe a particular organization, person, or moment in history that helped to mobilize a meaningful change in equal rights for all.
(Note: I'll be addressing the first question.)

"Equal rights for all" is so simple sounding on the surface, so incredibly hard to put into real practice. For me, "equal rights" also means "equal treatment." There is both a legal and societal aspect to this concept of "equal rights." If laws are in place for equal rights, but those laws aren't enforced, then there aren't equal rights. If a group of people are treated as second-class, even if they have "equal rights" by law, then there aren't equal rights. This concept has to be a legal and societal one in order for it to be true.

For those of us in the United States, "equal rights" is an idea we as a country hardly think twice about. It's practically the very basis of our country. It is assumed: If you live here, you have equal rights.

Equal rights, however, don't exist for many people in this country. Not only are women (legally!) underpaid, they are underrepresented in government and management, for all kind of reasons. Not having enough women in government and management positions makes it harder to get and enforce equal rights. (Not that every woman in government/management works for equal rights.) Women have been underpaid in this country for decades, and still are. Why? Well, why not? What incentive does the male-majority government have to pass and enforce laws prohibiting the practice? (Oh, I know! I know! Women making equal wages benefits the entire country. Something some men in government either refuse to recognize, or don't care about.) We are making progress on this issue, but it has taken years, and we still aren't even close -- 77 cents on the dollar. Women are also (legally!) discriminated against when health insurance companies charge them more for insurance, just because of their gender. Women in our government have stood in front of the entire country and discussed these issues, and sometimes it seems like the only people who care are some women and a handful of men. Not even all women. Just some. I don't know if "women are second class" is so ingrained in collective minds that people can't see the problem, or if they just don't care. Either way, neither of these things are acceptable in a true "equal rights" society. And these are just two legal examples. There are so, so many other ways in which women in the United States are not treated equally -- beauty and body expectations, motherhood and parenting expectations, caregiving expectations, sexual expectations, behavioral expectations, and on and on. Heck, we can't even pass the Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced in 1923!

Unfortunately, women are not alone in the United States in their experiences. We also discriminate (legally!) against gays and lesbians -- they're not allowed to marry in most states, in some places they aren't allowed to adopt children, they can be (legally!) discriminated against in some places regarding jobs and schools (Virginia, I'm looking at you), and that doesn't even touch on how they're treated and viewed by certain segments (political and perhaps geographical) of the population. Trans gender people have it perhaps even worse than that, with the ridicule, shaming and violence they endure. How many anti-discrimination bills and hate crimes bills include the LGBTQ community?

And then there's race, long a problem for this country. While most laws these days are written to make clear that you can't discriminate against someone because of race or ethnicity, we are far from equal treatment and equal opportunity. The public education system is letting down countless non-white children. The justice system does the same for non-white adults. There is profiling, stereotyping, misunderstanding, overall not caring. What is the percentage of non-white people living in poverty compared to the percentage of white people? It's not pretty.

All of these problems affect women in this country. Obviously, we women are not all white and heterosexual (disclosure: I am, and those are the privileges I have). And when men in this country are discriminated against and treated unfairly, that affects women, too. Equal rights for all has to include equal treatment and equal opportunity, or we aren't going to make progress. We are a country of "equal rights" in name only, not in practice.

Of course, some of these problems in the United States seem minor when compared to other parts of the world, where women are second class in the eyes of the law. They can't go out in public without a male chaperon. They can't vote. They can't choose who they marry. They can be charged with a crime if they are raped. They are killed in the name of "honor." They don't have access to education, or health care. They can't have abortions. They are bought and sold. I'm in no way trying to ignore any of that on International Women's Day. My point in discussing the United States' "equal rights" is to show that even a country who claims to have them, doesn't. But worldwide, progress is being made, even if it is sometimes in the smallest of ways. Maybe some day there won't be a need for International Women's Day (or Women's History Month, for that matter). Let's hope so.


Jenna McWilliams said...

Thanks for this post. I especially love your point that even if laws protecting rights are in place, it's not equality if the laws aren't followed.

You write that in the U.S., equality is assumed--I'd argue that this isn't fully the case. You only have to take a look at the conversation over gay rights for proof. Members of the LGBT community are not "granted" their right to marry; they're not "granted" a right to have children, to be protected from workplace discrimination.

But thank goodness there are people who are willing to challenge our culture on issues like this.

Feminist Review said...

A current event to add to the list of things to celebrate today: An Oscar Win for International Women’s Day! Pretty nice timing, no?

Rosie said...

Jenna, thanks for your comment. I fully understand what you mean about the gay community, and I think I addressed some of that in the post. What I mean when I said equality is "assumed," was in the general sense -- that it's not until you look beneath the surface that you see it's a facade. Hope that makes more sense!

And Feminist Review, definitely great timing!


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