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Feminism & Politics: Why Are We Still Fighting Over Reproductive Rights?

Feminism & Politics: Why are We Still Fighting Over Reproductive Rights?

Equality between the sexes is virtually unattainable within a neoliberal environment

By Kelly Watson (9/26/12)

The obsessive push to address only issues of reproductive rights is the tip of the iceberg of a deeper war of the sexes in society. This battle over the role and nature of what it means to be female has gone through various cycles of progress and backlash since the early 20th century. Women appear to make progress for a period of years, beginning during the late 19th century to early 20th century, early 1940’s (WWII), and most recently during the 1970’s, only to face what Susan Faludi addresses in her book “Backlash”:[1] periods of devolution of the progress that has previously been gained.

The 50’s backlash, in short, didn’t transform women into full-time “happy housewives”; it just demoted them to poorly paid secretaries.

Reproductive rights issues are a primary campaign focus during election season and a major battleground throughout the years, but while that battle highlights the contending positions it also obscures other important issues. Equal rights for women extend beyond reproductive concerns. While reproductive issues are important, they affect a certain percentage of women between 15-40 years of age, and there are other issues that are pressing for all women. Attention to these other issues has waned since the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment) push in the 1970’s and after the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe vs. Wade in 1973.

Donatella Versace was recently quoted as saying, “Feminism is dead,” referring to her experiences in the fashion industry. Versace works in what should be a female dominated industry, yet women find themselves vying for positions alongside men, and women have ceased to help each other. Unity amongst women is lacking and unity within the women’s movement is important for success. A strong focus is what is needed within the movement which should be addressing more aggressively issues extending to all areas of woman’s life, including but also beyond her reproductive capacity.

Political campaigns reduce women to their reproductive functions, rather than addressing their role in society as fully equal citizens. Women’s groups can fall into this trap as well, reacting and focusing primarily on these issues set forth by male-dominated agendas. Keeping women “barefoot and pregnant” is the clear agenda of the rightwing while the Democrats give ground to the Republican Party’s reactionary agenda on every front.

So what are the issues we need to bring into closer focus? We can begin by looking at employment and economic opportunities, female poverty rates, sexism, violence against women, early childhood education differentials, and childcare availability.

Employment numbers and representation in the work force is important but does not address the entire picture. As but one dimension of this, women’s representation within top executive ranks, women are still woefully behind men.

According to Catalyst, only 39 Fortune 500 companies boast female chief executives - and in most Latin American countries, the number hardly rates a mention.[2]

This also brings to mind the question of how women are being prepared for the future that awaits them past graduation. There are discrepancies in the emphasis on science and math for boys and girls. The test rates between the sexes reflect not a lack of ability on the part of girls but rather differences in expectations and treatment.

Using data developed by the World Economic Forum and the World Values Survey, Paola Sapienza of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and her co authors argued in Science in 2008 that countries with greater gender parity in economic and political opportunities tend to show lower or no gender gaps in math performance.[3]

Strong cultural stereotypes regarding men and women and their putative inherent inequality play a role in shaping performance expectations and are reflected in disproportionate test scores between the sexes. This affects women’s economic independence and ability to achieve later in life.

The effects are tremendous: fewer women pursue an educational path suited to quantitative acumen-skills that pay well professionally- and thus hold fewer positions of leadership. In this regard regional economies inadvertently limit their development opportunities as they fail to take advantage of the full potential of half their population.[4]

As a September 24, 2012 article in The New York Times relates,

Science professors at American universities widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than male students with the same accomplishments and skills, a new study by researchers at Yale concluded.

As a result, the report found, the professors were less likely to offer the women mentoring or a job. And even if they were willing to offer a job, the salary was lower.

The bias was pervasive, the scientists said, and probably reflected subconscious cultural influences rather than overt or deliberate discrimination.

Female professors were just as biased against women students as their male colleagues, and biology professors just as biased as physics professors — even though more than half of biology majors are women, whereas men far outnumber women in physics.

“I think we were all just a little bit surprised at how powerful the results were — that not only do the faculty in biology, chemistry and physics express these biases quite clearly, but the significance and strength of the results was really quite striking,” said Jo Handelsman, a professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology at Yale.

While upward mobility and financial independence are seen as important within capitalism, mobility and financial independence address the issue of gender disparity at a phenomena and individual level, rather than addressing the underlying systemic issues presented by capitalism for groups as well as individuals. In issues of discrimination, the true sentiment of capitalism is expressed in “more for me, who cares about you.” While a few women can fight their way to the top based on good planning and fortunate opportunities, what about the rest? It is not enough for a society to offer incentives and opportunities for upward mobility for groups that are systematically discriminated against and where there are, even more to the point, a sharply and structurally limited number of elevated positions available. Society needs to exhibit care and concern for everyone, which runs in direct opposition to the capitalist mantra of winners versus losers.

Gender – a social construct - is a strong factor in determining how women are viewed and treated in their society, and the shaping of gender roles is reflected also in the violence rates against women. The third wave of feminism[5] has directed a lot of effort toward analyzing pornography and how it shapes and directs gender roles and its relationship to violence. The objectification and alleged eternal sexual availability of the female contributes to setting women up for the role of victim. Feminism and the Right both appear to hold puritanical views towards sex in regard to their stance on pornography but they are fundamentally different. The Christian Right views pornography as merely a reflection of sin and wrongdoing, failing to address the subtle socially corrosive effect pornography has on the image and role of women in culture. The third wave of feminism understands that so long as we constantly reinforce through media that women are subject to victimization, and more importantly domination, this will be reflected in non-sexual areas of society. The pornography industry itself, including the exotic dancing industry, is a male dominated capitalistic business that exploits and destroys women for the proprietor’s financial gain and fosters and perpetuates male privilege and domination. As long as we continue to value capitalism, we cannot stand in judgment of this industry, for they are merely sexualizing what we readily except in other less offensive industries.

The poverty rates among females need to be recognized as another major obstacle to progress, including its relationship to violence against women. While welfare reform still remains a hot ticket item for candidates, the underlying need for welfare is never effectively addressed and the predominance of women accessing these benefits as opposed to their male counterparts is never acknowledged. Which brings up the issue that Gloria Steinem first addressed in her 1970 commencement address to Vassar College - “Living the Revolution” - in regards to feminization of poverty and the masculinization of wealth.

Lamenting women’s unequal treatment in the workforce, for example, she urged the graduates to support economic reforms that would guarantee equal pay for equal work. ‘The truth is,’ she said, ‘that a woman with a college education working full-time makes less than a black man with a high school degree.[6]

Current statistics are similarly bleak:

Women bear a disproportionate burden of the world’s poverty. Statistics indicate that women are more likely than men to be poor and at risk of hunger because of the systematic discrimination they face in education, health care, employment and control of assets.

It is estimated that if women’s paid employment rates were raised to the same level as men’s, America’s GDP would be 9 percent higher; the Euro-zone’s would be 13 percent higher, and Japan’s would be boosted by 16 percent.

More than two-thirds of the world’s unpaid work is done by women — the equivalent of $11 trillion, according to a global UNDP study from 1995. “Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10% of the world’s income and own 1% of the means of production.”

Of the 37 million people living below the poverty line in the US, 21 million are women, according to US Census Bureau figures from 2006.

At the rate the wage gap is closing, women in the US will not see equal earnings until 2050. Women account for 64% of minimum-wage workers in the US, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2007.

            Elderly women are 70% more likely to be poor than elderly men.[7]

Creating a social environment where economic independence is encouraged and available for both sexes will decrease the rates of violence in intimate partnerships as mobility to escape dangerous situations will be increased by women’s economic viability in society.

The World Bank’s World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development found that women’s ownership of assets in Columbia was associated with lower risk of domestic violence.[8]

Obviously women have not achieved as much as was originally anticipated by the women’s movement, which once again exemplifies the “Backlash” where gains are made for a short period of time, then abandoned. While it may not appear, at first glance, that we have abandoned progress for equal rights, we have been letting our reproductive rights take central stage on a consistent basis. It is similar to going to the gym on a regular basis and insisting on lifting weights yet relegating the exercise to the right arm. It’s great that the right arm is toned yet what about the rest of the body, it is imbalanced at best. This imbalance is what is apparent now. This constant focus on reproductive issues is peddled by the right and consistently reacted to by the left. The neoliberal Christian base, as well as the more Reaganite conservative core of the Republican Party, consistently reduces women’s issues to that of reproductive functioning. Their pro-life arguments in defense of the “rights of the fetus” over that of the mother constantly pull women backwards in time as well as preventing and eroding progress.

So what is next? The only answer that remains is a grassroots movement originating from the people, rather than dependence on “help” from the political parties. Historically activism is what has birthed all major waves of the feminist movement, beginning in 1848 at the Seneca Falls convention, all the way up through the ERA campaign and activism in the 1970’s. Protests and grassroots organizing have always set the stage for progress in social movements that are not initially supported by the powers that be.

The recent Women’s Entrepreneurship in the Americas has been a political influenced foray into regulating this complicated process. It is an attempt to create a less hostile business environment for women but it also represents the fundamental differences from a social context that are reflected in economics. It is not a strong enough solution. It is merely a beginning, and lacking in enough breadth and strength to affect any permanent changes, primarily because any social program aimed at advancing basic female equality cannot cut too deeply at the core of capitalism.

If economic equality is an issue that has been ineffectively addressed in regards to women’s issues then the question needs to be raised as to the entire validity and foundation of our economic system in relation to globalization. Why are basic human rights being ignored and addressed in a paltry manner by even the best of our politicians? Our current economic system is strongly influenced by “free market” capitalism which decries and systematically undermines regulation and sets the stage for a corrupt distribution of power. If market forces are left unbridled then it naturally follows that issues of fairness and equality will go unaddressed. The quality and equity of our society are offered up at the altar of capitalism. So there are basic systemic flaws to how capitalism in its practice, as well as its theory, will always devalue the rights of individuals in the name of freedom for profits.

[1] Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. Michigan: Anchor. Bay, 1991.

[2] Segal, Susan. “Gender Equality.” America’s Quarterly Magazine. Summer 2012.

[3] Nopo, Hugo. “The Paradox of Girls’ Educational Attainment.” America’s Quarterly Magazine. Summer 2012.

[4] Nopo, Hugo. “The Paradox of Girls’ Educational Attainment.” America’s Quarterly Magazine. Summer 2012.

[5] The first wave of feminism is characterized as the period of the movement where suffragists fought for the right to vote. The second wave is marked by Betty Friedan and “The Feminine Mystique” along with the activism of the late 60’s and 70’s. The third wave of feminism is the resurgence of the movement, post eighties, characterized by feminist activists and writers such as Naomi Wolf and Andrea Dworkin, with a large amount of work focused on pornography and beauty as it relates to social roles.

[6] Hogan, Lisa. “Gloria Steinem, ‘Living the Revolution’ (31 May 1970).”Voices of Democracy (2006): 66-78.

[7] Nasrin, Taslima. “Women Must Have Money. ”No Country for Women,” 01 June 2012,

[8] Verveer, Melanie. “Women’s Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy. America’s Quarterly. Summer 2012.


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