Full disclosure, I’m a podcast junkie! I get off on the radio waves of voices that fill my ears with views on all sorts while I do mundane stuff like sit-ups. I consume a lot of podcasts so you will hear me from time to time refer to things I’ve heard on them. One of the podcasts I enjoy listening to is Hardtalk from the BBC. The program, as the name suggests, it is about difficult conversations. I love to hear how the guests answer or dodge tough questions from the show’s hosts. A recent guest was Gloria Steinem. I remember her from doing Sociology bachelors degree in the early 90s. I know her to be one of the pioneering members of the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. I wondered why she was there; is there still such a thing as a feminism movement? The host Stephen Sackur (SS) started the conversation by asking Gloria Steinem (GS): “Does the feminist cause feel as urgent today as it did when you rose to international prominence in the late 1960s, early 70s?”
GS: “More.” I thought, really? I listened on with some incredulity.
She went on to explain that thanks to various studies there is now a much better and deeper understanding of injustices against women in society. It has been proven that the single most important factor of whether a country is violent in itself, or willing to use military violence against other countries, is violence against females because that in varying degrees normalizes it everywhere else. SS wanted to clarify was she saying that the feminist movement has moved away from the knots and bolts of equal pay to more intangible cause?
GS clarified: “The root of democracy outside the home, is democracy inside the home. The root of violence elsewhere is the normalization of violence in an intimate way in the home.”
SS: “Wouldn’t most women in the Western developed world feel that they have democracy in the home?”
GS: “No! Of course not! Are you kidding? Do men raise children as much as women?” (You can listen to the full program here)
There Gloria Steinem had me! I thought about all the women I know in my generation, born in the late 1960s and 1970s, Western, educated, with professional careers and financially independent. They believed themselves to be equal to men, that their chosen husbands have bought into the idea that women were their equal, and upon marriage they would do their “equal” share of household duties. No sooner had they married did reality became apparent. First, the women gave up their surnames to take on their husbands’. One friend said her husband had asked her to take his name. She didn’t see anything wrong in saying yes. Another friend agreed, she had done the same thing at her husband’s request. A third friend said her husband didn’t ask but she volunteered as she wanted to have the same name as her kids and husband so they could be recognized as a family. Why didn’t the husband feel the need to change his name to hers? Why do the children have to bear only the father’s surname? I know there are countries where this is a exception like Spain, children bear both parent’s surname and women don’t change their name. For other friends there was never any requests or discussion, it was simply assumed they would become Mrs their husbands’ surname and they did. I was appalled that these women could so easily give up their identity in favour of their husbands’ in this day and age. Some might argue becoming Mrs somebody doesn’t mean they have given up their identity. Err hmmm yes it does! It isn’t like just wearing a jacket with Mrs husband’s surname printed on it as Madonna once did when she was married to Guy Richie, these women actually changed their names where it matters, that is, legally binding at the bank, on passport, even as far as work and personal email addresses.
Once married their husbands did give up some rights too. The right to do household chores. Men who when they were single were perfectly capable of cleaning and cooking, upon coupledom forget how to put detergent on a sponge to wash a cup. One of my brothers who was a very good cook gave it up to eat his wife’s very average cooking. All these women can do is complain and nag and even attempt to “train” their husbands. Alternatively, the well-financed of them throw money at this problem, they hire cleaners. The issue of child care isn’t as easy to fix with money for those who can afford the hefty price of nannies, children need their parents, or as most men believe, their mothers. Even when both parents work full-time, mothers end up doing the bulk of child care. Mothers think of what the kids are going to eat, get up in the middle of the night to feed or comfort them, get them ready for school, spend hours playing with them without losing interest. The fathers, on the other hand, spend five minutes playing with their children and they are tired or distracted by watching a game or a phone call and they can’t seem to remember the steps involved in getting children ready for school. Of course women complain over and over again on the unfairness of the whole thing. I hear time and time again, “why can’t he just spend time with his child?”, “Why can’t he be on time for once picking up his son?” “I can’t believe he didn’t change her pampers for hours!” When the father attempts to “help out” (as I’ve heard many women refer to their husbands doing household duties) by for example, burping the baby after a feed, he is scolded for not “patting gently enough” or “patting in the wrong part of the back” and the mother grabs the child a little miffed by the incompetency of her husband. To avoid further and constant criticism, the father stays clear of this task and consequently others. I suggested to a couple of friends when they moaned to me about their husbands’ minimum or lack of involvement in childcare, to go out for the afternoon or day leave their husbands with their children and avoid picking up the phone. One friend was offended I would suggest she abandon her child, others honestly replied “I don’t trust my husband with my child”. I further asked how would the fathers learn if they weren’t given space and forced to, and did they, the mothers, have the children alone? I’ve also asked these women if they didn’t know they would be the primary carer, they all said they didn’t know. Their response really surprised me because it is something I have thought about and very much aware of.
I think Western women in my generation and later have become in a way complacent and confused the fact that we have equal access to education, can work outside the home and do the same jobs as men, and we can delay (thanks to contraceptives and professional careers) or choose not to have children with equality. We forget that we are product of hundreds of years of families where mothers are the ones stuck at home looking after the children. Why do we believe this was going to change in a couple of decades? They say the first step to solving a problem is awareness, the thing is many Western women are not really aware of the situation despite the plethora of information at our disposal. Just because we have equality laws doesn’t mean we have equality. Equal pay between women and men doing the same jobs have been in place in the US and Europe for fifty years. According to the latest stats from European Commission (EC), for the economy as a whole, women’s gross hourly earnings were on average 16 % below those of men in 2011 in the European Union as well as in the euro area (full stats here). In the US it is said that women earn 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. The EC was quick to state that there could be many reasons for this disparity, e.g. women taking a career break to have children, part-time work etc… However, a recent study by the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) that analyzed the take home wages of both female and male recent graduates who studied the same subjects and across various sectors, found that men are paid more than women, demonstrating that gender inequality start much earlier in our careers than previously thought.
I can’t say like Gloria Steinem if the feminist cause feels more urgent than before, I do believe though that there is pressing need to promote gender equality in the home because until we have it, any form of perceived equality we have outside the home is wobbly. For example, we know thanks to various studies (for example OECD report on gender equality in education) that women are better educated than men yet they are not reaching the top jobs or they drop out of the workforce altogether. The push for change must start with women as they are the STILL primary carers. Women can start by allowing men to do their share and not “help out” so children can see their fathers doing things around the house and see their mothers doing less. At the same time, we need more prominent advocates like Gloria Steinem but younger (she is in her seventies) to remind us we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do before we have gender equality.
I thought about who are the feminists of my generation, I didn’t know any! So I googled it. I came cross a list of feminists on Wikipedia, I jumped to the part to the mid and late 20th-century and all 21st-century feminists. It was a very long list, I scrolled through it to see which names I recognized. Worryingly I only recognized fourteen names most of which are actresses and singers. It wasn’t obvious to me why they were there so I clicked on them to find out. Tori Amos, the red-haired piano-playing singer, was there because she co-founded The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), a toll-free help line in the US connecting callers with their local rape crisis center. Madonna, no need to click to know, we all know about her but is she a feminist I asked? I guess she is, she did and is doing “it” her way. Next were actresses Sandra Oh (of Grey’s Anatomy) and Ellen Page (of Juno and Inception), no clue to why they were on the list other than the latter describing herself as a “pro-choice feminist”. I thought maybe it is because they are both Canadians. Aren’t Canadians supposed to be by default feminists, pro-choice, pro-gay, pro-peace etc? Holly Hunter and Julie Delpy, I have no idea how they’ve earned their place on the list. Hillary Clinton, yes, she had a stellar law career, went for the highest ranking job in politics and later became secretary of state. But the woman took on her husband’s last name and stayed with him after Monica Lewisky et al. affairs. They were a couple of men on the list too, Kurt Cobain and John Lennon, I was like who cares, they are dead! Besides, I never got the whole Beatles and Lennon thing! The only names from the very short list of recognized names I understood why they were there, that gave me some confidence are Angela Davis, Alice Walker and Naomi Wolf. It struck me that the youngest of these three women is fifty years old. I asked myself is this really a cause for concern? Yes it is. The thing is, we live in a world today where we are bombarded with so much fluff – reality tv stars, pop stars, romantic hollywood films and the like – it is increasingly harder to think, question and challenge. When I look at my nieces, born in the 80s and 90s, I’m quite sure they have never considered or questioned gender roles in the home. I had one niece actually tell me that the man is the head of the family and thought it was fine to take the name of her future husband. I fear upon marriage or cohabiting they would simply slip into the traditional roles of allowing men to “help out”.
I was speaking with a male friend, W, the other day about women issues and equality, and he proudly told me he is a feminist because he believes in equal rights for men and women. I was struck by how easy it was for him to call himself a feminist. I realized after our conversation that I don’t need to look far for feminists of my generation, that are activists and/or famous. I too can say with pride that I am a feminist because I believe in and demand equals rights for women first in the home and then outside. And in me, my friend W and others out there, the feminism movement continues.