As second wave feminism gathered peak velocity forty years ago, the late bombastic and behatted Congresswoman (D-NY) Bella Abzug persuaded Congress to designate August 26th as Women’s Equality Day. It recognized the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that in 1920 gave all U.S. women the right to vote.
There are many reasons to celebrate the 91st anniversary of women winning the ballot, which some suffragist leaders mistakenly believed culminated the struggle for women’s rights. But it turns out the solution to a problem changes the problem–creating uncomfortable new questions about the value of equality and what to do once we get there.
We’ve come a long way, maybe.
Yes, women now hold the majority of college degrees, but better education hasn’t brought equal pay. Nor has the fact that women are now starting 38% of entrepreneurial businesses moved the percentage of venture capital they garner above the 5% mark.
Yes, more women hold seats in Congress, but “more” equals only 17 percent. Despite hard lobbying by women’s groups, Senator Patty Murray is the sole female among 12 supercommittee members appointed to solve America’s budget impasse, showing how hard it is to crack the real power barriers.
And when we do crack those barriers, what happens?
Thanks to the 18 million cracks Hillary Clinton put in the glass ceiling, women are taken seriously as presidential candidates. But it’s feminist heartburn that progressive women like Clinton opened the doors for today’s reactionary female candidates like Michelle Bachmann, who would take away women’s rights, not add to them.
Then, just a women reached numbers parity in the workplace, Rebekah Brooks, deposed Chief Executive of Rupert Murdock’s News International, emulated her boss/mentor’s red-in- tooth-and-claw philosophy. Is this what happens when women reach the C-suite? Ouch!
On Women’s Equality Day 2011, we must ask: how do we make the transformation to gender equality truly transformational? Avoid becoming the men whose injustices we challenged? Embrace powerful leadership roles in work, politics, and personal life without adopting the same hierarchical, power-over model used to hold us back?
Here are three ways not to celebrate Women’s Equality Day if we’re committed to achieving its promise.
1. Think it’s all in the numbers. As the lesson of winning suffrage showed, we could get to 50/50 genderwise and not change anything. What good would that do?
It’s wicked hard to change a culture while you’re living in it. You get blamed for creating chaos, causing pimples, and bringing about the end of the world. It’s tempting to get co-opted. Since the 1970’s when ambitious women entering the business world were told to mimic men’s severe navy suits, learn to play golf, and talk tough to make their gender invisible, however, it’s become eminently clear that acting like the guys doesn’t serve women well.
Both genders have been captive to dysfunctional stereotypes that no longer serve us. Let’s own that we are changing the world, for the better for men as well as women–then go make the next set of breakthroughs.
2. Believe historical trends will necessarily continue. Wrong. Without a constant flow of deliberate actions, progress becomes regression in a nanosecond. And no one individual can make systemic change—it takes a movement.
The suffrage movement dissipated once women got the vote. They stopped pressing for progressive reforms they’d supported at the turn of the 20th century—including still-unresolved issues like child care, maternal health, and sick leave. As they retreated into voter education and charitable works, they squandered their political power at its apex, a moment much like the 1992 “Year of the Woman” when legislators cowered in fear a permanent powerful women’s bloc would emerge in American politics. I wish!
A forward-backward dance has been the pattern in the U.S. women’s movement. Rosie the Riveter went home after World War II. Betty Friedan had us throw away our girdles in the 1960’s; now women wear Spanx ™. We’ve won the right to birth control and abortion but are within an inch of losing it again. It’s folly to believe that progress will continue–unless women and like-minded men mobilize together to make it so.
As Equal Rights Amendment author Alice Paul —one of the few suffragists who argued for continuing to press forward with a policy agenda — said, “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.”
3. Believe that equality is enough. Agnostic equality as a goal unto itself is naïve. It’s just a baseline necessity for human development, like air and water. What we do with it is what matters.
And what opportunity exists today! The world is looking at women and saying, “This is your moment. We need what you have to offer.” Management experts say companies with more women in top leadership make more money for investors. The World Bank reviewed parliaments globally and found those with higher percentages of women exhibit better decision processes.
Abzug famously said, “We want it all but we’ll take half.” But she would have been the first to recognize that the real value of celebrating women’s growing equality in 2011 is to show there’s no such zero sum choice, but rather infinite possibilities—if women engage and use the power in their hands.