“What rights don’t women have?”
The question ominously rolled off his tongue and hung in the air, seething with derision. It seemed to swell and expand with each passing moment of silence, an ugly swirling mass of antipathy and privilege further validated by haughty ignorance.
We sat in the car, listening to a news report about the Women’s Marches happening in massive numbers across the country. Immediately following this segment, the radio host cheerfully expressed his hopes that “any freedom fighters out there marching for women’s rights” would remember to stay safe.
At this, my friend responded with a derisive laugh. “Women’s rights?” he scoffed. “What rights don’t women have?”
Here was my moment: the culmination of years supporting feminism, vocalizing my belief that women’s rights are human rights, speaking out regarding the importance of inclusion and equality, condemning the societal and cultural opposition to these traits on both a national and a global scale. It was my chance to transpose my largely social media-based rants into real-life discussion with someone whom I considered a friend (one who could clearly benefit from the impassioned, sincere viewpoint of someone on the receiving end of institutionalized misogyny).
And yet, there I sat. Mute and frozen in the wake of his all-important question. The tense societal, cultural and political state of our nation demanded that I speak up and share my experiences as a woman, particularly with those who remain disconnected from this reality—especially with those who remain disconnected from this reality. In fact, the United States ranks at #45 in the world for women’s equality, according to this 2016 report from the World Economic Forum—
and yet, I remained silent.
Instead, countless thoughts raced through my head amid a dizzying blur of panic. I feared sounding too fervent, too heated, too emotional. I feared his reaction to receiving an unwanted answer to a question that had clearly been stated rhetorically. I dreaded the possibility of being judged for my experiences, being written off as oversensitive or too easily offended. I imagined my disappointment and frustration at being informed that I was “making a big deal out of nothing.” I knew I’d be challenged to justify my personal experiences as a woman—
and so, I remained silent.
Women so often face the reality of domestic violence at the hands of their significant others, and the current administration seems apathetic about enforcing existing federal legislation to protect them and survivors from sexual harassment/assault: One in 3 women have been a victim of some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, and one in six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (moreover, the Department of Justice reports that these rates are even higher for transgender people and bisexual women). Yet, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has avoided the question of upholding Title IX’s federal guidance instructing colleges to combat campus sexual assault, and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions did not support the most recent authorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which he is responsible for enforcing—
and still, shamefully, I remained silent.
National healthcare coverage for women is under fire after years of progress: Until the ratification of the Affordable Care Act, national healthcare had excluded coverage for millions of women, denying coverage based on gender and impeding access to birth control, maternity care and breastfeeding supplies. Our current administration has repeatedly stated its intent to remove ACA legislation without adequate replacement, as well as possibly overturning Roe v. Wade, which would overwhelmingly target poor, at-risk women without access to education or birth control—
and despite this, I remained silent.
Among developed countries, the U.S. stands out as one of the worst when it comes to paid family leave and childcare, and current proposed policies perpetuate the idea that raising children is solely the woman’s responsibility: Studies show that paid maternal and paternal leave have significant positive effects on young children’s health, fathers’ involvement and breastfeeding rates. Furthermore, research shows that paying for early childhood development leads to lower rates of high school dropouts, criminal activity, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse and other health problems, all of which create a burden on both society and U.S. taxpayers—
and regardless, I remained silent.
The much-discussed wage gap between men and women persists, due to poor enforcement of the Equal Pay Act and a misinformed belief that women’s choices and inherent child-rearing nature explain the discrepancy: Overall, women earn 80 cents for every dollar earned by men—even when controls account for the fact that men are more likely to hold higher positions (female doctors, for example, are paid about $20,000 less a year than male doctors).* Things become even more inexplicable for mothers in the workforce: Motherhood is tied to a 4% decrease in earnings per child, while fatherhood is tied to a 6% increase, according to a 2014 study. Furthermore, women are less likely to ask for high compensation and studies show they are penalized more than men for negotiating their wages—
and nevertheless, I remained silent.
What rights don’t women have? Too many, and I won’t be silent any longer.
And regardless of politics, we must address the toxic cultural environment that encourages girls from a terrifyingly young age to live by a world of destructive contradictions: Speak your mind, but don’t be too loud about it. Be intelligent, but don’t be a know-it-all. Embrace confidence, but don’t be bossy. Be friendly and open, but always be on guard. Love your body, but don’t flaunt it. Be independent, but don’t be intimidating. Seek success, but don’t overshadow others.
I rebel and reject these expectations on a deeply fundamental level. And I know it will take time, probably a longer time than I’d like, to start “walking the walk” of my endless talk.
But I resolve to be true to myself and my beliefs, even when faced with the prospect of being judged, particularly by a friend. As usual, there’s an Albus Dumbledore quote that fits perfectly here:
“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.”
I’m up for the challenge. Happy International Women’s Day.
*Huge thanks to Alia Dastagir, a media and culture writer for USA TODAY who penned this amazing article, which helped me pinpoint most of the research in this post.