What Is Gender Equality?

Remarks for a Roundtable at the International Symposium on Education and Gender Equality,Wellesley College, October 20, 2017

What a large task we have been set, to attempt to answer the question: What is Gender Equality?

Let me begin with some hot-off-the-presses data.

The nonpartisan, highly respected Pew Research Center just released some data from a September survey of public opinion on gender equality. They found that 50% of Americans think we haven’t gone far enough in giving women equal rights with men. 39% think we’re about at the right place. And 10% think we have gone too far.

Let’s break that down a little, and just look at people who think we haven’t gone far enough. You won’t be surprised at the gender differences. 57% of women think we haven’t gone far enough and 42% of men think we haven’t gone far enough. And our partisan differences are substantial: sixty-nine percent of Democrats think we have not gone far enough toward gender equality while 26% of Republicans think we haven’t gone far enough. And get this: 18% of Republicans think we have gone too far. This is a large partisan divide. Education also has a bearing on this question. Fifty-five percent of people with a high school degree or less think the equality for women has not gone far enough, compared with 81% of college-educated people.

Pew looked at the question of gender equality another way, and asked people whether they thought men or women have it easier these days. Thirty-five percent thought that men have it easier, 9% thought women have it easier, and 56% thought there’s no difference between women and men. Once again, we see big gender and partisan divides. Forty-one percent of women and 28% of men think that men have it easier. Forty-nine percent of Democrats and 19% of Republicans think men have it easier. Again, education makes a difference: 27% of people with a high school education or less think men have it easier these days compared with 69% of people with at least a college education.

Among people who say men have it easier, most say the reason is they have better job opportunities and better pay. Among the minority who think women have it easier, the largest group thinks women have more job opportunities.

Pew also studied people’s views of the consequences of changes in gender roles whereby women now are employed and men are more involved in domestic roles. Democrats are more likely than Republicans to think that as a result of changing gender roles, women are leading more satisfying lives, men are leading more satisfying lives, marriages are more successful, its easier for parents to raise children, and easier for families to earn enough money to live comfortably.

These figures, of course, tell us more about people’s perceptions of how much gender equality we have in this country, and it tells us something else we have been suspecting: assessments of the state of gender equality are more driven by partisanship now than before. But in the U.S. today, it seems most things are more driven by partisanship than in the past.

But this actually doesn’t help us a lot with the question of what is gender equality, although we did see that people’s minds turn more to employment and pay equality than anything else when they assess gender equality.

But our task here is presumably to lay some groundwork for our discussions over the next day or so in our basic definitions. To offer some insights on this matter, I will turn to the history of feminist theory over the past couple of century, the history of writers who identified a serious problem for women, tried to figure out its nature, and posed possible solutions.

I have the great privilege and fun of teaching a course on historical traditions of feminist theory before the new women’s movement. By “historical traditions” I mean that we study theorists addressing the problem of women and gender in the context of, and in dialogue with larger frameworks of social theory – for example, liberal and enlightenment theory, romanticism, socialism, anarchism, science frameworks such as evolutionary theory and psychoanalysis, race theory, and eventually, existentialism. Essentially we begin with Mary Wollstonecraft and end with Simone de Beauvoir. With one exception: we have a final week in which I pick a small selection of theory writings from the contemporary movement that I believe really added some departures, new turns, from what went before.

As my students and I have explored these texts over time we have been struck my some important commonalities that we find threaded through these texts, even if in the context of very different problems and historical eras, and using very different language.

Certainly, we see in them increasing calls for men and women to have the same access to education and to employment and the same compensation. We see demands for property rights to be undifferentiated by gender and marital status, at least among those who believe in property. We see increasing demands for women to have control over their own bodies, whether in the sense of being free from gender-based violence, free to control their reproduction, and even by the late 19thcentury, a recognition of the need to restructure social institutions and social labor so that the care of children is not assigned to women in a way that restricts all other aspects of their lives in a way that is not true for men. We see in these writers a call for cognitive, intellectual, and emotional freedom for women that goes well beyond institutional notions of equal education, but embraces, in the words of one feminist theorist after another, the freedom from having their minds and hearts enslaved by the strictures of gender inequality. Feminist theorist after feminist theorist from the 18th century on discussed the specificities of gender that mean that to understand women and gender requires also understanding the specificities of such other social markers as race and class. No, within the history of feminist theory, the relationships of gender, race and class – what people now inelegantly call intersectionality – were not discovered for the first time in the late 20th century. But they have been amplified and enriched.

But there is something else we find in the historical conversation of feminist theory that we encounter again and again over the more than 2 past centuries. And that is that when examined closely through a lens of aspiration for freedom, gender as a significant distinction between man and woman or male and female begins to fade, or morph, or take on a fluid and shape-changing, contextually-driven character. Read Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 work carefully – nowhere does she, can she define virtue, morals, character – any of it – in gendered terms. For her, much of what we see as masculinity and femininity is performance, and not good performance. Margaret Fuller, the great Transcendentalist feminist theorist, blurs what she calls the “great dualism” into a moving, shifting, fluid. Antoinette Brown Blackwell and Charlotte Perkins Gilman in a different ways think about evolution to release the strictures of how we have understood male and female, masculine and feminine. And so on. Until we get to Simone de Beauvoir, who opened her famous tome on this matter with the odd question: Y a-t-il même des femmes? Are there really women?

For some time, feminist scholars clarified their subject by saying that sex refers to biology, gender to social structure, culture, performance, and sexuality – somewhere in there.

Today, that stream of theory from Wollstonecraft to de Beauvoir seems even more important, and we lose all certainty about boundaries of gender or sexuality. Gender equality seems ever more to require that we not have certainties about boundaries of gender or sexuality, and that, of course, is what appalls, frightens, and angers the enemies of further equality, especially those who think it has already gone too far. This is not to say that there are no men or women. The answer to de Beauvoir’s question, are there really women should perhaps be: sure – why not? Whatever. But that can’t happen until we stop distributing valuable resources like health, safety, security, and the ability to aspire and dream by gender.