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Feminism Is Not a Dirty Word

We’ve been talking about feminism for over a century, but what does it really mean?

Equal pay made headlines earlier this month when a federal court ruled in favor of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and one Texas physician. Dr. Martha Storrie was paid less than her male counterpart for the same job, in violation of the Equal Pay Act.

Equal pay continues to be a major concern among feminists the world over as women continue to earn less than 80 cents for every dollar paid to men.

At the same time, female candidates won unprecedented victories in the 2018 midterm elections. In 2019, as many as 100 women will be seated in the U.S. House of Representatives – the most ever. What contributions will this configuration make toward the struggle for equal pay and feminist issues in general?

“Women are the ones that bring up these women’s issues,” Fordham University professor Christian Greer told NBC News. “It’s important having someone at the table to say, ‘Hey, have you thought about how your policy position is going to affect other communities?’”

What is feminism?

We’ve been talking about feminism for over a century, but what does it really mean? Is it all about women burning their bras and refusing to shave? Of course not, but just what is it?

Simply put, feminism is about equality and empowerment. Just think how far we’ve come since the first so-called feminists took the stage. When the term feminism was originally coined by a French philosopher in 1837, women couldn’t vote, they couldn’t own property, and they had absolutely no control over their own bodies.

There were so many ways women were treated unequally, there was no way the first feminists could tackle them all, so they focused primarily on suffrage. Winning the vote was the first stage in liberation.

As we all know, however, letting women vote didn’t solve all their problems. Second-wave feminists pushed for even more equality. They wanted women to have the right to be their own person, regardless of their marital status of spousal support.

Second-wave feminists – those many popularly think of as bra burners of the mid-20th century – saw the advent of the birth control pill – a huge step forward for women seeking to control their own destinies. The 1963 Equal Pay Act was another momentous advance in women’s rights, although we now know it didn’t accomplish its entire goal.

Third-wave feminism, which took root beginning in the 1990s, continued to push the boundaries toward gender equality. These activists were catalyzed by Anita Hill’s moving 1991 testimony against now-Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. When the justice was confirmed despite sexual-harassment claims, women were mobilized at the polls and elected a then-record number of their feminine compatriots into political office.

“So I write this as a plea to all women, especially women of my generation: Let Thomas' confirmation serve to remind you, as it did me, that the fight is far from over,” wrote Rebecca Walker in Ms. Magazine in 1992.  “Let this dismissal of a woman's experience move you to anger. Turn that outrage into political power. Do not vote for them unless they work for us. Do not have sex with them, do not break bread with them, do not nurture them if they don't prioritize our freedom to control our bodies and our lives. I am not a post-feminism feminist. I am the Third Wave.”

Of course since 2012, we’ve witnessed the fourth wave of the feminist movement, which now includes Time’s Up, #Metoo and the previously mentioned electoral victories.

But unfortunately, many today believe there is no longer a need for the feminist movement. Legally, women have achieved equal rights, after all. Even some women think that the Equal Pay Act should have ended the battle.

“Women are presented as passive victims who are being ‘done to’ by men,” Caroline ffiske wrote for the Conservative Woman. “And the problem with positioning women as victims so relentlessly is that it harms women. Adopting a personal narrative of victimhood literally changes how we think about ourselves and changes the expectations and hopes we have for our lives.”

What ffiske writes isn’t wrong, per se, but it underestimates feminists. Continuing to strive for equality isn’t about victimhood, it’s about empowerment. It’s sad that feminism has become an ugly word to so many.

Perhaps it’s because the ongoing revolution has led to so many misconceptions, particularly men’s perceptions. For example, according to a study conducted by the Financial Times, while 70 percent of male asset managers say the situation has improved for women in fund management, only 37 percent of women felt the same.

Likewise, another study from Chuck Shelton found that 45 percent of men praised their companies’ diversity efforts, only 21 percent of women agreed.

So, what is feminism to you? I learned to be a feminist from my mother, who came of age during the tail end of the second wave. While she taught me that women can achieve anything, she also taught me that we don’t yet live in the world where we have equal opportunity. Unfortunately, to achieve equal result, women often have to work much harder to get there.

Feminist Accomplishments

Still, we’ve come a long way from the days of my grandmother’s youth, and we have feminists to thank for it. We’ve heard the tales of lack of credit and marital rape, but feminists have achieved far more. Let’s just look at a few of their accomplishments of the past 100 years:

  • Women couldn’t vote in the United States until 1920 when the 19th amendment was passed.
  • Women had no access to contraception, and married women had little control over their bodies and reproduction. Some states prohibited the use of contraception for married couples until 1965’s Griswold v Connecticut. Unmarried women didn’t earn this right nationwide until 1972’s Eisenstadt v. Baird.
  • Women could not serve on a jury until 1947’s Fay v. New York. Still, states could continue to exclude women from juries until 1975’s Taylor v. Louisianna.
  • Women were not legally entitled to pay equal to male coworkers until 1963’s Equal Pay Act.
  • Employers could refuse to hire women with young children until 1971’s Phillips v. Martin Marietta Corporation.
  • Women were not allowed to run in the Boston Marathon until 1972.
  • Women could not apply for credit until 1974’s Equal Credit Opportunity Act.
  • Women and girls were not entitled to equal educational opportunities until 1972’s landmark Title IX.
  • Housing discrimination based on gender was allowed to continue until 1974.
  • Women could be forced to take maternity leave against their will until 1974’s Cleveland Board of Education v. LaFleur.
  • Employers could discriminate against pregnant women until 1978’s Pregnancy Discrimination Act.
  • Husbands were entitled to control property owned jointly with their wives until 1981’s Kirchberg v. Feenstra.
  • The state of Mississippi didn’t ratify the 19th Amendment until 1984.
  • To claim sexual harassment, women had to prove physical or serious psychological damage until 1993’s Harris v. Forklift Systems Inc.
  • Husbands were not banned from raping their wives nationwide until 1993.
  • Women were banned from military combat until 2013.

It’s downright scary to think about how close we still are to many of these societal changes. How many millennial women realize that their own mothers didn’t have some of these rights, and their grandmothers probably had even less? It’s no wonder that so many made marriage their “career.” They weren’t allowed to do much else.

Feminism is Necessary

We’ve come a long way, but for some reason the journey toward gender equality seems to have slowed in the 21st century. Is it because we’ve accomplished all our feminist goals? Or, could the lag be related to young women who are unaware of the rights they wouldn’t have had not so long ago?

That stagnation is even turning into a backward trend in some ways. For example, while 69 percent of working-age women were employed 20 years ago, today that number has dropped to 66 percent. Such a trend only demonstrates the continued need for the feminist movement. After all, if we don’t empower each other, we can’t expect men to do it for us.

Of course, the bigger issues facing today’s feminist are sexual assault and the gender pay gap. Women still make less than men in every nation, with a worldwide average difference between men’s and women’s wages at 15 percent. In the United States, women earn only about 79 cents for every dollar earned by a man – a half century after the Equal Pay Act.

For women of color, that pay gap is even wider. Black women must work 19 moths to earn what a white man can earn in a year, and Hispanic women earn even less, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Those numbers are unlikely to improve without further pressure from feminists – both male and female. And despite what nay-sayers purport, it is possible to achieve pay equality, and it doesn’t mean giving anyone special treatment.

“Fair doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should be paid the same,” Hired senior vice-president Kelli Dragovich explained. Her company announced earlier this year that it had achieved pay equality. Hired spent more than $2 million to remove unjustifiable pay gaps.

“For example, you can have a man and woman at the same level and one can be paid more because one has more experience or is a higher performer than the other,” Dragovich continued. “But, the way in which you come to these conclusions must be transparent, objective and consistent.”

She makes an excellent point. Gender equality doesn’t mean we’re all the same. We should celebrate our sexual differences. But that doesn’t mean those differences are inequal.

Sure, we’ve come a long way, but there’s plenty of work left to do. We need feminists to continue pushing for gender equality. Feminism is not a dirty word.

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