Why Focusing On 'Progress' Instead Of Equality Hinders Women's Rights

by Sarah Merekar

Historically, it seems we’re at a watershed moment: Women are speaking up in the workplace, holding positions of power and changing the face of the fashion industry, the arts, business and entrepreneurship (case in point: Shondaland).

But, now what?

I was recently having a conversation with someone who pointed out that women’s rights had experienced some major progress.

Formal bans on positions women could not previously hold have been lifted. A public debate continues to ensue regarding women’s wages and their positions in the workplace.

There are constant re-imaginings about the meaning and state of motherhood, and the depiction of the female body in mainstream media. There are questions about the rhetoric that follows female objectification.

There’s even a shift toward more “female-centric” porn.

So, it would seem my interlocutor would be right. Yet, as I listened and largely agreed with this observation, a part of me felt incredibly uncomfortable.

On the one hand, I wanted to acquiesce. The optimist in me, the one who understands progress is necessarily incremental and Rome wasn’t built in a day, wanted to agree.

But, it also made me uncomfortable because, arguably, the state of women has never been more dire. We cannot judge global progress based on a singular, Western notion of amelioration, no matter how significant the strides are.

Because there is also a part of me that is completely unsatisfied with the ways in which all of us, regardless of gender, are complicit in the oppression of women in large and small ways.

I say it is more dire today because there is a simmering frustration that comes from the formal impositions laws place, without addressing the interpersonal relations and behaviors that underlie an attitude of “amendments” in the first place.

The formality of adhering to these “strides” and “progress,” and introducing laws that protect women and “allow” them rights, are meaningless without a real sentiment of support.

Laws and rights do not a change in mindset make, nor do they necessarily reflect the “will of the majority.”

Formal liberalism teaches us to be “tolerant,” and it attempts to enshrine “equality” by positioning women on the same level as men. So, women get to make more; they get to occupy “positions of power” within companies, on boards and in society.

There are allowances. There are “reparations.”

But, what of the anger and resentment that is still simmering right underneath the surface? These come out in the violent and insular ways many men — and women, too — respond to women’s rights, and women gaining positions of power and senses of self-determination.

Laws and amendments can make allowances for women and can thus seem like “progress,” but I hesitate to call it progress. It is only a formal move, and it fails to address the attitude and assumptions we still have deeply etched in us, as men and women.

When intellectual females espouse a thoughtful and progressive view, naysayers comment by first attacking her looks, her weight or her body rather than her argument or her evidence.

Are you a woman? Well, then, meritocracy doesn’t apply to you.

Women are still taken as sex slaves and treated as collateral damage in the numerous wars going on past our own borders, expendable and disposable, often with fundamentalist justifications to support rape and abuse.

Progress does not look like dowry marriages and acid attacks. Less obvious and more insidious, progress does not look like death and assault threats via the Internet on the few females who are brave and tolerant and smart enough to enter and stick with the gaming industry.

It does not look like the apologies we as women make, when demonstrating and communicating our obvious excellence and success in a manner that still makes a number of men uncomfortable.

This is not true of all men and women, but these people exist.

I will problematize this for a moment. Progress on the front of women does not look like women berating men for revealing their vulnerabilities, either. It does not look like women who judge other women, with the same stifling rhetoric that once stopped them from pursuing their own dreams.

Women do this to women, and women do this to men.

Instead of a focus on progress and its definition, which can slip into an unwarranted and slightly preemptory self-congratulatory count, we need a focus on equality and its definition.

The 19th Amendment was introduced and drafted after much shaming, bloodshed, hard work, sweat, tears and toils. It was passed despite dismissal, mortal danger and a general atmosphere and attitude of sneering and hatred.

Suddenly, saying that women have the right to vote — especially when that vote was a historical afterthought, a provision, an “amendment” — seems to debunk the whole movement. It does not reduce the collective efforts of female suffragettes in the least, but rather, it seems to tell us that the presence of the fight in itself signals how much work we have left to do.

Looking to Scandinavian countries gives us a good example of what to aspire toward. The law wielded in these socialist countries address both male and female a priori, rather than positioning the rights and statuses of women as “amendments,” which essentially place the female gender as a secondary consideration.

For example, bylaws on maternity periods are usually left up to individual companies, but minimum imposed limits are denoted in the country’s laws, which specifies the appropriate amount of time for both men and women.

What does this do? Several things. By taking as fact that both genders will be actively involved in the first years of their child’s life, it puts women on the same stage as men (and vice versa) right from the outset. It implicitly tells citizens that child-rearing is an equal endeavor, and any “allowances” are not gender specific, only citizen-specific.

It’s not only the law, nor only the economy, acting and enacting reform within its particular context that will deliver us from celebrating “progress,” and instead refocusing us on “equality.” Rather, it is in conjunction with the various currents that run cross-wire in our society that help us to address the question of female equality. This way, it’s not a question any longer; it’s a given.

This is the point where I will celebrate progress as progress, not as “allowances,” “amendments,” “reparations” or any other device given to us to appease us for now. It’s not ungrateful to recognize how far we’ve come, if we’ve clearly got a ways to go. It’s called being grateful for where you are, but not grateful with what you’ve got.

Equality, a priori, is never something given to the individual, whether male or female. It is something each and every single one of us is born with. We have sovereignty over our own domains, be it our bodies, our lives, our deaths and all the moments that span between those two instances.

Somehow, though the history of living, we seem to have forgotten this important fact: Once, we were all free.

So, instead of moving toward equality, let’s return to it. Let us understand we are returning the individual to himself and herself, instead of living in a state where the notions of others (whether collectively built or externally imposed) are the prime frameworks within which we understand ourselves.

Let’s say, women lost the vote, and we have regained it. Now, it’s time to return to our definitions of equality and progress.