n an ideal (and seemingly impossible) world, feminism, like many other isms, would be unnecessary. It’d be about as useful as “political correctness”. If we’re to assume that an ideal world is an egalitarian one and everyone is in on it; if we’re all buying into it at once so that there’s no ambiguity, and everyone’s judging his or her fellow man or woman—and everything in between—truly on the basis of character and not color or creed or sexual preference or what have you; a word like “nigger”, for instance, would have about as much meaning as the word “nigga”. In this utopia, a word of Greek origin translating to “no place”, one could call any gay man a faggot (and in this world, every gay man would be out, for the closet would be a useless place) and he’d probably just smile at you—especially if you’re cute. You could refer to women as bitches with impunity because hey, in this world, there’s no sexism! There’s no misogyny!
Alas, in our real world with all its inconvenient truths and all its corrosive ignorance; where we defensively and opportunistically mince words and hide what we truly feel, how we truly judge one another (unless you’re a white Floridian with a firearm, in which case you can apparently express yourself however the hell you want); there is racism, there is homophobia, and there is misogyny. There is sexism, sexual misunderstanding, sexual stereotyping, sexual discrimination, sexual patronization, sexual paternalism, and finally, sexual violence. Isms don’t exist without cause, and feminism (regardless of how confused it may be in its current state) is no different—I just listed seven of them, and I don’t think we can go a single news cycle without an instance of at least one of these. The inferiorization of women is a reality—perhaps not a permanent reality (hopefully), but nevertheless a long-standing and fiercely present reality.
If there were no such inferiorization, there wouldn’t be this extraordinarily widespread, almost intentional and coordinated effort on the part of conservatives to belittle and alienate the whole female half of the country; they wouldn’t be embracing the Todd Akin, Tea Party-accredited, School of Sex (Shaming) Education, or endorsing Mike Huckabee’s notion that women “can’t control their libido” and are “helpless without Uncle Sugar coming in and providing them a prescription each month for birth control.” And perhaps then, they wouldn’t be watching women vote democrat in droves. They wouldn’t be denouncing Wendy Davis as the “Abortion Barbie”. They wouldn’t be trying to discredit Hillary Clinton, who’s yet to even formally announce her candidacy, by smearing her with talk of, not hers, but her husband’s transgressions as if they’d been her own—while at the same time giving clowns like Mark Sanford a free pass (not to mention a seat in Congress) in spite of actually being a terrible husband himself.
And speaking of Hillary, if there were no such inferiorization, Jill Lepore would be simply trumpeting Hillary as a stateswoman qualified for the highest office (which she is)—rather than all but demanding she be handed the presidency because it would cap the legacy of generations of women who’ve fought for equal rights, recognition, and respect. But that’s what Lepore has done for The New Yorker recently; her talk of Victoria Woodhull, Seneca Falls, suffrage, the Nineteenth Amendment, conservative sexism, and the remarkability of a woman president, she all but says a President Rodham would be a proud “up yours” to all the men who’ve ever belittled women. If there were no inferiorization, an recent Atlantic essay on the antics of elitist, crybaby frat boys would have been limited to the discussion of binge drinking, excessive paddling, and falling from frat house roofs and windows—except it isn’t, because sexual assault and rape within the largely unregulated walls of their largely untouchable organizations is a very recurrent and very real problem. The New Republic wouldn’t have so recently reported on the rampant rape and rape culture pervading the ever preppy, ever prude, ever comically Christian (and supposedly wholesome) Patrick Henry College—“God’s Harvard” as it’s been called; they wouldn’t be making so great a fuss over Sandra Corbitt, the institution’s dean of student life with a history of faulting, blaming, and shaming female students for whatever sexual assaults had wrested them out of their silence to even approach her with such sensitive, personal, and painful confessions in the first place—“against every instinct of privacy and self-reliance” they had, to quote The Departed. (Apparently, this Corbitt is guilty of having told a student—who’d admitted to having been raped in and out of consciousness—“God would have kept you conscious to bear witness to the abuse against you.”) The Times wouldn’t have so recently published an article about the Obama administration urging colleges and universities to curb campus rape with bystander intervention programs (probably because few institutions of higher learning are that much better at dealing with sexual violence complaints than dangerously private institutions like Patrick Henry College—one of four schools in the US not subject to the Clery Act, Title IX, or the Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act); and that’s literally on top of another embarrassing article in the same issue about organizations trying to make consent “cool” and “sexy”. Consent! It’s seriously gotten so bad that grown men actually need to be reminded that no means no—so bad that even the basic act of seeking permission from the penetratee needs to be branded and meme-orized in order for it to be absorbed and accepted. We’ve turned “consent” into a hashtag so that it finally means something to us, which, if you think about it, is incredibly shameful for a developed nation with Enlightenment roots.
If there were no such inferiorization, Kate Otto, the founder-director of Everyday Ambassador, as well as my friend and mentor (and boss), wouldn’t be blogging in the wake of this year’s International Women’s Day as if people in general were completely unaware of an “International Women’s Day” (March 8, for those who don’t know, and frankly anyone who insists on subscribing to the myth of “common sense” shouldn’t be surprised by its existence since seemingly everything nowadays has a day of observance). “In many ways,” she writes, “this past year has shown evidence of a progressive, successful movement for gender equality”; but after citing the Girl Rising documentary and the likes of Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg and her (needlessly) controversial book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, and the young and brave education activist Malala Yousafzai of Pakistan—the youngest Peace Prize nominee in the history of the Nobelpriset—as evidence of this apparent progression, Kate tempers any optimism with the citation of a Center for American Progress (CAP) report that tells a completely different, sobering story. Written by author Judith Warner and published just a day ahead of IWD, the report highlights America’s conspicuous “women’s leadership gap” with the help of a long list of fresh statistics that all say the same thing: women make up just over half the population, holding almost fifty-two percent of all professional-level jobs and procuring sixty percent of all undergraduate and master’s degrees, yet for instance they only account for 14.6 percent of executive officers, 8.1 percent of top earners, 4.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs, and just 16.9 percent of Fortune 500 board seats. (I won’t get to say a thing about sexual inferiorization in Hollywood, or in sports, or in the armed forces, but hopefully just mentioning that will give you a sense for how pervasive the problem is; in truth, I haven’t even scratched the surface of it happening in the business world as per Warner’s report.)
It gets even worse. Four days before the publication of the CAP report, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights happened to publish the results of a survey on violence against women—results that point to a surprisingly “dismal” record on gender in Europe, as the New York Times perfectly puts it. One in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence since she was fifteen years old, and twenty-two percent of women who’ve had intimate partners have experienced physical and/or sexual violence at their hands since the age of fifteen. Forty-three percent of women have experienced some form of psychological violence by an intimate partner, and the common forms of psychologically abusive behavior observed includes public humiliation and threats of physical violence; and of those women who have experienced four or more forms of psychological violence (seven percent), most of them have been subjected to other forms of violence, physical and/or sexual. Anywhere between forty-five and fifty-five percent of women have been sexually harassed at least once since the age of fifteen (and having already brought up American women in their workplaces, it’s worth noting that in this survey, one-third of these sexually harassed European women claimed to have experienced their harassment in their workplaces—by a colleague, boss, or customer; we’re supposed to laugh, by the way, at a fictional instance of this in the first season of the original, UK production of The Office when a female corporate executive is subjected to sexist insubordination by a male warehouse worker). And as for young girls, one in three women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence by an adult before the age of fifteen (twelve percent being strictly sexual; as an aside, it’s worth noting that a common theme throughout the entire report is the underreporting of all these abuses).
That last percentage amounts to about sixty-one million women in the European Union. The European Union, mind you—this survey says nothing of the misery of women in all the nations of the Eastern world, or of the African continent. Or of the Americas. It speaks to just one significant yet minor chunk of a foundational global human rights problem. Kate alludes to this in her reference to Girl Rising, reminding us of the fact that eighty percent of human trafficking victims are girls; that there are thirty-three million fewer girls than boys in primary school; that nearly fourteen million girls under eighteen will be married this year. That’s thirty-eight thousand girls a day—thirteen girls in about the time it took you to read to this point from the start of this paragraph. (I remember this mildly yet palpably uncomfortable moment during a showing of The Book of Mormon when the one half of the audience that wasn’t laughing was instead murmuring—groaning, even—in response to a depraved Ugandan villager who threatens to “fuck a baby” to cure himself of AIDS. This chilliness no doubt stems from the fact that the “virgin cure myth” continues to result in the real rapes of hundreds if not thousands of extraordinarily young, real African girls, not to mention the continuing prevalence of AIDS. It stems from the fact that the rape of infants in Africa, due to this primitive, 16th century belief, is actually a documented crime.)
Honestly, even if people were truly aware of IWD, if these reports and their findings are any indication, people in general don’t seem all that interested. The only people who’re at all interested are feminists and de facto feminists—people who may not readily identify as feminists but end up sounding like them anyway because they’re decent, reasonable, and empathetic (they simply care about human rights—more on that in a moment). Quite logically, the feminist wouldn’t exist if he or she didn’t need to. Something as feminist as an “International Women’s Day” wouldn’t exist if it didn’t need to. The universe has an ironic and poetic way of sewing our problems and the solutions to our problems in the same cloth; our inconveniences and purposes, our causes and effects, are buried as one seed in one mound. If anyone questions the necessity of European feminism, for instance, he or she can find sixty-one million answers. It’s as simple as that. And if that isn’t enough for this person, there are plenty of others to talk to. Talk to any number of teenage girls in the US who’ve gone to parties, made the mistake of drinking too much (a mistake almost everybody makes), and found out in the days after waking up that she’d been gang-raped by multiple young men. And speaking of gang rape, talk to the Swiss woman who was similarly though more violently besmirched on a visit to India. Talk to the woman who was jailed on her visit to Dubai for reporting her own sexual assault. Talk to a former child sex worker in the Philippines. Talk to one of the girls in Afghanistan who’ve tasted battery acid for simply going to school. And since we’re now on the topic of Islamism, see if you can manage to talk to the next alleged adulterer in Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Iran, or Mali, or Pakistan, or Sudan, or Somalia before she’s stoned to death—because stoning didn’t just happen back in the early days six thousand years ago (that’s sarcasm); it still happens today, judicially and extrajudicially.
The impetus for feminism in all its waves is very real—and someone’s to blame for it.