I’m already equal. So why do today’s feminists keep saying I’m oppressed?

Why does advancing womankind have to mean emphasizing that we’re behind?
Why does advancing womankind have to mean emphasizing that we’re behind?
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson
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Good morning, America. All your recent talk of gender equality has only shown just how far from woke you really are. Despite best intentions, the current cultural conversation about feminism continues to perpetuate sexism.

From my perspective, I’m already equal and was born that way in 1972. No need to fight about it now. I wasn’t waiting around for anyone to wake up or make space. Instead, I crafted an adventurous, independent, and productive existence with gusto, moxie, and swashbuckle.

Men never seemed inherently better at anything but hauling hay. So I’m impatient with discussions about gender premised on the assumption that I’m struggling at an imaginary starting line. Inequalities certainly exist, but women have been getting ahead, and doing great things, for a while, in the workforce and beyond. Yet the overwhelming messaging now is that we don’t own our power unless we shout about our woes, and that strong ladies talk a lot about how bad they’ve got it.

That is one way to be a feminist, but certainly not the sole approach. Another way is to just be powerful. Advancing womankind by emphasizing that we’re behind, perpetually viewing our lives, careers, and finances as less than they might be if only we weren’t women, seems to me to do a disservice to all women, especially powerful ones.

Because I am equal, I only focus on gender inequality when others do, or are subconsciously sexist—not mutually exclusive concepts. Disconcertingly, that’s been happening a lot lately. More than ever in this time of alleged feminist awakening.

I’m not sure what all the excitement’s about right now, just that stories which seem to hearten many instead make me despair. Take the cultural embrace of #MeToo—a slogan first created for abused girls, which presumes sexual violence is a positive unifying theme for grown women. The current movement implies that women couldn’t manage our jobs, bodies, or colleagues until Twitter and feisty young ladies were finally born and grew up to save us. The cultural thirst for stories on this topic signals to women that our humiliation is fascinating—especially if it involves rich men and their perversions. All the press only titillates a society already enthralled by sex, violence, money, and power.

We’re talking about women today, yes, but the discussion is still dictated by the male gaze and patriarchal values. There’s little nuance in this conversation, or room for all the different women doing their thing, nor is there recognition of the retrograde messaging being reinforced as progress is claimed. Women must all be victims or support-warriors, singing a single jeremiad. This strengthens dated notions that we’re weak, and that we agree about what we need and want or how feminism manifests—which we don’t.

Consider the conversations about what feminist allies should do at work. Much of the advice strengthens gender stereotypes, suggesting that big men aid little women squeaking at meetings, say. Yet the female leaders and attorneys at the Palm Beach County Public Defender, where I worked, need no such assistance, given that they speak for Florida’s meanest men. Likewise, at Quartz, ladies are avowed interrupters. Incessantly repeating that women are timid and need help getting basic respect on the job confirms a false sense of male superiority and just isn’t true; how will that cultivate strong people dealing as equals? Respectful colleagues are awesome, but patronizing assists are unnecessary.

Also notable is that the societal discussion is hyper-preoccupied with money, but fails to account for complex economic realities—and the fact that money isn’t necessarily everyone’s supreme measure of worth. It’s true, statistically, there is a 20-25% gender pay gap. Still, gender isn’t always a clear number that can be plugged into abstract life math. There are lots of factors playing into our salaries apart from sexism, like our personal choices and values, along with other economic and institutional realities.

As a Gen-Xer tossed about by major economic and technological shifts, my calculations are based on changing conditions and creative ambition; I’m a poet doing deals with capitalists, not a woman getting shafted. I know that’s so because I’m also a lawyer, trained in negotiation, who’s applied that training to get indigent defendants out of severe prison sentences. In other words, I’m not a helpless female who can’t talk tough, but someone making judgments, based on my dreams and needs.

As for salaries, I’ve negotiated or taken what’s offered, depending. I’ve earned the same amount as my husband at the same jobs, made more than men with similar experience, and made less than women with far fewer credentials. Surely, if accumulating lucre compelled me, I’d have collected riches instead of education and experiences that taught me not all knowledge is best put in service of power or money.

Being a woman never seemed like a professional hazard or preoccupation before. But now I can’t ignore the inequality tsunami; and it’s clear I’m expected to be impressed by fights for rights I already have, and exercise with eyes wide open.

This approach to liberation seems backward, restrictive, and disrespectful of women who’ve been working, some with very successful careers. For example, literary powerhouse Margaret Atwood was accused in January of being a “Bad Feminist” because she joined 60 Canadian writers and academics in a 2016 letter criticizing the dismissal process of novelist and University of British Columbia professor, Steven Galloway, accused by a student of sexual abuse. Galloway claimed the relationship was consensual. But Atwood didn’t defend his actions—she criticized how the university handled the matter. This year, in January, a few people removed themselves from that list of critics, and some signed on. Atwood remained steadfast, and was accused by women of waging a war on women.

Similarly, actress Catherine Deneuve, who signed a letter with 100 French luminaries rejecting feminism which robs women of agency, was excoriated online until she apologized. It’s notable that Deneuve and Atwood, at 74 and 78 years old respectively, are not spring chickens. They actually began contributing to the culture when there were far fewer women reaching great heights, and the gender was significantly less powerful as an economic force. But their accumulated wisdom, experience, professional and, yes, monetary success isn’t enough to impress young women.

Apparently, the brave new ladies’ world will be intolerant, anti-intellectual, and ageist. I can’t wait.

Already equal

Examinations of performance reviews and personality tests show that confident, critical, independent women are considered poor communicators, disagreeable, while such men are prized visionaries. The public’s response to Atwood and Deneuve supports these findings—not even a lifetime of greatness could buy them a moment of societal reflection. It’s no wonder then that few women dare to disagree with the tenor of the cultural discussion even as our liberation is being circumscribed by good intentions, friends and allies.

But the law already recognizes my equal rights, and that’s how I live my life, so please catch up if you can. When anyone, man or woman, expects me to operate from a place of weakness, I rebel because it’s wrong and robs me of dignity. Actually, I’m strong, like my mom and all the ladies who taught me about power.

The eighth century Sufi poet Rabia al-Basri had a rough life. She was sold into slavery as a child. Yet the girl’s personal power was so overwhelming, scary even, that she was released. Freed, Rabia became a prominent mystic, worshipped in her own lifetime. As the story’s told in the classic Sufi text Conference of the Birds (pdf), the rich women of Basra marveled at her radiance in old age and Rabia explained that “dignity is the magic potion.” Nothing, not even slavery, could make Rabia unequal, a sense she cultivated with dignity.

So I resent the implication, inherent in the language of campaigns to fight for my equality, that I haven’t already got it and am losing at life. I’m not losing any more than anyone else whose existence passes with every breath. And I don’t see how gender talks that fail to acknowledge my position or my power can possibly advance my cause, which is to deal with all people respectfully, equally—as human beings rather than downtrodden slivers of identity.