The shocking contempt for women's rights [The reply]
How far have American women come since winning the right to vote in 1920? Eve Weinbaum and Rachel Roth addressed this question in an Aug. 26 Op-Ed, “Beyond suffrage,” bringing up issues that elicited backlash on our discussion board. Surprised by the reaction -- in, ahem, 2011 -- they offer this reply.
When we wrote "Beyond suffrage," we didn't think it was particularly controversial. Our contribution was to point out that 91 years ago Crystal Eastman laid out an agenda for change that can still guide women and men working for equal rights today. We argued that women deserve equal pay for equal work, that the ability to decide whether and when to become parents is central to "freedom," and that all forms of discrimination in the workplace and the public sphere should be challenged and dismantled.
One reader commented that "the entire feminist movement could have been more successful if it were more inclusive of all women of color," and we agree. As we point out in the article, women of color have to confront racism as well as sexism on the job, and women of color are more likely to be unemployed or to hold low-paying jobs that place them at a disadvantage in exercising their "rights," including rights to reproductive freedom.
Crystal Eastman was a founding editor and writer for the Liberator, a journal founded on Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1918 that borrowed its name from William Lloyd Garrison's famous abolitionist newspaper. As one of its founding principles, the Liberator vowed to "assert the social and political equality of the black and white races, oppose every kind of racial discrimination, and conduct a remorseless publicity campaign against lynch[ing]." Eastman and her contemporaries knew that the issues of gender, race, class/labor and war/peace were part of the same struggle. The mainstream feminist movement today could do a much better job welcoming leadership by women of color.
There is a lot of misunderstanding about the meaning of equal pay. A number of commenters argued that women "choose" jobs that pay less, while men take positions that are "more time consuming or more strenuous or dangerous."
Stilt21 speculated that "were the jobs compared on an equal basis, the 'gap' would mostly or completely disappear. Does one believe that the women who head industries are paid less than their male counterparts?"
In fact, Stilt21 is wrong on both counts. Research by Cornell economist Francine Blau shows that even when we take into account all individual differences, including skills and educational attainment, women still earn only 81% of what a man with the same skills and educational attainment would earn -- significantly less if we look specifically at women of color.
Surveys show that women would prefer to work in male-dominated fields in order to earn better wages, yet discrimination still prevents entry into those positions. Women who succeed in male-dominated fields still earn considerably less than men. Women truck drivers, for example, earn about 76% the wages of male truck drivers. As for "women who head industries," in 2011, out of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, only 12 are women; of the top 100 companies, only six are run by women. The pay gap for female CEOs is much worse than for wage-earning women overall. The highest-paid women earn only about 20% of the salaries of their male counterparts. The gender gap at the very top is huge and constant.
Beyond these arguments, we were stunned by the vitriolic language from most of the commenters. Their posts seem to fit into a few major categories:
1. Women do not deserve equal rights. Roneida said simply, "If the Creator had wanted women to be equal to men, he would have made them the same." Several readers argued that women's natural role is to take care of children, and that women should embrace their "difference." On the other hand, one argued that "low-income/low-intelligence women have used welfare in the past as a 'gravy train' as they bear more and more children." These readers seem to argue that white, middle-class women should have children because it's their "nature," while lower-income women and women of color should do the opposite. One post says, "I'd suggest paying women of color $100,000 in exchange for becoming infertile."
2. It's women's own fault that they are not treated equally. EdmundSingleton objects to women on television with "streaking dyed hair, greasy lips, piles of eye make-up, in what can only be called the new clownish look." Others argue that women have all the choices they need: "Ladies, if you want to make as much as men, you have a few options. Don't have children. If you do have children, find an employer that offers appropriate childcare...YOU choose whether or not to have children, YOU choose who your partner is, YOU choose how far to go in your career." What these readers are missing is an understanding of structural change, instead focusing everything on individuals' need to change themselves.
3. Women are bad, and women of color and Jewish women are worse. One reader objects to two Jewish women writing this piece, and another rails against "Jew broads" in the Senate and on the Supreme Court, along with "an illiterate Rican chick." Obviously we find these sentiments abhorrent, but it is important not to ignore the fact that they persist.
4. Women should quit whining. One says, "Cries of 'gender discrimination' are just ways to explain away one's personal shortcomings." As touchdowntony said: "The women's movement has done more than any other ideology to bring on the destruction of the family unit...Feminism has brought about the distenigration (sic) of a society." Lillyloo2you says, "We have come a long way so quit whining." And thanks to garryowen for this: "Blah, blah, blah. Women are their own worst enemy." Many of the comments were personal (though none of the commenters knows anything about either author). For example, one reader wrote, "Judging by your writing, you're most likely to be an unmarried, obese, lonely cat lady." Others commented: "Just because you're emotionally insecure in this big scary world, funding your life with a second rate job, doesn't mean other women are just like you," and "your whining duet makes me sick." "You wanted equality, you got it, so stop crying poor pitiful me."
After more than 55 readers had posted responses to our piece, one asked, "Why do I get the feeling of hatred in so many of the comments?" I can only speculate that we hit a nerve among readers of the Los Angeles Times, especially among men. As one of them says, "You are not the center of the universe." Another complains, "I's all about how we can better the lot of females, and females only." Although none of them frames it in this way, these readers seem to be intent on holding onto male privilege -- and white privilege -- in any way possible. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they maintain that no changes are necessary -- in politics, in the home, in the workplace or in the economy. Perhaps Eastman's call to "arrange the world" to allow for real freedom is still too threatening.
--Eve Weinbaum and Rachel Roth
Photo: An estimated 10,000 marchers descend on the Capitol building in Springfield, Ill., to demonstrate for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in May 1976. Credit: Associated Press