I love debate. I love hearing other people’s viewpoints, ideas and beliefs. It expands my knowledge of the world, as well as increases my ability to think critically about my own beliefs. However, a recent debate about feminism specifically got me thinking about what it is actually like to debate as a feminist.
As soon as I make it known that I am a feminist, I am almost immediately hit with a barrage of statements against feminism. These vary from, “Feminism is just man-hating,” “well, I’m actually a meninist,” or, my personal favorite, “The wage gap doesn’t exist, therefore feminism is full of crap.” (Clearly, I’m paraphrasing here). The fact is, feminism carries a bad rap. Some argue that the movement should not even exist. In the majority of my experiences, the people arguing this have been white cisgender males. Let me tell you why this is extremely problematic.
Feminism exists because, in our current state of affairs, gender equality simply does not exist. This is indisputable. Currently, we have more women heading to college than men, which is a significant change from even a decade ago. However, globally, women are much more likely to be illiterate; worldwide, 75% of the more than 855 million illiterate adults are women. This is often attributed to the fact that some cultures do not believe in the importance of educating women. Another example of how gender inequality is still rampant is that primary responsibility for child care, domestic work and caring for elders still falls on women. While women should be able to choose if that is something they want to do or not, the point of feminism is giving women the choice. If the pervasive cultural attitude is that housework and childcare are female jobs, it prevents women from having the choice to fulfill those roles or not fulfill those roles.
An argument commonly used against feminists is that we promote lies. The most common one referenced is the wage gap. I’ve encountered many men, and some women, who claim that feminists have “made up” the wage gap to bolster their “man-hating regime.” While the wage gap may not be as wide as it used to be- a common number referenced is 78 cents- it is still an issue. Pew Research estimates that women earn 84% of what men earn. Based on their estimate, women would have to work a year and 40 days to earn what a man earns in a single calendar year. There is validity to the argument that perhaps this wage gap stems from what jobs women are choosing compared to the jobs men choose. However, this is also an example of gender inequality in the workforce. Women are the members of society who get pregnant. Because it is not yet required by law to provide paid maternity leave, women are often forced, out of necessity, to take jobs with fewer working hours or not work at all in order to care for the children. Even if the male in the relationship is willing to care for the children, the woman still has to take time off to have the child, as many places of business have rules about how far along a woman can be in her pregnancy before she has to stop working. Without paid maternity leave, their jobs might not be waiting for them when they come back. This job insecurity often contributes to women’s job choices.
The problem extends even further back than that. It is physically impossible for a male to get pregnant. So, if a teenage girl gets pregnant, the male has no obligation to provide for her or the child. The woman is the one that suffers, as more than 50% of teen mothers never graduate from high school. Furthermore, less than 2% of teen moms earn a college degree by age 30. This lack of education severely affects the job opportunities available to the mother and the money she can make. Individuals who do not have a high school degree make approximately $19,000 a year. Raising a child from birth to the age of $18 costs $245,340, so per year, it costs $13,630. That leaves a young mother with very few job prospects, a child to raise, and only $5,370 to pay taxes, groceries, bills and any other expenses. The wage gap exists because there are indisputable facts about each gender that change the opportunities available to them. Obviously, there are multiple factors that also play into pay differences, but the fact is being a woman often gives you a disadvantage, simply because you are biologically capable of getting pregnant.
The fact is, while feminism has moved gender equality forward leaps and bounds, we have in no way achieved gender equality. The concept of privilege exists because certain people are afforded with positive beliefs about them, simply because of their innate characteristics. Who has the most privilege in society? White cisgender males. As the most privileged, they cannot comprehend the social inequalities in the way that people actually experiencing them would. This is not to say that they can’t be understanding, or can’t be helpful in changing the status quo, but they do not have the right to deny the existence of gender inequality as they have never been the victims of a system that oppresses women. If you are in a position of privilege, you do not have to feel guilty for the privilege that society affords you. You have an obligation to educate yourself and others about social inequality, and fight to end it.