Symbols Only Take You So Far
This post is a part of the “Out of the Kitchen” weekly column in which various news and pop culture items will be examined through a feminist lens.
This past Friday was Women’s Equality Day. According to the National Women’s History Project, this day “was selected to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, granting women the right to vote. This was the culmination of a massive, peaceful civil rights movement by women that had its formal beginnings in 1848 at the world’s first women’s rights convention, in Seneca Falls, New York.”
Awesome, right? You’d think a feminist would be ecstatic about that! Well, yes and no.
While not an official “holiday,” each year the president is “authorized and requested to issue a proclamation” on this date in honor of the 19th amendment. So when the President made his declaration on Friday, one of my coworkers announced, “Thank you, Mr. Obama!”
I couldn’t stop myself. In my typical cynical nature, I blurted out, “Yeah! Don’t worry about an actual law ensured to protect the equality of women. A symbolic gesture will do!” (Debbie Downer, huh?) But there was truth in my sarcastic joke. Despite repeated attempts to pass the Equal Rights Amendment for nearly 90 years, the fact of the matter is that there is still no national guarantee of equality of the genders.
The need for actual legislation is highlighted by the frustrating truths of the state of women in the United States. The Huffington Post’s Allison Gaudet Yarrow asked, “How much has Obama really done for women?” and her results are certainly mixed. While it is laudable that birth control is now covered by health plans and we have three women sitting on the Supreme Court, “only 17 women serve our country as senators currently, and women make up just 17% percent of congress as a whole…” And of course, the wage gap is ever-present. “Women still earn, on average, 77 cents for every dollar men do, according to the National Women’s Law Center, which amounts to about $11,000 each year for the average working woman.” And mistake me not, the problem isn’t just the Obama presidency. He’s done more for women than other leaders. Rather, sexism is endemic to our systems.
In the face of these undeniable issues, it can be really easy to become jaded. In this respect, symbols, like Women’s Equality Day, serve a purpose. They can raise spirits and draw attention to the accomplishments of feminism.
However, where real change is made is not in the observance of these symbols. Rather, it takes legitimate action, like the Seneca Falls Convention or the reproductive rights movement. While recent years have seen some significant grassroots action (like Slut Walk) widespread feminist activism seems much more quiet. Hopefully this does not reflect a complacency of my generation, but rather the calm before the storm.
See, I can be optimistic after all.