Equal but different: what the UN and feminism still don’t get

Cross-posted from MercatorNet on the occasion of the 39th International Women’s Day, last Friday the 7th of March 

This Friday sees the 39th International Women’s Day (IWD), a mandatory celebration for all member states of the United Nations following a resolution passed by the General Assembly in 1977.

The theme, “Equality for women is progress for all”, is little more than a pleasing soundbite unless one is prepared to fully unpick the notion of equality. Indeed, the entire day has the ring of self-congratulatory vacuity, the UN doing little more than paying lip-service to the notion of women’s rights, and genuflecting before the altar of populist Western feminism, albeit in style. The official observation takes the form of an hour-long event at the UN’s New York headquarters, with statements from General Secretary Ban Ki-Moon, General Assembly President John Ashe and other prestigious international figures, including Hilary Clinton.

The IWD website disappointingly, though perhaps predictably, taps into the zeitgeist of Western feminism by representing women’s equality as solely concerned with the right of women to access the workplace and receive the same pay as men. While no-one will dispute that these are rights, what is often overlooked, and even deliberately denied in debates surrounding female equality, are the biological realities which distinguish female from male.

Too often the rush to smash glass ceilings leads to treating children as a hindrance to career success, treating them as a burden for which expedient solutions must be found, such as cheap accessible childcare. Motherhood is never treated as a joy, fulfilling in and of itself, but merely an optional extra or by-product of femininity.

Both the UN and International Women’s Day falls into the familiar and frustrating trap of defining female equality as sameness. According to popular wisdom, unless women are in the workplace, including in prominent positions in the same proportion as men, they may never be deemed to have achieved true freedom or equality.

Equality of outcome, unlike equality of opportunity, is always an impossible ideal, which is why the preoccupation with career success undermines the feminist movement. Femininity is inevitably linked with motherhood, the ability to conceive and give birth to children – whether one does so or not. Yet the typical blurb for IWD barely mentions this existential reality (“women can work and have a family”), instead, highlighting superficial indicators of progress such as female astronauts and prime ministers.

Just as it is impossible to guarantee the right of every woman to bear a child or measure her success purely in terms of motherhood, it is equally erroneous to apply this reasoning in the field of career achievements. Not every woman will be able to become a mother, and neither will they be willing or able to reach an executive position on the board of a major company or become a major political leader, let alone travel to the international space station. If men are better represented in the professional sphere it is a natural consequence of the biological reality that makes it impossible for them to bear children.

The ability to procreate is the thread winding through every woman’s life, and whether or not a woman has children will define her life’s trajectory. Yet these concerns are disregarded in favour of more material markers of outward success. Worryingly, far more pressing issues such as access to education and healthcare, and violence perpetrated against women, rank below those of female representation in the workplace in the UN’s list of challenges.

Little girls may certainly dream of being an astronaut or prime minister, but they are both career fields in which it is, arguably, impossible to have it all. The demands of such work are hardly compatible with nurturing young children, unless one’s husband plays the role of mother or one is able to afford full-time childcare. In either case a woman has to sacrifice the opportunity of hands-on child-rearing.

Most women are far more concerned with keeping the floor under their feet than smashing glass ceilings, the latter being predominantly the concern of a tiny minority of western middle-class women. The UK seems to be leading the field when it comes to media feminism — it’s notable that the greatest number of IWD events are taking place here — and yet a recent study has reported that middle-class British women are leaving the workplace in droves. Far from this being an economic decision, most respondents stated that money was not a factor; they simply preferred not to pay a stranger to bring up their child.

Gendercide, the greatest threat to the existence of women, does not even merit a mention in official IWD material. One history of the day notes approvingly that China — the country which is facing a severe economic and social crisis due to an imbalance of men and women caused by their one-child policy — celebrates IWD as an official holiday for women. The treatment of women in China, where forced abortion and sterilisation is commonplace, along with the routine infanticide of baby girls, should be top of the UN’s agenda. It is shameful of the international body to remain silent about the fact that couples in China do not have the freedom to determine their own family size, and that consequently the simple fact of being a girl can be a death sentence.

The same could be said of India, another country in which gendercide is widespread. Levels of violence against women are endemic thanks to the dowry system and corrupt officials who turn a blind eye to flagrant breaches of the laws surrounding gender selection.

According to the UN’s own statistics there are as many as 200 million missing girls thanks to gendercide. The problem is not solely confined to these two countries either. Recent studies have indicated that Asian immigrant communities have similar sex at birth ratios as their home nations, indicating that Western authorities are turning a blind eye to the practice of gender selection. A recent analysis of UK birth statistics indicated that as many as 4,700 girls could be missing, however the UK government refuses to prosecute abortion clinics who have been caught in the act of breaking the law or to tighten up the laws surrounding abortion in order to prevent such abuses.

IWD could be a rallying point to mobilise millions of people to demand accountability from governments who are party to the abhorrent practice of gendercide, but using the UN’s own words, due to perceived improvements in the struggle for equality “the tone and nature of IWD has, for the past few years, moved from being a reminder about the negatives to a celebration of the positives”.

The outspoken feminist, Camille Paglia, who has made a career out of transgressing social and cultural gender norms, admitted in a recent interview that women and girls are being let down by a relentless focus upon defining themselves by their careers. Children, she argues, must be asked to think about what they want in their lives, from a very young age and flexible structures must be developed to allow women to have children earlier than is generally believed to be culturally acceptable, such as when they are at university. “Women are being told ‘you are future leaders’. Meanwhile, we are more than our jobs. What’s being imposed upon women is a male model of professional study and achievement.”

Despite the acres of column inches and bandwidth devoted to Western feminism, it is to all intents and purposes dead as movement, out of touch with the lives and challenges of ordinary women and seemingly intent on devouring itself with unedifying public spats about esoteric and academic concepts of ‘intersectionality’ or gender stereotyping which bear no relevance to the mother struggling to put food on the table for her child and balance her family budget, let alone the women facing death and sexual violence on a daily basis.

Is this really the model the UN wants to celebrate and export on March 7? Equality for women can only be progress for all, when it includes the most basic right to life for all women and accepts the freedom to embrace motherhood as a life-affirming choice, even if that does entail a rejection of career related pursuits.

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