Understanding Sexism — Part 2: Power
[TW: Mentions of Sexual Assault, Violence]
“If you believe in equality, you are a feminist.” Emma Watson’s definition of feminism, and perhaps the most popular conception of the movement, is an alluring one. Maybe believing that men and women deserve equal rights is all it takes is enough. Women can be liberated if we spread the message. The reality is far less forgiving. Sexism has grown far beyond the casual bigot and the closeted misogynist. It infects every corner of our reality, tearing into the foundations of our society. An infestation this advanced does not abate so readily.
The history of sexism is a history of power imbalance. Men hold an overwhelming majority of positions of power, making up most of the population of politicians, CEOs, doctors, etc. Almost all decision making on societal, corporate, and even household level lies in the hands of men. Men have also historically disproportionately held the ability to use violence. Police and the military are also predominantly male.
The imbalance of power is maintained in a variety of ways. Women that attempt to pursue a career are shamed for doing so. Even in most urban areas, women are expected to prioritize their relationships over their careers. Defying society would rob a woman of support structures like family and friends, and reduce their ability to take risks with their careers. The myriad of social factors that selectively disadvantage women create a vicious cycle. Fewer women achieve positions of power, resulting in an increasingly unfavorable atmosphere for women to tackle, resulting in fewer women in positions of power, etc.
On a household level, narratives are particularly effective. “Women should stay at home” is a particularly popular one, compelling women to never attempt to secure positions of power. Women are taught from childhood to be subservient and respectful towards men. The result is two-fold: women are made to believe that they are simply tools in the hands of men, but more disturbingly, men believe that the masculine thing to do is to exert this power upon the women in their lives. Women are often not allowed to work to deny them the ability to remain financially independent. Money is used to maintain power relations and comprises what is increasingly being referred to as ‘financial abuse’. Arguably worse still, resistance to suppression by men at a household level is often met with violence: women make up the majority of victims of domestic violence and abuse. The sexualization of women interacts with power relations in the worst way possible: women are seen as sexual objects, and as obligated to serve the interests of men, precipitating a culture of sexual harassment and violence.
While the average person in today’s world probably supports some form of equality for women, the gender blind approach to women’s liberation is ineffective. The achievement of formal equality in the law has fallen short of being a definitive solution. A functional solution recognizes that being a woman puts you not only on the back foot to accessing equal opportunity but in being able to convert opportunities into reality. It requires a deliberate disturbance of power dynamics. Education in feminist theory is a start, but structural reform is necessary. Affirmative action is one way to get a start on resolving the power imbalance. Providing reservations, aid, and financing to women can accelerate their ascent to positions where making change is possible. Proportional representation in government, providing paid maternity and period leave, free education and healthcare, access to low-interest microfinance, gender pay legislation, all go a long way in promoting a more meaningful attempt at equality.