The uncomfortable truth about women's equality in 2017
This year has been an important one in the fight for civil rights. It was the year a Women’s Equality Party ran in the UK election. It was the year that saw a female superhero film break records for being the biggest live-action hit by a female director. It was the year that we witnessed the largest women’s rights protest in history. Yet it was also the year that an American state passed a law allowing rapists to deny their victims an abortion. Fewer women directed Hollywood movies, and a president who grabs women "by the pussy" assumed office, rendering the aforementioned protest necessary in the first place.
"We’ve come so far, but still have so far to go." It’s a tired phrase that can be found in almost every feminist blog, in every book, and impassioned speech, but it somehow perfectly sums up the female fight for equality as it stands. The path ahead is longer and more exhausting than anyone can estimate. It's clearer than ever that attitudes need to be changed both within feminism and outside of it.
For 45 years now, ever since 1972, we have celebrated Women’s Equality Day on August 26. After seven decades of furious campaigning by the suffragettes, the 19th amendment finally became part of the US Constitution on August 26 1920, giving women across America the right to vote. They’d done it. After years of being tripped up and spat on for daring to act as the equals of men, they had actually got the vote.
But when leading feminists gathered around to see the 19th amendment passed, they had made a fundamental error in battling for themselves and not for all women. As brave and uncompromising as the suffragettes were, when we celebrate how hard they fought for their gender's rights we tend to ignore the awkward side of the struggle, which split women in two when they were supposed to unite as one. This is a divide that many label as racist, and as uncomfortable as it is for us to acknowledge, they’re right.
When the women's movement was just gaining steam in the United States, racial segregation was the unquestioned norm. This defining characteristic of American society was bound to seep through the cracks and leak its way into the movement. Although you'd think "women’s rights" meant exactly what it said on the tin, in many parts of the country - particularly the south - women’s rights really meant "white women’s rights."
Jad Adams, historian and author of Women and the Vote: A World History, told The Telegraph in 2015: “While women’s suffrage in the US has its roots in the anti-slavery movement prior to the 1860s, they increasingly found that having any support for black people was a drag in their campaign. White suffragettes found it would be better if they distanced themselves from black women.”
In order to attract the southern states, a lot of American suffragettes flat-out refused to include black women in their movement. Horrifyingly, they are said to have told them that if white women got the vote, this would “balance out” the fact that black men had got the vote already, countering the black voices that were heard through the voting process already.
American suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt, founder of the League of Women Voters, is known to have said: "White supremacy will be strengthened, not weakened, by women’s suffrage." This racist attitude trickled down and made toxic almost every aspect of the movement. This was made most obvious at a crucial demonstration taking place in Washington, DC in 1913, when black women were forced to stand at the back of a parade in order to appease the suffragettes from southern states. In fact, even when all women were given the vote in 1920, the discrimination against black women continued with southern states attempting to create obstacles to keep them from voting, including imposing time restrictions and stating that they had to own property.
Although in 2017, we are far beyond making black women stand at the back of the parade, it’s sometimes still a scarcely acknowledged fact that the women’s rights movement is different for different women across America. Nowadays, black women, mixed-race women, LGBT women and disabled women still have immensely different rights to the ones their white counterparts boast. This idea of intersectional feminism - the theory that today’s feminist movement is said to be in danger of losing momentum unless it acknowledges that not every feminist is white, middle class, able-bodied or cisgendered - is not an original one by any means.
Yet as much as we share articles on it on Facebook and heatedly discuss it sipping cocktails in gentrified bars, the truth of it is that the majority of us do not comprehend this yet. We still water down equality, diluting it to promote our own experiences and justify out preconceived prejudices. The truth seems to be that every woman lives in a different world of equality, and that is something that needs to be acknowledged more.
The facts speak for themselves. In 2016, US white women’s wages grew to 76 per cent of white men’s, compared to 67 percent for black women and 59 percent for Hispanic women. In education, politics, business, sport and Hollywood, they are underrepresented. And many of them have struggled with racism, discrimination and homophobia, as well as sexism, in their everyday lives.
As white women clamber up the equal rights ladder to stand next to white men, other demographics with that gender are left behind, or are actually stepped on on the way up. As a white woman, I can write about the issue until my hand bleeds, but in all honesty we have little idea what feminism means to those whose lives look different to ours.
So how do we do learn? It seems the only way we can attempt to educate ourselves is to open our eyes to how far all women have to go to reach gender equality, not just ourselves. We must attend other women’s marches, read their words and stop reacting purely when something affects us specifically. Overall, we must stop sidelining women different to us and move on from “it’s not my fault” to “what can I do to help?”
Like the suffragettes should have done, we must stop feminism from prioritising the experiences and voices of the mainstream. Because, although other women are not physically walking at the back of the parade, they’re most certainly trailing behind while we power on ahead, and it’s a painful reminder of the wearisome fight women have ahead of us before we have a Women's Equality Day where we can say that each and every one of us has the same rights as a man.