Peggy Drexler: It's easy to blame the patriarchy for a society that remains far more favorable to men
But a significant part of that patriarchy is made up of, and encouraged by, women, writes Drexler
Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is an assistant professor of psychology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University and a former gender scholar at Stanford University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
Organizers of the Women’s March on Washington carried out their supported action — a day, in fact, of nonaction — this week. The “Day Without a Woman” was an international strike on March 8, a one-day “demonstration of economic solidarity” in which women and their allies refrain from paid and unpaid work. They also vowed to buy nothing (unless it’s from small, female- and minority-owned businesses) and to wear red as a show of collective strength.
“March 8 will be the beginning of a new international feminist movement that organizes resistance not just against Trump and his misogynist policies,” reads the website for the strike, “but also against the conditions that produced Trump, namely the decadeslong economic inequality, racial and sexual violence, and imperial wars abroad.”
But is that what it will take?
The activism that has sprung up in response to the election of President Trump has been monumental, mobilizing many women who had never considered themselves activists — or even, come to think of it, disenfranchised. But January’s Women’s March on Washington proved there were millions around the world who objected to many of the messages inherent in Trump’s victory and in the first days of his presidency.
There have been other resistance movements, smaller but no less significant, including the group 500 Women Scientists, established in response to Trump’s anti-science, anti-women rhetoric, as well as a surge in support for groups that work to elect female politicians, like EMILY’s List and Elect Her.
And yet these movements also serve to expose the sorts of rifts that enabled a Trump victory in the first place. They do this not just by pitting pro- against anti-Trump, but by assuming all women share the same goals about equality, and how to get there. The truth, and the challenge to marchers — and to women — is that while it’s easy enough to blame the patriarchy for a society that remains far more favorable to men, a significant part of that patriarchy is made up of, and encouraged by, women.
What if Trump isn’t the problem? What if it’s us?
Consider this: Equal rights movements are not new. Three waves of feminism have mobilized women for decades. The fact is that, whether all women felt the effects or not, the current discord within the gender didn’t start with the election and it doesn’t end there.
The election simply highlighted what had been overlooked for years, that as women tick off certain boxes on the march toward equality (as in, the growing number of female CEOs, growing number of self-made female billionaires, growing number of women achieving positions previously available exclusively to men) and seem to grow their collective force, there’s a force just as great working to bring them down.
And that force is women.
On the surface, few women could reasonably object to the goals of the Women’s Strike, which is to recognize the importance of women in society, as workers, caregivers and active participants in the economic system, while also recognizing that these same women experience greater inequities than men.
They are paid less and more vulnerable to discrimination, sexual harassment and job insecurity. But modern feminism is disorganized, and even in its best intentions, exclusionary. And as many have begun to point out in the context of the strike, skipping work is a luxury that not everyone has.
“This seems a bit elitist to me,” writes one follower on the Women’s March’s Instagram post promoting the day. “How does encouraging women to not go to work that day empower them?” Writes another: “I am a mom to a special needs boy & can’t not take him to his therapy. My husband is unable to take day off from work.” Those who counter these cries say activism isn’t practical, or convenient, and that change doesn’t come to those who sit around wishing for it.
But for many, calling in “woman” to the office, or the carpool lane, is simply not an option. And to expect it to be or else you’ve got no place in the movement is dangerous. Because those women who can’t take part, or feel they can’t, are those who most need to be reached. Once they feel the movement doesn’t represent them, they’ll be the ones who turn their backs on it first. That’s when the judging starts. And whether in the workplace, at the playground, at a cocktail party, or within a “solidarity” movement, people love to judge. And divide. Inevitably, on Wednesday, there will be women who cross the picket line, who must go to the office or who buy a carton of milk from the male-run corner market. What then?
Outrage is important, but outreach is what will create change.
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And then, of course, there is the even darker truth lurking behind the Trump-inspired women’s movements: They may not work because many women don’t want them to work. These are women who are eager to prove to the Sheryl Sandbergs of the world that doing more doesn’t make it better; women who are perhaps happy to let their husbands bear the burden of breadwinning, or ladder climbing, or struggle.
These are the women who voted for Trump, convinced that leaning in didn’t work, or wasn’t for them. Now we’ve got an administration quickly establishing itself as a foe to women, voted into power largely by the very people whose power he’s threatening to undo. We let it happen. How could we, then, possibly expect to stop it?