Opinionista Kim Jurgensen 8 March 2018

What would change if women had more power – feminism in the future

There are enormous practical benefits to having women in spaces of power where their voices are heard in policy and planning and, academic and civil society, media and the arts and every other field.

It was exciting to read that Merriam-Webster had declared “feminism” the 2017 word of the year. They reported that the word had been searched throughout the year, corresponding with moments of activism, art, and the Hollywood reports that led to the #MeToo campaign. There certainly is growth in the feminist face of public discourse. But where the power sits it is often quite difficult to see what has changed.

Ben Pennings recently wrote a piece in New Matilda that analysed the gendered politics of mass killings in America. Where “90 percent of mass murderers, serial killers, murderers, rapists, child molesters, and domestic violence perpetrators are male”.

Time reported last year that only three of the 194 mass shooters in America since 1966 have been women. People immediately ask questions after a mass shooting about race, ethnicity, mental state – but they never ask about gender.

It occurred to me that even though I have been discussing the power of the NRA and the lobbying culture in the States with a friend there, I had not actively been thinking about the feminist explanation of mass killings in America.

I wonder if living in an (with some pockets of exception) afeminist world is part of the reason we tend to apply a “gender lens” to analysis right at the end, and fail to think critically of all issues through this framework. I have long held the view that affirmative action for women is important if only because women should be given as much of a chance to fail as men (much in the vein of Bella Abzug’s 1977 comment, “We don’t so much want to see a female Einstein become an assistant professor. We want a woman schlemiel to get promoted as quickly as a male schlemiel.”)

I’m now leaning towards a more thoughtful critical mass theory which notes that it takes a certain number of people at a certain level of power to make changes.

No one can say for sure how many people it takes to influence change: Auberdene and Naisbitt (1992) say between 5% and 20%; the UN (1992) says at least 30% to 35%; Swedish feminist Gerd Engman says 30% is enough to have a voice but that change requires 40%. These numbers become important if we agree on the importance of the feminist approach which means that any analysis – of policy, research, events, actions – is located in a gender framework.

Every person who has ever worked in the public, development or academic fields will be familiar with that cringing scenario where a group of people are planning (for a panel discussion, series of public lectures, publication etc) and someone at the end (usually a woman) notes that there are not women involved. It’s the liberal approach to gender transformation where we throw in a woman to tick a box but seldom ask the difficult questions of why any of these things are not led by women. Our panic to include women rarely translates into serious policy discussions to make sure we don’t have to ask that question.

If we think of inequality as essentially about power, we need look no further than the top 10 richest people in the world – who are obviously men. In fact, there are only three women in the top 25, and all of them are heiresses who inherited and didn’t create wealth. So while we are correctly concerned with the massive wealth discrepancies, we are at the same time not asking why it is that there are no women in this group who have invented or created or blazed a trail in any way that has resulted in their wealth.

This is not to suggest that men cannot be feminist. But I do wonder what kind of conversations we would be having if there was a gendered critical mass in the public discourse. Would the budget debate for example have widened from the “Is VAT regressive?” focus to include a discussion on why menstrual products are not only expensive but don’t fall under the zero rated basket.

Could we have had a discussion on excise taxes that looked at the effect of alcohol abuse on gender violence in the country? Would we be thinking not just about the wage gap but specifically around the gender wage gap? What would the landscape look like if we started a budget discussion from a point that our priorities in the next three years are to keep girls in school, deal with sexual violence and reduce the levels of maternal mortality.

Similarly, we might think of wars differently if our approach was a feminist one. So instead of only focusing on the role of countries such as Russia and the US in Syria and on the inaction of the Burmese government in the Rohingya genocide, we could look at how refugee camps should be constructed in a gender-progressive way, and what forms of sexual violence are being committed (instead of the catch-all “rape is a weapon of war” understanding).

But even outside of crisis areas we are not looking at effects on women. We should be discussing job displacement when we discuss the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but we should also be looking at how innovations could relieve women of the burden of additional and unpaid work in the house. We should be discussing how to build integrated environmentally progressive cities, but should also look specifically at how transport systems are designed to be safe and effective for women who leave work very late or need to be in very early.

We certainly have much to celebrate on International Women’s Day. But the way women think about their daily experiences is quite different from the liberal “what about the women” approach.

There are enormous practical benefits to having women in spaces of power where their voices are heard in the policy and planning and academic and civil society and media and arts and every other field. Not because men cannot be progressive, but because the approach to transforming our world must be led by the people who most need a new dispensation. DM

Kim Jurgensen is doing her PhD through Rhodes University. She is looking at the relationship between inequality and sexual violence in conflict.

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