Sunday March 8th is International Women’s Day. While doing my duty to celebrate this important holiday (i.e. “liking” or “faving” the various social media posts I saw celebrating the day, liking vs. faving dependent upon which social media feed I was scanning at the moment) I noticed the following comment:
“Why is there an international women’s day but not an international men’s day?”
I think the implicit argument in this question is something like, “Sure, we used to oppress women, but now women have the right to vote and can do anything a man can!” Or others might have a sense that women are oppressed in some parts of the world, but not here in the good ol’ US of A, so why do we have to feel bad about ourselves too?
I don’t know if the comment was made in earnest or in jest, but I decided to take a go at answering as best I could in the post below.
Be warned: This post is long and errs on the side of the “factual” rather than the “funny,” but I’ve done my best to throw in a few zingers along the way. If taking about eight minutes to read 2,000 words on why we have an International Women’s Day sounds like your (Diva) cup of tea, then read on.
SO YOU WANT TO ORGANIZE YOUR SOCIETY: HAVE YOU CONSIDERED A MATRIARCHY?
From our anthropologist friends, we have the terms “matriarchy” and “patriarchy” to understand the different ways that societies around the world have organized themselves over time.
Societies everywhere, large and small, technologically dependent cities and hunter/gatherer tribes, have to solve the problem of organizing themselves in order to continue living together without spiraling into the utter chaos that can happen when humans get on each other’s nerves in the absence of order or shared norms. A more cynical (or perhaps realist) view on this is that those in power want to keep their power, so the reproduction of the organization of a social system (with a tautological logic something along the lines of “we do things this way because this is the way things are done”) maintains not only order but also the status quo.
One way that many societies have organized themselves, either implicitly or explicitly, is along gender lines. In a matriarchy, women take the lead. On the level of individual family units, this can mean that a mother or a grandma or whoever is the oldest, most badass lady hanging around tends to be the head of the household. On a societal level, this can mean that it tends to be women who hold positions of power, leadership and/or authority.
Related to the idea of matriarchy, but distinct in meaning, is the idea of matrilineality. Matrilineality is a kinship system in which group or family membership is traced through the mother (rather than the father). Many American Indian tribes are matrilineal, such as the Cherokee and the Hopi, and so are most Jewish communities.
While matrilineality can correlate with a society being closer to the matriarchal side of the power spectrum, that isn’t always the case.
Are there any matriarchies in existence today? This is a debated subject. For example, in this cheekily titled Mental Floss article, 6 Modern Societies Where Women Literally Rule, the Mosuo tribe of southwestern China is listed as one of the last remaining matriarchies. What really makes people freak out about the Mosuo is their practice of “walking marriage.” Starting at the age of 13, Mosuo women can choose to take as many or as few men as lovers as they like. All children are raised by the mother without the father. In fact, the Mosuo do not even have any equivalent for the words “father” or “husband” and do not place any particular importance on knowing whose sperm was responsible for making the baby. So I think we can safely assume that the Mosuo definitely don’t have the term “baby daddy.” In this way and others, they are more advanced than the rest of the world.
That being said, according to a 2010 Guardian profile of the Mosuo, even though reproductive and sexual power rests with women in this society, political power still ultimately rests with the men, so “matrilineal” is a more accurate description than “matriarchy”:
“Known as the “Kingdom of Women” throughout China, 40,000 Mosuo people live in a series of villages around the lake. Women here make most major decisions; they control household finances, have the rightful ownership of land and houses, and full rights to the children born to them — quite radical considering that many parts of China still practise arranged marriages — although political power tends to rest with the men (making the description “matrilineal” more accurate).”
So if there might kinda sorta be six societies on Earth that you could maybe almost describe as matriarchies, what does that make the rest of the world? Why, a patriarchy of course!
PATRIARCHY: PLEASE DON’T HAVE WHATEVER KNEE-JERK REACTION YOU TYPICALLY HAVE WHEN READING THAT WORD AND CONTINUE READING
The term patriarchy strikes me as being a loaded term these days that gets thrown around a lot. It isn’t bad if a term gets used a lot in heated debates, but it is bad when the participants of that debate seem to have different definitions of the term.
So for the sake of clarity, let’s define what we mean by patriarchy here:
“Patriarchy is a social system in which: males hold primary power; males predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property; and, in the domain of the family, fathers or father-figures hold authority over women and children. Many patriarchal societies are also patrilineal, meaning that property and title are inherited by the male lineage.“
A patriarchy is a system where men tend to have the majority of leadership roles (aka positions of power). Without moralizing whether or not a patriarchy is inherently good or evil,let’s first attempt as best we can to look at some objective facts about contemporary U.S. society and see if this patriarchy label fits.
Do men predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property?
Yes. They do not occupy every leadership role, of course, but they occupy the majority. While men account for half the population (or actually just under half at 49.2%, according to the 2010 census), men dominate leadership positions in the following domains of social life:
Political leadership men domination: 71%
The majority of politicians in the U.S. are men (white men, to be specific; old white men, to be specificer). The Reflective Democracy Campaign analyzed a database of over 42,000 elected officials across the U.S. and found that 71% were men.
Religious leadership men domination: 88%
According to the 2010 Faith Communities Today survey, a multifaith survey of over 11,000 religious congregations of all major faiths in the U.S., only 12% had a woman as the senior or sole ordained leader, with the vast majority at 88% being led by a man.
Economic leadership men domination: 94.9%
Let’s take a look at the Fortune 1000, the top 1,000 companies in the U.S. based on revenue. Of these, only 51 are led by women, or 5.1%. Of course, CEO leadership is only a proxy for economic leadership, but as far as proxies go, it seems like a pretty darn good one.
Media leadership men domination:
Who is responsible for the media images we see in advertising, television, and film, which play such a huge role in shaping our perceptions of gender norms and roles? As you might be able to tell from the thrust of the above, the tl;dr of this one is also “men.” According to a 2013 study, only 16% of the directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors of the top-grossing 250 U.S. films were women. In television, 28% of off-screen jobs were held by women. And when it comes to advertising, the inequality is even greater: Women hold only 3% of creative director positions among major U.S. advertising agencies.
Yes, there are amazingly successful women like Hillary Clinton, Sheryl Sandberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lena Dunham, Kathryn Bigelow, and others who hold leadership positions and exert power in their various fields, but when you look at the aggregate, men dominate positions of power. In fact, some social scientists theorize that allowing a few “token” women or minorities into visible positions of power is a subtle way for the underlying white patriarchy to continue reproducing itself.
SO, WHY IS THERE AN INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY? BECAUSE THE PATRIARCHY
The objective evidence is strongly there that even in 2015, the contemporary society of the United States resolutely remains a patriarchy.
According to the World Economic Forum, the U.S. ranks 65th in terms of gender pay equity around the globe (source), with most studies finding women making somewhere between 66% and 77% the pay of men. Even in the countries where gender pay is the most equal for doing the same job — Norway and Singapore — women still only make 80% that of men. A new study released just two days ago predicts that at current rates, the global gender pay gap won’t be equalized for another 81 years (source).
But why can’t it just be called “Equal Rights” for everybody? Why do we have to specify? Isn’t that itself perpetuating a binary that leads to a “separate but equal mentality” that fosters continued difference and inequality? Good question! I’d say that if you get hung up on the nomenclature of things like feminism (“Men are oppressed by masculinity stereotypes, too!”) or women’s rights (“Why do we have to specify women? can’t we just say ‘equal rights’ in general?”), the reason is because the specific historical and social context we’re living in is one where on the aggregate women are more likely to be oppressed and men are more likely to hold power (hence the name “women’s rights”) and on the aggregate masculinity is more highly valued than femininity (hence the name “feminism”). So on the aggregate, that’s the fight we need to fight. Hence these movements and positions are appropriately named.
In your personal life, your boss might happen to be a woman and you might think she is a jerk (and she might really be just a big ol’ jerk, and if that is the case, we feel you), or you might think that the most popular and powerful person at your school might happen to be a woman and she might be a real asshole (fuck you, Tina, you asshole. Just because your dad buys you fancy clothes that doesn’t make you better than the rest of us!), so your own personal experience might not jive with all the talk of feminism and women’s rights that you see online or in the news. But here’s the great thing: Your personal experience is totally valid and true, but so are the social statistics and figures reported above. And they can both be true at the same time! What you have to keep in mind, though, is that your personal anecdotal experience is on the micro level, which does not disprove the aggregated facts of the macro level. Anecdotal experience shows what is possible (it is possible for a woman or a man to be capable of exerting power, influence, and even manipulation to get their will over others), but it is social-scientific data of society in the aggregate that shows what tends to be more likely (across the fields of politics, religion, economics, and media, it is more likely for a man to be in a position of power than a woman, and more likely for a woman to be oppressed) (note: "oppression” is kind of a heavy word that can mean different things in different contexts; in the social sciences, oppression is used to basically mean being in a state of injustice you are powerless to correct).
The next step in this journey we’re going on is understanding how macro-level structures that favor one group over another leads to micro-level privilege. The “check your privilege” movement started in 1988 with activist Peggy McIntosh and became an internet meme when there was an online backlash for what some saw as activists taking the idea too far, which is why Mediaite wrote an article last year predicting the “impending implosion” of the movement. We’ll have to save a longer discussion of this for another post, but the core of the message to be aware that different groups are privileged differently remains a useful one (if you’re not convinced, watch this South Park clip).
So, why is there an International Women’s Day? Because patriarchy. By celebrating the achievements of women, we can push towards a more equal society where everybody has a fair shake. Make It Happen, internet!