Discrimination against women is alive and well, and is entirely captured by that one shallow question, says Soraya Chemaly.
March is Women’s History Month, and some folks have asked: Why isn’t there a Men’s History Month? This is going to be a long month on this front since so many people will be sharing information about women’s history notables. There are 26 days left and I’m sharing this to save some of us time.
The 30-second answer is: Because men as a class are not symbolically annihilated in our media. Women’s History Month, like Black History Month, is a pragmatic, short-term response to persistent cultural marginalization and misrepresentation. It’s an antidote to systemic erasure. It’s an attempt to both create representation and explain why it’s important.
The 10-second answer is: We don’t have a Men’s History Month because we don’t need one.
On March 1st, I tweeted the following relatively benign message: “Happy #WomensHistoryMonth! PS – While we celebrate it in March, women’s history’s going on all day every day, every month of every year.” And, so, of course, I’ve heard: “Women’s History Month is sexist!” and “You think men dominate history and media? Prove it!”
So here goes…
Despite women’s recent gains, our stories are still produced mainly by men, about men, from men’s perspectives, and for men.
So, for example, in coverage of Syrian refugee camps and their destabilizing effects, sexual assault gets almost no coverage in mainstream media, this despite it being one of the primary reasons identified by people fleeing their country. Or maybe, our immigration reform which, until the issue was forced, concerned itself mainly with finding ways to get highly skilled, educated people into the country instead of the more than 75% of immigrants who are women with children and far less likely to be educated in their home countries because of gender discrimination. Did you know that in a natural disaster, such as flooding, tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes, girls and woman are 14 times more likely to die than boys and men? I’d be willing to bet a whole lot of money that you didn’t because what we allow the media to portray as “gender neutral” information is anything but. There are thousands of these examples globally every day. Today’s news is tomorrow’s history and today’s history was written in exactly these ways. This media imbalance is unhelpful and discriminatory and continues to support an institutionally sexist and racist status quo.
However, for the first time in history, masses of women are healthier, better educated, less financially dependent and physically vulnerable, can vote, and have access to some fundamental rights. And, the Internet.
This is good, but the Internet by itself is not enough. While many people assume that new technology is automatically egalitarian and progressive, nothing could be further from the truth. Technology is informed by the people who build and control and populate it.
So, for example, Wikipedia, an online reservoir for “history” that is increasingly used by people around the globe, is notoriously gender imbalanced. It is the perfect example of how deeply entrenched and complicated systemic bias is—whatever the medium.
A couple weeks ago, I walked down the hall of a high school where the walls, in celebration of Black History Month, were plastered with flyers celebrating prominent African American men. It was, on that day, also the celebration of Audre Lorde’s and Toni Morrison’s birthdays. That was also the week that Barbara Jordan was first elected to office. Not a flyer in sight.
The fact that “mankind” is a universal term for humanity continues to create everyday social harm.
But, but, but…”Women didn’t do anything in the past worth writing about.”
So. Much. Bullshit.
Women are and always have been plenty busy, engaged, and ambitious and, in the past, many managed to transcend the manifold obstacles to our success. We have, the world over, thousands of years worth of women philosophers, scientists, writers, critics, mathematicians and physicists, historians, technological innovators, labor agitators, politicians and rulers, soldiers, doctors, thinkers, political theorists, social justice leaders, and educators. Even pirates.
For the most part women have done these things wearing more than our skivvies. It’s just that our work, our lives, our problems, our accomplishments, have been ignored and continue to be excluded.
Women were prohibited from going to school. Barred from voting or running for office. Not allowed to own property. Were property. Sexually preyed upon in state sanctioned ways. Vulnerable to early death, especially through pregnancy and childbirth. Worked to the point of physical and mental exhaustion. Had the fruits of our labor stolen from us in acts of socially sanctioned sexism. Legally denied the right to patent our ideas and inventions. Systemically excluded from public life with malice. Subject to the rule of fathers, husbands, and sons with no recourse to the law. Threatened regularly with violence, as we still are every day. And routinely censored and bullied simply for having the nerve to express opinions out loud.
That is annihilation.
But if that’s not evidence enough, here are other places where women are discriminated against:
- In children’s books
- In children’s television and film programming
- In newsrooms
- In cable TV
- In Hollywood and the film industry
- In television programming
- In literary magazines
- In gaming
- In sports
- In music, all kinds
- In the creation of religious culture (not even wasting time on a link)
- In the law
- In obituaries
- In op-eds
- In the art world
- In corporate leadership
- In Google Doodles (really)
- Even in movie crowd scenes
But these imbalances are not even the real problem.
A couple years ago, in a blatant and visual demonstration of what happens in our history texts all the time, Swedish furniture store IKEA airbrushed women and girls out of their Saudi Arabian catalogs entirely in order to placate misogynists playing at being legitimate political and religious leaders. It happens all the time in other media.
I found this example particularly entertaining because of the outrage it provoked in the United States and Western Europe. For the life of me, I cannot figure out why people, so horrified by IKEA’s poor decision, aren’t outraged by the writing of women and girls out of history, science, religious thought, and philosophy being taught in our schools every single day. The last bullet to the list above is:
Forget the big, bad, dangerous Internet. The most influential and harmful media environment that children find themselves in is schools, where they are exposed to traditional textbooks, history lessons, science programs, and library displays, all of which persistently erase diverse contributions to our history and allow the stories of primarily white men to shape our children’s imaginations and ambitions.
There is nothing wrong with the stories of what white men have accomplished in and of themselves. They are important, often interesting and have, indeed, shaped our world—for better or worse. However, so did other stories that we don’t tell and this is the problem.
In the United States. we recognize the contributions of men, especially as revolutionaries, social justice leaders, political thinkers, and freedom fighters. A recent show of hands in a room of more than 100 high school students I was spending the morning with revealed that, whereas all of them learned about the civil rights movement, less than five had learned anything about the history of the women’s rights movements during the 20th century.
Our children memorize the Declaration of Independence and study Martin Luther King’s speeches, but they don’t read the point-by-point comparison of the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiment and Resolutions, or learn about Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, or recite Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a Woman? We have virtually no public acknowledgement, in the form of statues, currency, public holidays, or core curricula requirements, marking the achievements of women and men who fought for women’s equal rights and liberation. We are invisible.
To paraphrase educator Myra Pollack Sadker: Each time a child opens a book and reads a womanless history, he or she learns that girls and women are worth less.
I am tired of reading: Where are the women? Where are the women in media? Where are the women in lawmaking? Where are the women in tech? Where are the women in fashion? Where are the women in protests? Where are the women in the administration? Where are the women in film? Where are the women in comedy, medicine, science, advertising, math?
The question isn’t “Where are the women?” Women are here. In large numbers. The question is “Where are the good men who recognize that equal representation in culture is a moral imperative?” And I say men, because men, as a class, dominate leadership and cultural production, and write history.
With few exceptions, historically, the men that control the course of historical narrative have rarely paused to make a point of including their female peers. Many that I speak to—well-educated men with power—don’t even realize why a person’s having role models that look like them is important.
This month some schools will festoon their halls with posters of suffragettes. Marie Curie will appear on science lab walls. Harriet Tubman’s picture might show up on a classroom wall. Sacagawea will make an appearance. Time magazine will sell a Women’s History Month issue. But at the end of the month, the posters will be rolled up, the worksheets and coloring books packed away, and history lessons will go back to “normal.”
And, herein lies the problem: Boys and girls shouldn’t be taught that the achievements of women are special—they should be taught that they are standard.
Soraya L. Chemaly writes about gender, feminism and culture for several online media including Role/Reboot, The Huffington Post, Fem2.0, RHReality Check, BitchFlicks, and Alternet among others. She is particularly interested in how systems of bias and oppression are transmitted to children through entertainment, media and religious cultures. She holds a History degree from Georgetown University, where she founded that schools first feminist undergraduate journal, studied post-grad at Radcliffe College.