The concept of equal rights for women has been around for more than 200 years, ever since Mary Wollstonecraft published her essay, “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman,” in 1792. “Equal rights for men and women” was included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights passed by the United Nations in 1948.
Finally in 1979, the U.N. passed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, which requires all signers to promote gender equality in law and practice. But the U.S. is one of a handful of countries that never signed CEDAW.
When it came up for a vote in Congress in 1981, notoriously racist, sexist, anti-gay bigot Strom Thurmond led the reactionary charge against it. And though President George W. Bush is said to have considered reintroducing it in the early 2000s — probably to bolster the argument that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was needed to free women there — that never happened.
No wonder a slew of new sociological studies show that the U.S. is outrageously, totally behind the times when it comes to gender equality. Family historian Stephanie Coontz, writing in the Feb. 17 Sunday Review of the New York Times, reports that the U.S. is one of only eight countries out of 188 countries, and the only major industrialized country, that does not offer paid maternity leave.
Rather, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to both women and men after a child’s birth, adoption or in cases of family illness. But only half the U.S. work force is eligible for unpaid leave, and many of them cannot afford to take it.
The Society of Human Resources Management noted in 2002 that 30 percent of the largest U.S. corporations offered some form of paid leave to some employees, though that’s a tiny percentage of the total work force. California, New Jersey and Washington state also offer some form of tax-funded paid leave.
In contrast, according to the newly published book “Children’s Chances” by public health researcher Jody Heymann, 180 countries guarantee paid leave to new mothers, with 81 of them also offering it to fathers. China, Canada, Cuba and most European countries provide 26 or more weeks. Australia, the majority of countries in Africa and South America, and a few countries in Asia, like Vietnam, provide 15 to 25 weeks. The rest offer 14 weeks.
Gender equality hits the wall in the U.S.
Views about gender equality have changed radically in this country since the women’s liberation movement surged into the streets in 1970. Coontz notes that in 1977 two-thirds of the population thought that women’s “place” was just caring for home and family. But by 1994, after bosses lowered men’s wages and women had to work to support their families, two-thirds no longer agreed with that. By 2011 a Pew Research Center study reported that, in addition to having a family, 66 percent of women aged 18 to 34 and 42 percent of middle-aged and older women said being successful at work was “very important” or “one of the most important things” in their lives.
In the 2010 book, “The Unfinished Revolution,” sociologist Kathleen Gerson reported that 80 percent of the women and 70 percent of the men she interviewed said they envisioned an egalitarian relationship that allowed them to share breadwinning and family care, but they often had to compromise when they couldn’t do that. A 2011 study by the Center for Work and Family showed that 64 percent of men believed that both parents should care equally for their children. However, only 30 percent of men who believed that said they were able to do so.
What’s needed for gender equality are federally mandated, family-friendly work and social practices for all workers, including paid vacations, sick days, worker protections on the job and a maximum-length workweek. Also vital is paying the same hourly wages for part-time and full-time workers and including all workers in pension and health care plans.
To specifically address child care, there must be generous paid maternity leave for both parents, including those of the same sex; and quality, free, universal child care and health care, including well-paid disability compensation and full reproductive rights that guarantee freedom, justice and equality for all women.
No wonder Coontz concluded that “structural impediments prevent people from acting on their egalitarian values, forcing men and women into personal accommodations and rationalizations that do not reflect their preferences. The gender revolution is not in a stall. It has hit a wall.” Coontz’s solution is “to develop work-life policies that enable people to put their gender values into practice” and to “stop seeing work-family policy as a women’s issue and start seeing it as a human rights issue that affects parents, children, partners, singles and elders.”
Capitalism and patriarchy
Why has gender equality hit a wall in the U.S.? “Structural impediments” — meaning government inaction — don’t begin to answer the question. To put the explanation in two words: capitalism and patriarchy. Gender inequality exists in the place where rapacious, insatiable, war-mongering, dead-end global capitalism and the 1%-driven, women-hating bastion of entrenched patriarchy converge.
Capitalism is based on class society, as is patriarchy. Both rely on inequality to yield super profits, prestige and (white) male privilege. Capitalism is based on the exploitation of the working class, including the special oppression of women, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender-queer workers and workers of color, by the masters of industry and all the productive forces that they own as their private property.
Fredrick Engels, in his classic book, “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” (1884), showed how class society and patriarchy are totally intertwined through private property. He traces the oppression of women from the time before recorded history when people lived communally, shared equitably the food women raised and the men hunted, and only traced ancestry through their mothers.
Through a study of matrilineal Native American tribes and the early Greek state, Engels showed that private property developed as men accumulated enough abundance, superseding women’s former role to create a tipping point where male property rights encompassed the right to rule over women, the family and household slaves, who were the first oppressed class.
“The overthrow of mother-right was the world historic defeat of the female sex,” writes Engels. He then goes on to show why the process of building egalitarian socialism, based on global sharing and community and through which private property and class society are ultimately destroyed, is the only way to truly free women of centuries-old patriarchy.
It’s important to remember that the Soviet Union was the first nation to guarantee women’s rights in law and practice, as it built a modern industrialized country out of the undeveloped, largely agrarian economy seized from czarist Russia in 1917. And socialist governments since then, including Cuba, Vietnam and north Korea today, have been striving to put that goal into practice. They have done this despite the huge legacy of colonial pillage and underdevelopment they inherited, and the political pressures from U.S. imperialism they feel so keenly today.
Karl Marx wrote in 1868, “Social progress may be measured precisely by the social position of [women].” The U.S. is a world leader in backwardness and misogyny toward women — with women on average making 77 cents for every dollar men are paid (and even less for women of color), rampant violence against women (especially poor women, lesbians and trans women, and women of color), and vicious attacks on birth control and abortion rights, as well as all components of reproductive justice. At the same time, it is last among 19 industrial countries in health care and, as Heymann’s study showed, far behind about 175 countries in workers’ rights.
The U.S. leads the world in war-mongering and the voracious exploitation of humans and nature, while impoverishing the majority of the planet’s peoples. All this, while the 1% hoards its ill-gotten billions; terrorizes the world with its military power and tries to keep the 99% in the U.S. in line with its police and prison-industrial complex; and wields sexism, racism and LGBTQ oppression to try to divide us.
It’s time to revive the women’s liberation movement in the U.S., as we join with our sisters and brothers worldwide to break tradition’s chains once and for all.