Updated: Feb 5
Are the women of the world really a community? Or are they an infinitely “intersectional” collection of humans forever divided by culture, class, religion, and race? Can women maintain a moral identity that unifies them into a global platform for change?
On International Women’s Day, we “celebrate” women as if they were a cute group of figures on a greeting card, with good wishes and maybe a few hearts and flowers. We deny, just for this 24 hour period, that it is so easy for the politics of “intersectionality” to divide us—and that it is so difficult to maintain a unified focus and direction.
Women are, like all humans, members of multiple groups that wield power over their identity: national citizenship, race, religion, political party. Too often, these identities overpower our connection to womanhood. When that happens, the women’s cause is often lost. Any focused, sustained effort to lift the constraints on women’s freedom is undermined as it is dismissed as less important, too selfish, or even a betrayal of the “bigger” identity.
Yet the constraints on women’s freedoms are remarkably similar across all identity groups. And, within all identity groups, the women are more disadvantaged than the men. The specific mechanisms that enforce those disadvantages hardly vary at all, whether you are in the global north or south, whether you adhere to Islam or Christianity, and whether you are poor or rich. Those mechanisms and the position of disadvantage they produce are what all women in the world have in common. I, for one, think it’s time to stop insisting on the cultural uniqueness of women’s predicament and start recognizing instead its ubiquity.
We have so much data that demonstrate this sad reality. Yet we are so easily drawn away from what we know by appeals to other loyalties.
Take this example. Last week, the World Bank released its 2019 Women, Business, and the Law report. This report series has tracked a discrete set of legal barriers across virtually every country in the world for nearly a decade now. Importantly, the restrictions on women are so similar from place to place that the WBL group can list them all in a short grid, ticking “yes” or “no” for each restriction in each country. The mechanisms holding women down are just that pat.
For the 2019 report, the WBL group reformatted their data, arranging it to represent the constraints that emerge over the course of a woman’s lifetime, from birth through education and work to retirement and death. The WBL narrative:
starts with whether females have their own identity separate from a man,
goes through whether they are allowed (by men) to go to school,
examines whether they are allowed (by men) to go anywhere,
proceeds to the restrictions that come with marriage,
marks whether they are allowed (by men) to work,
establishes whether they can own or inherit assets, and
shows whether women face an impoverished life as the result of an entire lifetime of exclusion.
It’s so sad and so unjust: women’s entire lives can be told as a narrative of when and how men have controlled them. And that is true across the entire planet.
The constraints holding women back in developing countries, including even the MENA region, were all in force among the developed countries at some point in the past. Most of those constraints were eliminated within the past 50 to 100 years. We are not a planet full of unique cultural constraints on women, but a global community trying to escape a worldwide injustice that has gone on too long.
In 2017, the women of the world showed for one day that they could march in support of their own cause. The political import of that one demonstration was historic. Since then American women have organized for political impact with a precision and a degree of success unparalleled in history. They are a force to be reckoned with. Yet they are still pulled down by attempts to break apart that common identity—attempts that come from both right and left. It’s in the interest of all those who wish to keep women under control to push conflict into the women’s movement by stirring up competing identities.
I hope American women will resist those attempts to trick them into dropping the cause. The rest of the world still needs their inspiration and leadership. If the Americans can stay focused and keep moving along the path to freedom, the women of the world can take inspiration and will follow.
Happy International Women’s Day to the Global Sisterhood.