Women won’t save the world. Maybe a woman will. Maybe the efforts of many women will. But when we look at “women” as a singular entity, we ignore all of the many qualified, hardworking women who are individuals making up this collective. We ignore the women who have been working to make change for years, who are people with stories, not faceless members of an underrepresented group.
It has become harder and harder to ignore the foundational problems of the culture we live in, especially in the recent climate. I’ve heard some interesting solutions posed, where people have been saying, “We should just let the women take over.” As in, “We’ve royally screwed it up, maybe someone else could come clean this up.” I’ve seen this in response especially to the #MeToo movement, when it was revealed that many powerful and once-respected men wielded their power over others to harass, assault and silence their victims.
This idea that women are the answer, even when shared as a joke, is problematic because it sheds light on a very real mindset. It seems to suggest that women are better for the job just as a default. Not because of qualifications, effort or skill, but just because men apparently can’t be trusted in that position. It ignores the women who have worked hard, who have faced discrimination based on one or many identities and have been systematically shut out of positions of power. Women deserve to be in power not simply as backups to men who have shown themselves unworthy of the power they’ve been given, but because they have worked for it tirelessly.
Last year, I took an English class on medieval women with the fantastic Dr. Gina Brandolino, an English lecturer at the University of Michigan. We talked about the ways in which medieval literature categorized women and put them in one of two places: the gutter or the pedestal. That is to say, the literature would often shame women by making them less than their male counterparts, or it would revere them by exalting women and their purity. Ultimately, the literature would treat women as if they transcended human behavior. Women were things to be degraded or protected, not agents with the ability to act. Revering women seems better than shaming them, maybe, but both serve to generalize women and ignore the individual, and result in the same thing: the removal of women from the human sphere until they are acted upon, not capable of action themselves. We only studied this categorization in medieval texts, but I say it happens today as well, in the real world.
When we hold women as a group applicable to some kind of higher, unattainable standard, it leaves no room for natural, inevitable mistakes. It condemns women for human error. It expects some kind of salvation to come without calling for a change in the culture that created the problems women are somehow expected to fix. It’s not the job of women — or any victim, from any group — to fix a broken system. The system has to be changed by those individuals most ingrained in it by stepping up and calling for consequences.
There’s also a problem with thinking women are the only group being wronged, the only silenced people who deserve to have a voice. It’s not just women who have been preyed upon by those abusing their power. It’s not just women who have been shut out of corporate offices, writing rooms, center stage. What we should be looking for is to put the best people in positions of power — that means people of any identity. That means any individual who works hard, who proves themselves worthy of the position, who is willing to take a stand against a system that they might benefit from, even to their own detriment. It also means acknowledging that it’s far harder for women to get there, especially women of color, especially women in the LGBTQ community, especially women with any number of intersecting identities who bring their own experiences.
And so, women deserve to be in power. But not just now, not just suddenly after these flaws in the system have been exposed. For as long as there has been a system, as long as there have been roles with power, there have been women who deserved to hold them. Not women as a group, but individual women, whose singular accomplishments matter. This should not be happening because of a hope for a magic fix, but because eyes are finally opening to mistakes that are decades — centuries, even — old.
The identity “women” doesn’t signify a cleaning crew coming in to deal with a mess that is years in the making. There are real solutions to the problems we’re seeing; those who abuse their power should be called out and held accountable so everyone knows there are consequences for exploiting others. There are ways to make spaces safe so incoming women aren’t forced to devote half their minds to warding off unwanted advances. Imagine the progress that will be made when a working woman can give all of her brain power to the job at hand. Imagine the good that will be done when a woman’s work can be seen for what it is, free of prejudice and biases.
Women won’t save the world. But letting individual women into places they have always deserved to be could.
Danielle Colburn can be reached at email@example.com