Op-Ed: Women's challenge to hope

Sunday, October 30, 2016 - 5:21pm

A month ago, a guy at a party turned to me and said, “I don’t know your name, so I’m going to call you sugar tits.” Just three weeks ago, a recording of Donald Trump lauding his power to grab women “by the pussy” surfaced. One in four women on college campuses are survivors of sexual assault. It is frustratingly clear that gender inequalities persist in our world.

When I express this frustration to women a generation or two older than me, they often respond by reminding me how much more power I have than they did at my age. I am usually irritated at these responses, uncertain how to reconcile my anger with appreciation for the privileges I have in this generation. An event hosted by the LSA Human Rights Program last week addressed this tension, and emphasized that anger can productively coexist with appreciation for past success.

The Human Rights Program’s distinguished lecture event Oct. 11 featured Kathryn Sikkink, a renowned professor and researcher of human rights. Sikkink’s presentation highlighted a paradoxical characteristic of the human rights movement: The more we mobilize to combat human rights violations, the more dismal the situation appears. She attributes this feature of the human rights movement to three things: First, the more data gathered about a human rights violation, the more prominent that violation may seem. Second, as activists and organizations succeed in securing more human rights, the standard of accountability rises. And third, a focus on suffering is integral to human rights movements because dismissal of suffering may appear callous and would do little to motivate change.

Consequently, the dialogue surrounding human rights movements and institutions is often pessimistic. Sikkink argued that while negativity may be inherent in human rights advocacy, unchecked pessimism is corrosive to the human rights agenda. Quoting Saul Alinsky, Sikkink emphasized that successful activism requires three things: anger, hope and action. The anger portion of this trifecta, Sikkink argued, is highlighted in human rights activism, while the hope portion is often underemphasized. Without evidence that our actions have been successful, we risk losing hope that change is possible.

Her words reminded me of my grandmother’s standard response to my frustration with gender inequality: “I know you’re frustrated, but you are forgetting how far we have come.” Just as Sikkink’s work seeks to remind human rights advocates of their success, elder feminists remind women of my generation that women’s rights movements have been successful. Remembering to recognize success, however, can be challenging.

I am angry that women hold only 19.4 percent of U.S. Congressional seats. Yet in less than 100 years, women in this country have progressed from having no representation in government to likely reaching one of the most powerful leadership positions in the world. By advocating for women’s suffrage in the early 1900s, the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance, along with other organizations, fought long and hard to free women “from the thraldom [sic] of the centuries.” The struggle to expand political representation for women continues today, but is made possible by the success of past struggles.  

I am angry at the frequency with which demeaning comments challenge women’s autonomy. I am angry that one-fourth of women on college campuses are sexually assaulted. I am angry that a judge granted Brock Turner a lenient sentence based on the ironic argument that, “A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him.”

Sexual violence is a persistent problem in many ways, but we are making progress in combatting it. Sikkink presented a graph which displays Sweden as the country with the highest occurrence of rape in the world. Until recently, sexual violence wasn’t a public issue. Efforts to monitor the prevalence of sexual violence weren’t prominent and data wasn’t collected. Now, human rights movements and women’s rights organizations have successfully demanded that sexual violence become a public issue, necessitating data collection, discussion and advocacy for change. Documentation of sexual violence on college campuses, in our country and around the world, demonstrates a change in public attitudes and priority given to the issue. While sexual assault statistics rightfully prompt anger, they also inspire hope because an open discussion has been sparked.

There is much work to be done before we can stop being angered by underrepresentation of women in politics, by demeaning comments made by college boys and presidential candidates and by the prevalence of sexual violence. But just as anger is necessary to motivate action, so is an understanding of the successes of advocacy. As we work toward gender equality, let us not only focus on frustratingly persistent inequalities. We must also remain hopeful for future progress by remembering the successes of past movements and the strength of current advocacy.

Next time you find yourself responding to a man that replaces your name with “sugar tits,” be angry enough to voice your anger, and be hopeful that comments such as these will become less frequent as a strong feminist movement continues to identify and address gender inequalities.

Faith Cole is an LSA junior.