Are feminists asking for too much? Many men and even some women answer this question with a definitive “yes.” Critics of the feminist movement say that women in America have all their fundamental rights protected already. Still, feminists continue to mobilize, because their ultimate goal of equality under the law for both men and women has not been met.
Women cannot be equal under the law until they are included in the process that creates the law. Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady and the first chair of the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission, believed that women must be at the table negotiating policy themselves if their voices are to be heard. For this to happen, women must be included in all levels of government.
At first glance, it seems as if women have as much space as men to govern and craft policy. American laws do not prohibit women from running for office or holding executive positions. International law explicitly protects women’s political rights in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, which gives women the right to participate in the formulation of government policy and to hold public office.
Despite the apparent opportunity, women are overwhelmingly not included in governing bodies. Although women make up 50.8 percent of the nation’s population, their representation in public positions falls far below that.
Rutgers’ Center for American Women and Politics portrays the discouraging number of women in American government. On a national scale, women represent just 19.4 percent of Congress, leaving the remaining 80.6 percent to men. Not to mention that no woman has yet held the presidency.
It doesn’t improve dramatically on a state level, either. Women hold just 24.2 percent of state legislature seats. Within the more “prestigious” state senates, the percentage is even lower. These figures point to the harsh reality that men are the ones dictating policy-making. Frighteningly, still, is that what begins with unequal political representation becomes unequal law.
Because women do not have as great a voice in policy-making, it is difficult for them to address laws which disproportionately impact women. This leads the laws themselves to become unequal, often widening the gap between equality for men and women.
In 2012, when the Michigan Legislature was considering an anti-abortion bill, there were just 31 women holding seats. Ultimately, it was men who made the decision about what would happen with women’s bodies, and the few voices of women that were available were silenced. The New York Daily News reported that two female representatives were barred from speaking on the floor after they used the words “vagina” and “vasectomy.”
This serves to demonstrate the social inequality that still exists between men and women. Male legislators punished a woman for not speaking the language of law, or what is really the language of men. By reducing the value of these women’s voices, they also reduced the value of the women themselves.
Much of the existing inequality is directly linked to the lack of political representation by women. Men dominate the policy-making fields, despite the fact that they represent just half the population.
Yet when feminists point to this huge disparity, excuses are all that follow. Nobel laureate Jody Williams provided a telling example of this. When she asked a UN ambassador why so few women hold leadership and director-level roles within the United Nations, he replied that there weren’t enough qualified women.
A presumably intelligent and well educated man believed that not enough competent women existed to fulfill the role, though evidence says otherwise. According to the Russell Sage Foundation, a social science research center, not only do women earn more master’s degrees than men, they also earn more Ph.D.s and an almost equal number of professional degrees. With these numbers, it is nearly impossible to believe that qualified women don’t exist for high-level government jobs.
The problem is not women’s lack of certification, nor is it lack of legislation protecting women’s rights. Inequality stems from the fact that women are not the ones writing policy and designing law. Without female representation, unequal laws are passed and social inequality is perpetuated.
It is up to both women and men to change this by helping women campaign, get on the ballot and ultimately win the race. When women take their seat at the negotiating table, they can begin to erase inequality, and only then can feminists begin to achieve their goal of equality under the law.
Taylor Gunderson is an LSA junior.