say it out loud: feminism and equality

‘I’m not a feminist,’ says Laura Waters, in her Guardian column about women in science. ‘I’m an ‘equalist’.’

In doing so, she resurrects a tedious semantic argument, and one that’s been fought on many shores before now. Waters contends that she is “fully devoted to promoting science to women as a great career choice and [that she] honestly believe[s] we need more women at all levels in science.” She wants to “ensur[e] women actively choose to stay in science and climb the promotional ladder.” She mentions positively the Athena SWAN programme – which gives praise and status to institutions that actively work to promote equal treatment for women in academia.

I’m sorry to break it to her, but that’s a feminist viewpoint. That’s an entirely feminist argument. If she wants it from a better source than me – it’s exactly the feminist argument I heard Jocelyn Bell Burnell give at WITS a couple of weeks ago.

I have no problems with Waters’ viewpoint. It’s one I espouse myself (any reader of this blog will know that). My problem is with her denial of feminism.

I’m a feminist because I believe in equality. Equality is – for the most part – the primary role of practical feminism. Currently society does not view women as being the equals of men. There’s a gap there that needs filling, and feminism works to boost women’s role in society to fill that gap. It’s not inherently anti-men to be pro-women; it’s not anti-equality to say that one group needs more support.

Imagine a bar chart of the gender pay gap. For every euro Irish men earn, Irish women earn 13.9% less (Irish Examiner, Feb 2013). Parity in the hourly wage – the value of an hour’s work – would have men with 100%, and women with 100%. At the minute, men have 100%, and women have just over 86%. Clearly that’s inequal. To make it equal, you have to close that gap – and you do that by helping women, because women are the group that’s worse off in that situation.

Equalism? Sure. Through feminism.

Waters wants academia to be fairer to women. Women need more help than men do to fulfil their academic potential, because currently the power bias in the institutions of academia swings heavily toward men. What do we do? Make things fairer for women. Use Athena SWAN to reward institutions that reward women. Understand that family structures still involve more women than men doing part-time or awkward hours in order to be around for the kids, and accommodate that. Give positive female role models to young women in STEM careers.

I’m almost reciting Waters’ points here, which is actually the key to what I’m saying: this is a feminist argument.

Why disavow feminism? It feels like internalised misogyny to me**. It’s not lesser to be a woman, and it’s not lesser to be a feminist. Throwing your lot in with the boys may get you approval at the time, but in reality you’re cheerily standing over the status quo while inequality happens all around you.

Feminism is the reason you have a job in academia. Feminism is the reason you get to have an opinion and have it out loud. Feminism is the reason programmes like Athena SWAN happen, and feminism is the reason that it’s recognised that the sciences should be more welcoming to women. We are where we are because of feminists, and sniffily casting that aside and pretending you’re more advanced, somehow, is disrespectful to their work and their sacrifices.

No-one is saying that scientific output should be judged separately depending on its author’s gender. No-one is saying that an institution should seek a candidate of a particular gender rather than a candidate who’s best for the job. What feminism asks is that a women who reads the jobs posting should feel as able as a man to apply, or that a woman offered a job should feel comfortable and respected in accepting the place.

I believe in equality. I think a just society would offer the same chance to everyone. Feminism wants that full and fair chance for women.

Be proud to be a feminist! Feminism is the path to equality. We have lots of work to do.

** please note that I say this in reference to mainstream feminism, and women who disavow the label totally. I’m not referring to women who choose to use a different term for ‘believes in women’s rights’, like ‘womanist’, because of minority status or perceived disrespect by mainstream feminism. That’s a matter beyond the scope of this post.

a quick run-down on DOMA

So what happened in the US Supreme Court today?

SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) handed down a judgment declaring the Defence of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. In practical effect, this means that same-sex couples can now enjoy equality in marriage with heterogeneous couples.

What is DOMA?

DOMA is an act signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. It limited the definition of marriage in the US to one man and one woman. It also meant that the US would not recognise a same-sex marriage conducted elsewhere.

I have to stop you here – I’ve seen people saying not to call it ‘same-sex’ marriage.

They’re right – it should be referred to as ‘equal marriage’ as that is what it is. However, I’m going to need a way to refer to it as differentiated from the institution of marriage as it has been up to now. What’s really rather annoying is when people call it ‘gay’ marriage – that takes away the voices of bisexual or queer or trans* individuals who are also affected here.

To clarify – I am not saying that all individuals under the trans* umbrella are also queer, but that some are, and that some people identifying outside the gender binary would have had problems in wishing to marry someone of their registered-at-birth sex.

What did the SCOTUS declare?

SCOTUS decided, by the narrowest of majorities, that DOMA is unconstitutional in US law. The Court struck down the law 5-4, with Kennedy J leading for the majority. The case – United States v Windsor – involved a widow, who had been married to her partner in Canada, and who was, at the time of her wife’s death, living in New York State. New York recognised same-sex marriages performed elsewhere. If that recognition counted under federal law, Ms Windsor would not have to pay the massive estate tax on inheriting her wife’s property.

US law works on two levels – state and federal. In a nutshell, state law refers to the individual governance of each state by itself; federal law comes from Washington DC and applies everywhere. Kennedy J points out in his judgment that there are over a thousand federal laws referring to marriage or marital status, all of which Ms Windsor and others in her position could not benefit from. Traditionally, domestic status was a matter for individual states; DOMA overreached that entirely.

Kennedy J’s opinion is long enough, but worth reading. However, you can get its thrust from this lovely bit of legal writing:

DOMA’s principal effect is to identify a subset of state-sanctioned marriages and make them unequal. The principal purpose is to impose inequality, not for other reasons like governmental efficiency. Responsibilities, as well as rights, enhance the dignity and integrity of the person. And DOMA contrives to deprive some couples married under the laws of their State, but not other couples, of both rights and responsibilities. By creating two contradictory marriage regimes within the same State, DOMA forces same-sex couples to live as married for the purpose of state law but unmarried for the purpose of federal law, thus diminishing the stability and predictability of basic personal relations the State has found it proper to acknowledge and protect. By this dynamic DOMA undermines both the public and private significance of state-sanctioned same-sex marriages; for it tells those couples, and all the world, that their otherwise valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition. This places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage. The differentiation demeans the couple, whose moral and sexual choices the Constitution protects… and whose relationship the State has sought to dignify. And it humiliates tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples. The law in question makes it even more difficult for the children to understand the integrity and closeness of their own family and its concord with other families in their community and in their daily lives.

Why did it take so long to get here? I thought Obama was going to repeal this law straight away.

The Obama administration considered DOMA to be wrong from the time of his first campaign. In 2011, his Attorney General stated that the administration would continue to enforce DOMA until it was overturned by the Courts or repealed by Congress, but that as for themselves, they considered it unconstitutional and would not defend it if a case was taken to overturn.

The legal system of the US, like our own, believes in the separation of powers between executive (administration), legislative (the parliamentary Houses), and judicial (the courts). The executive did not want to act in contravention of that system. Whether you consider that for better or for worse is up to you.

We have a similar situation in Ireland, don’t we?

We do – same-sex couples in Ireland can get a civil partnership under the 2010 Civil Partnerships and Certain Rights and Obligations of Cohabitants Act (CPCROCA). They cannot obtain a marriage, and therefore lose out on some benefits, including joint guardianship of children. Also, different-sex couples cannot obtain a civil partnership. It’s an entirely two-tier system and quite unfair.

I’ve seen people have reservations about the impact of this SCOTUS ruling.

I don’t think most liberals have reservations about the beneficial impact of the repeal. There are a few different viewpoints, though. One strong contention is that marriage is not the defining victory it seems – that there is still a lot of discrimination faced by LGBTQ people that won’t be corrected by allowing marriage. A vocal minority contend that they don’t want equal marriage at all; that they have no interest in buying into society’s institutions.

Conservatives will have many qualms about today, but it’s my general opinion that they’re going to end up on the wrong side of history on this one anyway, so I don’t feel too sorry about that.

What do you think?

I’m a believer in the power of a good symbolic victory. I’m also a believer in allowing all strands of people the same level of access to societal institutions, so that you may partake or not partake of them at your will. I feel the frustration of progressives that we get nothing but baby steps toward full equality (the abortion debate in Ireland being a topical example). If there’s one thing that I’ve taken away from studying law, though, it’s that most progress comes as the combined effort of many little rocks tumbling, rather than one massive avalanche. DOMA has had several challenges before now, and its time had come. Slowly but surely – that’s how we effect change.

I’m also thrilled at the strong advisory precedent this sets for other jurisdictions like our own.

Is that really all you’ve learned about legal matters?

Not really. I also know that the law is almost always an ass – but I still like when it shows its good side.