Negotiating Equality

By Grace Bennett

In November of 2016, American women will stand alongside their male counterparts, and cast their ballots in the 25th Presidential election since the 19th amendment was ratified. In modern day America, a woman’s right to vote is essentially a given. Though our political preferences may be in danger of mockery or criticism, our right to voice them is very rarely questioned. It’s worth remembering that this wasn’t always the case. For a country founded on the lofty ideals of equality and justice, we certainly took our sweet time with suffrage (for all systemically underprivileged groups—not just women).

When, in 1919, the 19th amendment was finally ratified, it didn’t gain its passage by appealing to these values. Equality in and of itself wasn’t enough to justify the women’s vote, nor was the supposed value of American taxpayers having a say in their government. The women’s rights movement couldn’t couch their demands for the vote in arguments of inherent equality, but instead had to prove how their rights would benefit the majority.

And so, women’s rights advocates entered negotiations. (Full disclosure, in this post I talk a great deal about the “women’s rights movement in the US”. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this post, I’m referring largely to a movement, that while immensely successfully in some areas, has struggled with elitist tendencies and frequent blindness to the role of class, race, and sexuality based intersectionality. I in no way mean to insinuate that they always worked towards the promotion of equal rights for all women).

A good deal of the arguments made regarding the 19th amendment rested in the idea that women were inherently moral, ethical, and pure. Give women the vote, advocates claimed, and we would have a moralizing effect on an otherwise masculine and uncouth political system. In short, we did something modern feminists might look at with dismay; we emphasized gender norms to ensure the promotion of our own equality. In 1920, undoubtedly, such tactics were necessary, and as we approach the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, I, for one, am one thoroughly grateful (and enfranchised!) woman.

But that was then, and this is now. And while there are any number of injustices and inequalities left for women to combat, we certainly no longer have to rely on such underhanded tactics, right? Surely, almost one hundred years later, claims to equality can finally be taken at face value. Well, if you take a good look at the modern women’s rights movement in the USA, you might find that our negotiations continue.

American women today face any number of social, political, and economic impediments to equality. One obstruction that is frequently touted as particularly restrictive to women’s success is the wage gap, and its role in hampering equal pay for equal work. In arguing for The Paycheck Fairness act, or else other measures designed to close the wage gap, advocates certainly, and frequently, demand equality for equality’s sake. Any number of women’s organizations and networks, have repeatedly pointed to the calendar, and made the case that in 2015 we simply should not allow inequalities to so drastically harm the situation of women in the United States.

Inevitably, however, these arguments fall flat, and advocates realize that many of those in Congress are unwilling to disavow the wage gap simply because of it’s unfairness, nor endeavor to close it simply because equal pay for equal work is a worthy goal.

Cue the reappearance of our negotiations. Cue the emergence of data, and surveys, and thousands and thousands of studies demonstrating that equal pay laws are beneficial to the economy. Women make the majority of consumer decisions, after all! Paying us more means more money to stimulate the economy! “Look at Denmark,” we plead, “they’re doing just fine!” The Institute on Women’s Policy Research promises, to anyone who will listen, that, “unequal pay for women has had a negative effect on women and men, alike”.

That’s all great. I am glad that my equality benefits everyone. I’m ecstatic that my right to earn the same paycheck as my male friends will be good for them too. But is that really the point?

My purpose here isn’t to decide whether or not such arguments have a place. Indeed, I think that would do a disservice both to the thorough work undertaken by any number of women’s rights advocates, and the validity of the studies themselves. It does matter that equal pay is economically beneficial to both males and females. But shouldn’t fair pay be less an economic issue, and more a question of civil rights?

What happens when we reach an issue that we can’t directly justify in terms of economic, or political benefits? What about putting a woman on US currency? If the US Treasury Department hadn’t stepped in, how exactly would we have negotiated that one, other then; it’s simply the right thing to do? It doesn’t have economic paybacks, it’s not going to increase the likelihood of American political cohesion, and honestly, the social benefits may be limited to the millions of little girls who’ll see their own history on American bills.

As we look forward towards a world of economic and legal equality, it becomes increasingly clear that some issues, especially regarding social trends or changing mindsets, may only be combatable on the basis that they’re wrong. Hopefully, when we get there, equality for equality’s sake proves to be enough.

(Or hey, there’s probably an argument in there somewhere that women spend more cash when the person staring back looks like them. I’m sure the study is underway.)