When reading Greta Hallberg's recent opinion piece, titled "Gender roles should not be up for partisan debate," I had two reactions. I was happy that a student was so moved by something she had learned in class, but I was befuddled by the conclusions she drew. I, like Ms. Hallberg, was disturbed that "only 60 percent of the population agreed" that "women should have an equal role as men in society," according to a 2008 survey. I subsequently learned that the results were a bit more complex, as respondents weren't asked to simply agree or disagree with the statement; they placed themselves on a scale of agreement. According to the survey website, Democrats and Republicans seemed just about as likely to lean toward gender equality, although those who deemed themselves to be "liberal" were more likely than those who labeled themselves as "conservative" to do so.
Although the finding is disturbing, it is not surprising in light of a 2010 Pew Research survey, which found that 67 percent of American adults said that it is very important for a man to be able to support a family financially before he marries, while only 33 percent said the same for a woman. This is just one example to show that many people in the U.S. still have differing expectations for men and women regarding familial and social roles.
Another 2010 Pew Research Report also asked about gender equality and found that 97 percent of American adults believed that "women should have equal rights with men." But, among those supporters of equal rights, only 64 percent thought more changes were needed for women to have equal rights. Thus, it seems, that a significant minority of people believe that we have achieved gender equality in the U.S. - despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And this is where it seems that Hallberg and I begin to diverge in our thinking. She asserted that "countless women have risen to prominence in Washington, playing an equal role as their male counterparts." In actuality, it's quite easy to count these women; for example, the total number of women who have ever served in Congress is 313, compared to almost 12,000 men. Currently, only 20 percent of our Congress people are women - the highest percentage in U.S. history. To say that women in Washington have played a role equal to their male counterparts is far from true, especially given we've never had a woman in the Oval Office.
Hallberg concluded that "policies in Congress to eliminate the wage gap quite frankly aren't going to work," because "any kind of policy talk deepens the partisan divides about the issue" and "talking about gender equality will only polarize the parties on their view of women and their role in society." So, we don't want our policymakers to talk about the fact that gender inequality still exists, even though their jobs are to govern our nation by creating policies to solve social and economic problems? Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, should the suffragists have just acted like women were being treated fairly rather than fight for women's right to vote? Gender inequality has real-world implications even today; for example, on average, full-time working women earn just $.78 for every dollar earned by men, and women are more likely than men to live in poverty. Undoubtedly, gender discrimination was more overt and clear-cut in the past, while today it works in more complex ways such that factors like parental status need to be taken into account (see Coontz, 2015). But that complexity means that we all need to better educate ourselves about these problems - and the potential solutions. I am very happy that Hallberg and (hopefully) many other young people have had gender equality "deeply ingrained" in them through their upbringing and have not felt held back or discriminated against because of their gender. Many of us here at Miami have experienced social and/or educational privilege - but not all Americans have or will. We need to look beyond our own individual situations and realize how others are still oppressed due to their social location with regard to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic class, physical ability, etc.
Our feminist foremothers and fathers fought hard so that we could feel that "gender should not be a political issue anymore" - but, as the old feminist adage goes: the personal is political. So, for the many individuals still personally affected by sexism, racism, heterosexism, etc., the fight rages on - and, as such, the fight should still be raging on for all who care about social justice - and especially those who consider themselves feminists.
Associate Professor of Family Studies Department