Women's Rights Activism 101: For the Busy WomanCherise Charleswell I Women's Issues I Analysis I September 4th, 2014
Women and girls account for a slight majority of the world's population, and this is despite continued practices of female infanticide. What is female infanticide? It is an ancient phenomenon that is still practiced in the modern world in deeply patriarchal societies which place a low value on the birth of females. Thus, gender-selective deaths, which involve the killing of baby girls due to this preference for male babies, are carried out. In nations like China, girls are twice as likely to die in their first year of life as boys. So, let's be clear: women's rights are human rights. They involve treating women and girls with the same dignity that is given to men and boys. It is ensuring that all genders have their humanity acknowledged and their lives equally valued.
In keeping with the notion of value, women's rights also involve valuing the work carried out by women, and providing them equal pay for this work. Women's rights is about valuing the input and opinion of women and thus ensuring that these viewpoints are included in decision-making processes, whether they are conducted in corporate or non-profit boardrooms, professional association committee meetings, school boards, city councils, state legislatures, or the US Congress.
While feminists are actively engaged in women's rights activism, there are many women (and men) who also do this work, who do not consider themselves feminists. This is because feminism has not yet been successful in making a connection with women of color, women from/in the global south, and women who are not academics. The reasons for this disconnect are various and will not be discussed in detail at this time. However, feminists and other women's rights activists share the same goals and/or beliefs. For example, if you believe any of the following to be true, you may be a feminist:
- Female babies born have the same right to life as their male counterparts.
- You currently use or have used birth control, or do not have a problem with women using it.
- You believe that when women and men perform the same job, they should receive equal pay.
- You are against adult men marrying child brides.
- You find victim blaming of rape victims appalling, and believe that a woman/girl should not be raped regardless of what she wears.
- Last --- you are a supporter of rights and equality for women and men.
What is Activism & Advocacy?
In the most direct terms, activism is an act or a series of efforts that are carried out in a vigorous manner to promote, direct, bring about, or even impede social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental change. In short, it is simply carrying out a form of action on an issue. For example, there are times when activists want to bring about cultural change (end female genital mutilation), and then there are times when activists want to impede changes to the environment (air and water pollution resulting from fracking which affects the health of pregnant women).
There are many varying approaches to activism, and advocacy is one of the most widely used forms. The most basic definition of advocacy is that it is the act or process of supporting a cause or proposal. Thus, advocacy is a type of activism that is carried out in support of a specific cause, and it is usually done through engaging the political process. Advocates often focus on and aim to influence resource allocation and public policy, such as paid sick leave, which is not granted to many workers, especially low-income women workers. In May, advocacy efforts helped to get Assembly Bill 1522 passed, which will secure paid sick days for shift workers through the California State Assembly with a 48-20 vote (no Republicans supported the bill).
For business groups and allied lawmakers, the bill allegedly hamstrings businesses by chipping away at their bottom line. The legislation holds a spot on the California Chamber of Commerce's annual "job killers" list. Assemblywoman Gonzalez, D-San Diego, explained why women's rights advocates worked around this issue, and why this bill is beneficial to society as a whole: "Most of these workers are low wage and hourly, disproportionately women and Latinos, and they have to choose in their jobs whether to go to work sick and be able to make ends meet or lose a day's pay," Gonzalez said, adding that it would be a boon to working parents who need to take time off to care for sick children."
Advocacy work can be difficult and frustrating due to the reality of a slow-moving political process, as well as the fact that advocates have to compete with lobbyists who represent moneyed-interests; and who thus have the financial resources to persuade legislators to vote in their favor. Essentially, lobbying is nothing more than legalized bribery; and the Supreme Court's decision on Citizens United only made this process of bribery and corporate-directed policy more feasible. On January 21, 2010, with its ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are persons, entitled by the U.S. Constitution to buy elections and run our government. A number of advocate groups and coalitions, including Move to Amend are working diligently to overturn this decision by amending the constitution and rejecting the idea that money is speech. Among the list of Move To Amend Endorsing Organizations is The Hampton Institute, as well as a plethora of women's rights activist groups who realize that money-interest in politics has a very negative impact on the lives of women; just consider the recent Hobby Lobby decision. Other endorsing organizations include: Detroit Women of Color, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Main Street Moms, Texas Democratic Women, The Women's Network, Advocates for Democratic Principles, Women Against Military Madness, and so on.
So, Why Do Women Lead Such Busy Lives?
Engaging in direct political advocacy and the building of such skill-sets can be quite time consuming, which makes it difficult for women to do so; and that is due to the very busy lives that women lead. Patriarchy is a prominent factor in why women lead such busy lives. Systems of patriarchy define what women's work is and ultimately place less value (resulting in less pay or compensation) for the work that women do.
Specifically, women lead busy lives due to the following:
- Women workers engage in unpaid labor which includes cooking, cleaning, and caring for children.
- Women workers include single women who continue to do the bulk of the housework and are again unpaid for this labor and expenditure of energy.
- Women workers are often unpaid or receive very low pay for being caregivers to the elderly and disable; particularly their relatives. This is especially true for women in nations that lack strong healthcare or pension systems.
- Then there is the issue of gender pay inequity that leaves women workers making far less than men, and often adds the burden of taking on additional jobs or finding other means of income. This is particularly true for single mothers and single women in general, who cannot rely on the additional income of their spouse.
Therefore, women are perpetually busy, because outside of our paid work and professional obligations, we do most of the care work in families; caring for children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, women devote more than 110 million hours a year to unpaid interactive child care, more than double the 55 million hours put in by their male counterparts.1 This care work is socially and economically essential, but the fact that women do far more of this work than men will continue to be a major reason for women's disproportionate poverty.
Unpaid work, and that which has low pay, not only keeps women busy, but it also ties them into poverty and makes social mobility difficult. This is because gendered domestic labor only reinforces a patriarchal system of gender hierarchy, which limits educational and job opportunities for women and their daughters. In other words, they are too busy with these other tasks to find the time and energy to educate themselves, so that they can compete for better and higher paying jobs which will afford them greater financial independence.
During a 2013 UN General Assembly meeting of its social, humanitarian, and cultural body, Magdalena Sepulveda, a UN Special Reporter, shared these sentiments as she advocated for political and institutional changes: "Unpaid care work is at the foundation of all our societies, and crucial for economic growth and social development," she noted. "However, it has been mostly overlooked or taken for granted by policy makers. This has an enormous impact on women's poverty and their enjoyment of rights - as they carry out the majority of unpaid care ."
Why We Must Do This Work?
At this point, it should be understood that, yes, women are busy and, yes, activism will take some effort, and thus demand even more of our time. As burdensome as this may sound, we must still do this work. We must continue to challenge the structural sources of inequalities inherent in policies, laws, institutional mechanisms, and societal attitudes. Not doing so will surely result in negative consequences and taking a step back in time when gender inequality was far much greater, and women and girls had even less rights. In the US, we must engage in battle, due to the ' War on Women' that conservative interests are waging.
We must continue to do this work, to honor the work done by our foremothers in garnering the rights we now enjoy (and take for granted):
- The right to vote (Interesting enough, Colorado, the first state to legalize the use of marijuana, also happens to the be the very first state to adopt their amendment giving women the right to vote in 1893). All women in the US were not given the right to vote until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.
- In 1960, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use and distribution of birth control pills --- a big win for Reproductive justice, which has not been realized for many women in the Global South; and which still represents a financial burden for women here in the US. Again, refer to the Hobby Lobby decision.
- In 1963, one of the first steps towards gender pay equity was taken with the passage of the Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal for employers to pay a woman less than a man for doing the same job. Of course, this effort was not fool proof, and the practice continues. Hence the advocacy efforts around the Paycheck Fairness Act .
- In 1973, Roe v. Wade established women's rights to safe and legal abortions. Again, many women in the global south do not have the right and access to safe abortions, and many women here in the US face intimidation when trying to practice this right or reside in states where access to safe clinics is limited. It was not until 1978 that the Pregnant Act passed, banning employment discrimination against pregnant women.
Despite these "wins," there is still much work that is left to be done domestically, and certainly globally, when it comes to women's rights and the protection of families. Just consider how the US compares on the issue of paid and protected parental leave.
Engaging in women rights activism can be more difficult for women of color due to the other intersecting factors that impact their lives; particularly the issue of racism. Often, when calling attention to sexism, misogyny, and gender inequity, women of color are told that those issues do not exist, are a distraction, or are not as important as the collective burden of and fight against racism. In other words, they should endure and ignore blatant sexism, and devote all of their efforts, time, and attention to fighting racial oppression.
For Latina women, this means that they are not to challenge patriarchal cultural attitudes such as machismo. For women of the Muslim faith, it means speaking out against Islamophobia, all while having to protest or denounce honor killings, such as the recent stoning death of a Pakistani woman who married a man without her family's approval. For Indigenous/Native American women, this involves advocating for improved health and social conditions on reservations and in their communities, all while suffering domestic violence and physical assault rates that far exceed women of other ethnicities2, with the Department of Justice estimating these assault rates as much as 50% higher than the next most victimized demographic.3
For Asian women, this revolves around the practice of masking internal tension, and with it gender activism; in order to make it seem that Asian women do not struggle with sexism. This contention is of course ludicrous when considering the patriarchal nature of many Asian societies, along with the historic stereotype of the timid, submissive, sexually available, geisha-like Asian women. Such misconceptions have spawned the #NotYourAsianSidekick hashtag, which gives a voice to and lends credence to the full lived experiences of Asian women. While activist groups like the Asian Women Coalition Ending Prostitution advocate for the rights of women and girls by focusing on and eradicating prostitution and sexual exploitation. They point out that is not a time honored cultural practice among Asians. It is, instead, a form of male violence against women. For Black women, it means they must continue with the false narrative of equality within the civil rights and Black power movements, and they must certainly not interrupt the discussion on police violence and aggression against Black men and boys by pointing out the inconvenient truth that Black women and girls are subjected to the same violence.
Ultimately, feminism provides a central framework for women's rights activism, because it seeks to remove all oppression, whether based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, or income. Women of color must realize that they can and should advocate for their rights as women and as people of color; for their Full Humanity.
Building a Movement
Women, particularly women of color, continue to be impacted by gender inequality along with the socioeconomic effects of this inequality; and the end result is that these women often find themselves too busy to fully engage or figure out how they can contribute to women's rights movements. They are busy with wage-work, unpaid labor, and the list goes on. For this reason, women's rights activism should focus on building an inclusive movement, which accommodates women who may have limited financial resources and time, and who are not academics, elitist, and professionals. In her article, Gender Activism Must Be Taken Out Of Posh Hotels And Into The Mainstream , Mariz Tadros criticizes the focus on the elite and "professional" women's rights activists by pointing out critical barriers to movement building. She offered the following sentiment in this regard: "Meetings on gender development, held in five-star hotels are too elitist, sanitized and contained..... professionals who "do" gender and development have a wealth of knowledge but are incapable of communicating in ways that touch the public." Her comments echo the critical criticisms that I shared in the article Feminism Is Not Just For Academics: Overcoming Disconnect and Division.
Although feminism acts as a central framework for women's rights movements, feminism is not enough for movement building and ensuring that women and girls are given the full rights of humanity; not if it is going to be relegated to academic conferences, pop culture theorizing, and remain disconnected from the very masses that it claims it wants to uplift. Movement building is essential for activism that seeks to bring about revolutionary, political, socio-cultural, and institutional change. Having a movement behind you, with members -- other women and men-- working with you, helps to remove some of the barriers to activism for women who are busy and who may feel as if they already have too much on their plate. A movement ensures that they are not again bearing the burden of responsibilities alone. Instead, they can offer their own small contributions towards the struggle for women's rights.
Below are a list of strategies, some requiring little effort and others requiring a little more effort and time commitment, that any busy woman can engage in to carry out women's rights work:
- Have a specific women's issue that you are concerned about? Perhaps something on the ballot or up for a committee vote? Take a few minutes to write a letter to a newspaper or an elected politician who represents your district. Simply let them know your thoughts on the issue and what you would like to be done.
- Do you have a little more time? Arrange a visit with one your elected officials.
- Unsure about what to say or do when you are on one of these visits? There are a number of women's organizations that offer free or low-cost advocacy training. These training seminars could be one-day seminars or full courses. For example, women in the Los Angeles area can enroll in the California Black Women's Health Project's (ATP) Advocacy Training Program or take advantage of the Latinas for Reproductive Justice's various community education and mobilization efforts.
- Many organizations such as Latinas for Reproductive Justice also provide Policy Advocacy Tools such as fact sheets, a list of priorities, research reports, action kits and more.
- Stay informed and share all you know about critical women's issues by joining mailing lists and signing up for free newsletters. Great resources include the Association For Women's Rights in Development which offers many focused newsletters, the Women of Color Network or even the HuffPost Women. Bookmark these sites, print and clip articles of interest, become an amateur archivist. And again, remember to SHARE this information.
- If you are a student, research your school's sexual assault policy and inform other students. If you will like to do more, register with theSAFER Campus Accountability project. You can do so by registering at www.safercampus.org and submit your school's policy review form to the database. Members of the public can access this database for free.
- Take a page from the LGBTQ community and be "OUT" with your views and stance on issues that affect women and girls. Engage your family and friends on these topics. If you self-identify as a feminist, do not keep it a secret. Let it be known, and explain why.
- Utilize adornments. Integrate feminist/womanist items - t-shirts, pins, brooches, and other accessories in your wardrobe and wear them proudly.
- Digital Feminist Activism - is often referred to as the 4th Wave of Feminism, and it offers many opportunities for virtual advocacy and activism. Sign-on to an online petition around an issue that impacts women and children. If it is a topic that you feel very passionate about, be sure to customize your letter that you are submitting with your electronic signature. Join or follow the wide array of women-centered groups on Facebook and Twitter. Share and/or Re-tweet stories and posts that highlight the issues you are passionate about. Use hash-tags when possible to draw attention to an issue. Join the growing Feminist Network, which is a global online community created to be a tool that increases the networking, visibility and voice of feminists around the world. Create media for social change and distribute on social media; this can include memes, infographics, and more.
- Support feminist programming, such as Feminist Magazine on Pacifica Radio's KPFK 90.7FM, alsoPacifica's Joy of Resistance, Multicultural Feminist Radio WBAI 99.5FM, or Wombanist Views a monthly radio program. Call in and be part of the discussion or contact producers with show ideas.
- Create resistance art, whether this is through poetry (spoken word and written), short stories and essays, music, theater, photography, or other forms of visual art. Get this art published in zines, blogs, websites, feminist publications, magazines, newspapers, and academic journals. Also, support this type of artistic expression. For example, New York based Price of Silence, a grassroots performing arts collective that brings the global struggle for women's rights to life for audiences to live and breathe activism in action; performs a number of shows throughout the year. While there is the Stop Telling Women To Smile art series created by Tatyana Fazlalizadeh; which attempts to address gender based street harassment by placing eye-catching drawn portraits of women, which include captions that speak directly to offenders, in public spaces.
- Build unity by hosting sister-gatherings, sista circles, women's retreats, and collective meetings in order to support other women. These gatherings offer the perfect opportunity to build relationships, release frustrations, exchange ideas, and offer mutual encouragement.
- Donate whatever you can to organizations, websites and blogs engaged in women's rights activism, advocacy, etc. Support their efforts.
- Have a special skill? Would like to become even more involved? Volunteer. A number of organizations also have virtual volunteer programs and internships. Remember that their budgets are often diminutive or non-existent, so volunteers are a valuable and much needed resource.
- Last but not least, Vote!
Despite the progress made, particularly during the past century, women around the world - especially in the Global South as well as women of color and working-class women residing in post-industrial nations - continue to be impacted by gender inequity and all of its negative consequences. It is this need for continued progress, along with a need to combat attempts to turn-back-the-clock and erode rights that have already been gained, that makes contemporary women's rights activism and advocacy imperative. However, this is a daunting task which will require much more than theorizing, but rather mobilization of and the contribution of women activists - the professional and grassroots-from all walks of life. We must realize the gender inequity we protest against and work to eradicate also makes it difficult to mobilize these women, often leaving them too busy and overwhelmed by their day-to-day responsibilities. It is for this reason that we must develop and share alternative forms of activism and advocacy that could be utilized by working-class women.
Please share these strategies and add to the toolkit and conversation by sharing others that you may use.
Nancy Folbre, For Love and Money: Care Provision in the United States (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2012)
Brief for National Network to End Domestic Violence et al. as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondents at 2, Plains Commerce Bank v. Long Family Land and Cattle Co., 128 S. Ct. 2709 (2008) (No. 07-411). 2
Steven W Perry, American Indians and Crime- A BJS Statistical Profile 1992-2002, Bureau of Justice Statistics, US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, December 2004.