Monday, October 22, 2012

"Linked Instead of Ranked": Equality is Not a Zero-Sum Game

You should watch this great clip of Gloria Steinem. 

What sticks with me most is her comment that she doesn't understand why people think that there always has to be a hierarchy, why people "can't be linked instead of ranked."

It made me think of the young woman from last week's town hall who asked the question about equal pay. She talked about the importance of reproductive rights and later said that she thinks that women should be treated the same as anyone else. And yet she said that she was "absolutely not a feminist" because she's "not only concerned with women." 

This woman has the right to self-identify however she'd like, but I take serious issue with the idea that feminists are "only concerned with women." That wouldn't be the promotion of gender equality; that would be the promotion of a new power hierarchy. 

Equality, by its very nature, is not a zero sum game. It's an everyone-wins scenario, and that's why it's so hard to achieve. We don't have many models for that kind of fight. 

And let me be clear: it is a fight. While I believe that collaborative rhetoric has a place in achieving goals, I don't think that argument is a bad thing. That's why I think this video is so powerful for this particular topic. Her two main topics--the demonization of the word "feminism" and the need to raise children in homes that aren't violent so that they don't see the world as a dichotomy of victim and victimizer--may not seem that connected upon first glance, but look closer. 

If you are raised in a world where you see everyone as victim or victimizer, then you are much more likely to victimize in order to ensure your own position of power. But if you are raised in a world that dismantles that dichotomy, you have the ability to see beyond those narrow labels and position yourself outside of a cycle of victimization. There are two ways to accomplish this. 

In the first way, everyone gets along. If we live in harmony and agreement, we don't need violence. 

In the second way, we fight without violence. 

The first way is often dismissed because of its overly-optimistic approach and seemingly impossible implementation. The second way is often simply ignored. But we can fight without violence. We can fight without hatred. We can fight without victimization. When I fight for my rights as a feminist, I don't have to do so at the expense of your rights as a ______ (fill in the blank).

If we live in a dichotomized world of victim and victimizer, anyone fighting for their rights is viewed as a victim fighting to become a victimizer. That means that people who do not see themselves as victimized in that way fear that they are about to be victimized when the shoe is on the other foot. If a man does not see himself as part of the feminist movement, he might view feminists as trying to victimize him. That's the only way we can see the world when there are only two choices. But if we don't see the world that way, then someone's fight for their own rights does not have to be an attack on ours. 

If people are linked instead of ranked, we can see how someone's fight against oppression is not a power play, but a move that makes us all stronger. 


  1. It's unfortunate that the term originally coined to be related to the empowerment of a previously unempowered gender is now reused by some as a term related explicitly to equality (rather than specifically remedying a deficit on one side) because like it or not the word itself sounds like it's doing something for women and not for men. I wish we could be "egalitarian" instead of "feminist" now, simply because that would connote something that this woman and, I suspect, a lot of men, could more comfortably associate with.

    I understand that the feminist battles themselves have yet to be fully won -- and in the USA at least, feminism is truly alive and necessary, more now it seems than any time in the last 20 years -- but I think we're encroaching on an era where in order to deliver on some of feminism's tenets, action to empower men (as homemakers and childcarers particularly) is required and I just think that a lot of men don't look at what's deficient for them and think "because I want to stay home with the kids while my partner works, that makes me a feminist". I do not really know the solution to this linguistical anomaly.

    1. I agree with you completely, especially about the need to empower men in spheres that have traditionally been considered "women's work" so that an egalitarian negotiation of the work that we do and the way we lead our lives is actually possible.

      I've seen some really good reflection on the masculinist movement, and I consider myself a masculinist as well as a feminist. While the feminist movement is definitely the one that I identify with and work toward more strongly, I don't in anyway see the masculinist movement as a threat to that. That's what I think of when I hear Steinhem's "linked instead of ranked." working on gender equality through the feminist lens and working on gender equality through the masculinist lens do not have to be at odds; they are linked.

      Once again, though, the rhetoric gets tricky as the masculinist movement is often associated (rightly or wrongly) with the Men's Rights movement, which has had some decidedly anti-feminist tenets. When one movement begins actively attacking the other movement's progress, that's moving back into that sphere of violence and the necessary ranking and hierarchy that goes with it.

    2. I also wish the term had been coined as egalitarianism (or something similar) instead of feminism because I think it's so misleading! Although I understand that feminism means equality for all, I am obsessed with semantics; the fact that the very word is tied to one gender immediately discounts what it stands for. I find this both hilarious and unfortunate, largely because it would be so wonderful to use the same word to advocate for men. I find it's hard to use the word "feminism" to talk about breaking down barriers for men in female-dominated fields or as stay-at-home parents, for example.

      Sigh, alas, if only we had coined the term! Regardless, this is an interesting video, post and comments!

    3. I agree with you that there is a knee-jerk reaction that's bound by its semantics and that that's a problem for the movement.

      While I think that a term like "masculinist" or "gender egalitarian" is completely appropriate for talking about breaking down barriers for men in female-dominated spheres, I still think that's feminist as well. I think it's feminist not only because it advances the goal of gender equality, but also because I think that it's a patriarchal structure that has made those spheres stigmatized for men in the first place.

      While there are certainly some women who get upset when men try to take on "their" roles, I've always seen that as more reactive than proactive. I don't think there's a women-centered power play intended to keep men out of these roles; I think it's the exact same male-centric power play that put women in those roles as a default in the first place. So I think that breaking those barriers is still feminist because those barriers are still patriarchal at their core.

  2. great post. i needed a little dose of gloria today.

    this dichotomy plays so strongly into racism as well. it's how we get the illusion of "reverse-racism" out of affirmative action.

    and the woman in the town hall mtg? sigh.

    1. Yep. The "reverse-racism" thing drives me crazy for this very reason. I think it probably happens anytime we see a group fighting for their rights because we can't imagine a world in which there isn't a power hierarchy.

  3. That was a really powerful use of rhetoric when you said "When I fight for my rights as a feminist, I don't have to do so at the expense of your rights as a ______ (fill in the blank)." You could replace "feminist" with whatever cause it is you support, like "When I fight for my rights as a homosexual, I don't have to do so at the expense of your rights as a ______ (fill in the blank)" or "When I fight for my rights as a environmentalist, I don't have to do so at the expense of your rights as a ______ (fill in the blank)," and so on.
    Thanks for sharing that effective bit of reasoning.