Rape threats against female bloggers. A major presidential candidate calling women “pigs” and even worse. Women being deprived of basic health care from Planned Parenthood because of anti-abortion politics. Female politicians facing mockery for being women. The pay gap getting worse as many women continue to be undervalued. Misogyny (hatred of women) is nothing new, of course. But in the past few years, anti-women sentiments have erupted through the Internet, popular culture, right wing attacks, and the rejection of basic civility now ridiculed as “political correctness.” What do the international feminist movements have to teach us about fighting misogyny? What could we learn from the suffragists and others who demanded to be treated as equals?
Lately, I have been immersed in research on both misogyny and feminism. Only a few years earlier, I would have considered today’s misogyny to be subtle and even ambiguous at times. During this past year, though, I have seen so many examples of overt and unmistakable woman-bashing that it can seem hopeless. Why even bother trying to fight this avalanche of words and images meant to demean the female?
Then I picture the ten-year-old Nujood Ali taking a taxi on her own in the big city of Sanaa, Yemen. She entered the courthouse and looked for a kind-looking adult to hear her story. Fortunately, lawyers who heard about her abusive marriage decided to help her get a divorce. Her story inspired Yemenis to fight child marriage through public awareness and legislative advocacy.
Another activist who inspires me is Waris Dirie, who has led the global fight against FGM/FGC (female genital mutilation/female genital cutting). Mothers fear that their daughters will not get husbands if they are not cut, so girls as young as six are held down by a group of women for the ritual. One Somali woman once told me about the experience: “I will never forget the pain.” Dirie’s bold attempts to fight long-held cultural beliefs about virginity and sexuality are remarkable. She gave up her career as an international model to work as the United Nations Special Ambassador for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation, as well as establishing foundations for the empowerment of women.
Besides global violence against women is the issue of ecofeminism. Bella Abzug, the feisty politician who taught women how to be leaders, also helped to found WEDO (Women’s Environment and Development Organization) in the 1990s. One ecofeminist influenced by Abzug wrote:
In my heart I believe that women will change the nature of power rather than power change the nature of women.
For we are the Old Ones, the New Breed, the Natives, who came first but lasted, indigenous to an utterly different dimension. We are the girlchild in Zambia, the grandmother in Burma, the woman in El Salvador and Afghanistan, Finland and Fiji. We are the whale-song and rainforest, the deep wave rising huge to shatter glass power on the shore…
We are the women who will transform the world.
(Poem cited in Moghadam, V.M. (2005). Globalizing women: Transnational feminist networks. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, p. 114.)
These international feminists have joined a centuries-old movement of demanding equal rights for women. The story of feminism deserves to be taught in every history classroom alongside the story of the Founding Fathers. Students are usually taught that women were “granted” the vote as if it were an inevitable and graceful event. Decades of passionate speeches and violent confrontations, though, demonstrate that society resisted the idea of women voters. The suffrage movement was anything but pretty. Alice Paul, for instance, was jailed with other women for their street protests. Facing brutal conditions, these women went on a hunger strike in 1917. The authorities responded by first placing her in a psychiatric ward, then later force feeding her. This method consisted of using a metal clamp to force her mouth open for the tube, thus prompting the name for her: Iron-Jawed Angel. She still continued the hunger strike for weeks. One of her most famous quotes is, “When you put your hand to the plow, you can’t put it down until you get to the end of the row.” She later wrote the Equal Rights Amendment, which has not yet been added to the US Constitution.
Besides these exemplary feminists, social work values can also guide us in our fight against misogyny. Social justice issues are intertwined with feminism including: minimum wage (women are more likely than men to work in low-paying jobs), health care (women are being denied the most basic services because of sweeping anti-abortion restrictions), and crime (women are more likely than men to be raped or assaulted by a partner). Almost every social justice issue, then, could be examined from a woman-centered perspective for greater clarity.
Another social work value, the dignity and worth of all persons, can embolden us to speak out when we hear the derogatory use of words such as “bitch” and “skank.” I still struggle with the most effective way to speak out against misogynistic language, so I hope that we can start a dialogue about it. Through the years, I had laughed along at jokes that actually made me cringe. Now I hold myself accountable to rejecting anti-women comments in my social circles. Fortunately, it appears that the younger generation is unafraid to speak out against slut-shaming and other negative behaviors.
The feminist movement needs social workers—and we need them. Despite the fact that I wrote a book about “women’s issues,” I really consider them to be human issues because men are also damaged by polarized gender roles. Although it can be discouraging to live during a time of resurgent misogyny, we can remain hopeful because we are not alone. The powerful women of the past and the international feminists of today are part of our movement. As social workers, we cannot help but believe that both individuals and societies can transform themselves.
Featured image credit: abstract color watercolor by Gerd Altmann. Public domain via Pixabay.