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How do we reach equality for women? And is it the summit of our aspirations? Contributors to On The Issues Magazine, Summer-Fall 2010 consider equality, double standards and human rights.

A Feminist Vision: No Justice-No Equity
by Loretta Ross

My mother always asked the question, "Why would I want to be equal to men, when I've been superior to them all my life?"

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This sardonic questioning of the equality goals of the women's movement always seemed to have an important message for me hidden behind the joke. In order to be equal to men, do women have to be like men? This is a long-standing dilemma for the women's movement.

As an African American feminist, this apparently simple question never seemed to address my intersectional experiences, and they did not neatly fit into a linear gender axis that demands equality with men. It did not fit for several reasons.

First, who says what men have is what women want or need? Sure, there is plenty of discrimination and inequality between men and women, but I've never been sure that I want precisely what men have. For example, the stress levels, the risk of state violence like police brutality, the suicide rates, the over-blown macho expectations, the rigid gender roles, the emotional disconnects, and the abuse of power and privilege are all examples of standards for men established by men.

I'm not completely convinced that I want entrée into that particular club. Shouldn't feminists be trying to change the rules of the game rather than seeking our own equal opportunity to oppress?

Second, my biology – my ability to bear children – marks me for gender discrimination and embodies one particular intersection of my oppression. Ignoring biology never seemed to make sense for me, so I lean towards the gynder-feminists or those who strongly believe that biology matters. My plumbing is the first cause of consequence for most of the dramatic moments of my life – my rapes, my incest, my teen pregnancy, my abortion, my sterilization. It is also the reason I became a lifelong feminist to fight these gendered, socially constructed oppressions that I experienced, along with millions of other women.

I cannot be like men because men will never share my lived experiences and, for the most part, I will never share theirs. I have a standpoint that must incorporate how oppression is visited on my body and what purpose this oppression serves, both in subjugating and liberating me at the same time.

Definitions Depend on Situations

Third, I have never subscribed to the neat categories of feminism that scholars have erected as theoretical silos to explain our movement: liberal, radical, socialist, gyno-centric, Third Wave, and so on. I fit many of those categories depending on which circumstances confront me, and I believe that most feminist activists I've known flow smoothly between these boundaries as well.

I’m seeking to build a movement against oppression

When I'm fighting legislation, I'm may be wearing my liberal feminist hat. When I'm advocating for Reproductive Justice as a community organizer, I'm emphasizing my gyno-centric beliefs. When I'm criticizing the global capitalist system and the current neo-liberal vs. neo-conservative political parties, I'm a socialist feminist. When I'm analyzing white supremacy and its impact on women of color, I'm a Black feminist. When I'm envisioning the world I'd like to see, I'm a humanist feminist.

I could go on, but you get the picture. I think that each of my feminist identities may have a different definition for equality that is situational and not only dependent on achieving parity with men. So defining one fixed standard for equality is beyond me and does not incorporate the dialectical dynamics of my intersectional identities and multiple sites of feminist struggle.

If I had to choose one over-arching feminist label for myself, it would probably be as a "justice feminist" because that term approximates and combines both process and outcome goals that help me define what I'm fighting for, instead of what I'm fighting against.

Equality is just one milestone

I believe in justice for all peoples of the world. I believe that human rights are the pathway to justice. I believe that equality of outcomes is as important as equality of opportunity. It does me no good to have equality with men if I still end up in a situation where true justice is elusive. I may achieve equal pay with men, but does that necessarily mean I'm paid what the job is really worth? Men are underpaid, too, in a capitalist system.

In sum, it seems that this equality argument is based on asking the wrong questions. Are we seeking equality with men or complete, and undivided justice for all people on the planet? Of course, I'm not arguing that gender discrimination is ever justified, or that we should not fight it wherever it mutates, but I'm seeking and hoping to build a movement against oppression in which every human being is included, and equality – important as it is – is just one milestone in the process.


Loretta J. Ross is National Coordinator of the SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Health Collective, headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia.

Also see Beyond Equality to Liberation by Mary Lou Greenberg in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See The Art Perspective presents a mini-retrospective of the art of Regina Frank in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

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