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Standing Our Ground: Going Beyond Maslow's Basic Needs
by Mary E. Plouffe
Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs tells us that basic needs (food, shelter, safety) must be satisfied before higher level needs (social relationships, self-esteem, self-actualization) can be given much attention.
A University of Illinois study published in 2011 challenges this assumption. In fact, even in countries where survival is a daily battle, people report a need for relationship, accomplishment and a feeling of effectance (personal power) in the world. We can, it seems, concern ourselves with many things at once.
The day after the election, the women's movement needs to remember this.
The forces that want to turn back the clock on women's rights, on reproductive rights and "issues of the womb" are counting on the old paradigm to be true. They are hoping that women will be so distracted with these core issues of safety and security in our own bodies that we will leave their war rooms and policy rooms bereft of our voices. This would be a big mistake.
There are extremists who want to put women and their bodies back under the control of a single conservative perspective. The laws and regulations they are proposing need to be challenged and beaten back. But I believe that this group is small, loud and beatable.
Women born in the last 30 years may have grown up without the need to grab the feminist flag, but they will rally if the rights they have enjoyed since they were born are in danger. And their mothers and grandmothers, who fought for those rights years ago in the trenches, will know how to lead them.
The larger danger comes from those who want to preserve and extend the balance of the past, the long-held reality that debates about economics and military policy and international policy are held almost exclusively in male voices.
Their use of Maslow's psychology is simple: Keep the pot overflowing on the stove and the drawing room will remain cigar-friendly. Whether this is by chance or design, the resurgence of old feminist battles risks usurping too many women's voices, and leaving critical issues without our influence. It will be no one's fault but our own if we let that happen. Women have won many battles by uniting our voices. I believe, the day after this election, we need to hold our ground, and respond with a chorus of diverse feminine voices from every powerful position we own.
Here is how progressive feminists can do this.
Moving Forward with Four Action Steps
First, as a community, we need to encourage our members to put their energy and resources where they will make the most impact. I want female engineers talking about energy policy, and female economists talking about financial policy. I want them not only to feel free to do this, but to be applauded when they put their time and energy where they have the most credibility and where it will have the most impact for good.
Second, we need women to challenge the media to stay on topic, and not permit every interview with a woman to become about the latest assault on women's rights. Legislators, authors and politicians need to resist the pull to get them off their chosen topics and onto one that relates only to their gender. It is demeaning and distracting for every woman of prominence to be redirected to the hot-button issue the right-wing conservative voices want us talking about. And we need to say so. In my fantasy world, even Hillary Clinton would occasionally lift her eyebrows and ask "Is that really what you brought me here to discuss?"
Third, we need to celebrate the fact that the women's movement has graduated. It is no longer about the right to power; it is about the exercise of that power. Reproductive rights are an essential cornerstone, but the time is past when this issue alone should define the movement.
Women who would never consider having an abortion can be mobilized to fight for the environment and their voices need to be in that debate. Women of deep religious conviction may never join more liberal voices on support for contraception, but as we form our collective conscience on the death penalty and incarceration of juveniles, they may have much to add.
In June 2012, a group of nuns responded to a reprimand from the Vatican by driving a bus across the U.S. to protest the impacts of the proposed Ryan budget on poor women and children. I think they deserve their own page in the 2012 feminist yearbook. If we do not embrace an expanded definition of who we are, and how we use our power in the world, we are sabotaging ourselves.
Finally, the women's movement needs to reach out to younger women, to those who think feminism was their mother's issue, and has little to do with their lives. Research shows that many have an "ambiguous understanding" of feminism, identifying it with caricatured extremes of "man-haters" or women who demean the choice of motherhood and family. These younger women embrace feminist principles of equality as an assumption, a given in their world. But they do not see the women's movement as relevant to their lives or their futures.
To me, this suggests an evolution in process, an expansion of what feminism can and will be in this century. We need to harness that evolution by listening to this generation of young women and inviting them to shape the goals of the future, not just refight the battles of the past.
Refusing to Be Distracted
I do not mean to minimize or discount the threats the current political climate holds for women's rights. They are real and need to be addressed.
But we must not be drawn into the media's seductive hyperbole and histrionics. It gives the most extreme voices air time that is not earned. It keeps us all talking about Rush Limbaugh's latest insults, or the sometimes laughable legislation the Tea Party radicals propose. And in doing that, it distracts and diminishes us.
Using all of our strength to fight these battles misses an essential reality. Women executing the broadest range of executive, intellectual and social policy roles do something equally important. They speak, in their lives, the most powerful arguments against turning back the clock. They demonstrate to any who might have doubts that women's voices add value, and wisdom and judgment. A recent Credit Suisse Research Institute report offers the numbers to prove it. Over a six-year period, including the downturn of 2008, large companies with women on their boards outperformed companies with male-only boards by a whopping 26 percent.
We need these women to stay right where they are. Their leadership manifests a higher level truth that is not about their right to be there. It is about the benefits we all receive because they are there.
These issues need to be addressed no matter who wins the White House and claims the majorities in the House and Senate in November. It's true that short term allocation of resources may need to be different if right wing forces prevail: more of us will need to be concerned with those baseline levels of the pyramid on Maslow's chart.
If we are thoughtful and focused, we can assess this safety and security threat and respond to it with the most powerful and effective voices the movement has to offer. But let's be clear in our response. We will recruit; we will resist; and we will defeat those who want to take away women's power. But we will do it by exercising that power in every venue where women speak the truth of what is good for us and for this country. We will be there in our families, our churches, our universities, our congressional halls and our boardrooms. And the message will be unmistakable. We are here to stay.
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