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A Radical Look at the Question of Equality

by Helen Gilbert


When I heard from Radical Women members who attended this summer's U.S. Social Forum that some participants in the Gender Justice workshop had questioned whether "equality" was a worthwhile goal, my first response was: "Oh no, are Women Studies academics caving to the rightwing?" It reminded me of how many reproductive rights groups have substituted the demure term "choice" for demands for abortion, no forced sterilization, and female self-determination.

A similar debate over words and goals is happening now among some progressives who tell socialists such as Radical Women that our political identifier should be dropped since the far-right has used it as a slander. (When have they not?) Then I learned that On the Issues Magazine was examining the question of equality. Hmmm…this seems to be a trend. Where's it coming from?

Do those who think equality is old hat believe that parity has been achieved? That hardly seems possible. Women and children are still paying the highest toll in U.S. wars -- as civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan and in acts of domestic violence by dehumanized and distraught returning soldiers. Lesbians are the chief "beneficiary" of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" military discharges. African American women were a major target of fraudulent housing loans and have lost their homes in disproportionate numbers.

Immigrant mothers are desperately trying to hold their families together under the assault of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and deportations. More and more women are homeless or just one step ahead of it. Almost the only sure thing about federal healthcare reform is that it will make access to abortion even more difficult.

The economic collapse has forced many men from the workforce, placing the burden of primary wage-earner on female partners, whose smaller salaries can't stretch to cover the need. As public services are slashed and workers face speed-up, furloughs and reduced benefits, women are asked to spread themselves even thinner to provide unpaid childcare, eldercare and support for ill family members.

Getting the short end of the stick in this time of economic crisis is putting many women's survival at risk.

Clearly, "equality" is not a one-size-fits-all solution to the issues listed above, which are just a few of the challenges women face. But rather than dumping the goal of equality, why not incorporate it into a broad, multi-issue program that goes to the root of the problem?

Women suffer every form of oppression -- class, race, sexual, age, disability, you name it. So liberating the Second Sex requires the elimination of every type of discrimination. To do this requires much more than putting a few females in positions of power. It will take a thorough restructuring of society that will free men as well.

Though some women have used the gains of the feminist movement as a ladder to joining the old boy's club, feminism is not by definition elitist and lily white -- another charge heard at the U.S. Social Forum. Like other movements, the women's struggle contains different wings and contradictory elements. But its most powerful and principled sectors have always been led by radicals, women of color, lesbians and working class women.

And that is only logical. The movement for women's liberation, which affects half the human race, is profoundly revolutionary when it fights for the needs of its most oppressed sisters -- working and poor women, women of color, queers, immigrants, youth -- those who have always been initiators and movement sparkplugs. Female revolt challenges the system of privilege at its very core -- the capitalist drive for profits that relies on social inequality and the unpaid and underpaid labor of women.

Sisters everywhere are taking the lead in fighting back. Major Margaret Witt is challenging her dismissal from the Air Force in a case that is putting "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" on trial. Immigrant mothers are organizing and speaking out at protests and rallies across the country. Women workers in public sector jobs are leading fights against layoffs and cutbacks in services. A Seattle teenager initiated a rally protesting a visit to her high school by followers of homophobic bigot Fred Phelps -- despite pressure from the school to "just ignore them."

At the U.S. Social Forum, Radical Women delegates encountered dynamic female organizers, many young and many of color, mobilizing on every front. The Social Forum showed that women are instrumental to efforts against police brutality, and for immigrant rights, queer liberation, education, food safety, alternative media and much more. Let's also apply that energy to bettering the lives of our sisters, daughters and mothers.

The need is great. It's time to reclaim and re-energize a fighting, militant feminist movement.

October 11, 2010

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Helen Gilbert serves on the National Steering Committee of Radical Women, and is the Managing Editor of Red Letter Press, proud publisher of The Radical Women Manifesto.

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

Also see A Feminist Vision: No Justice-No Equity by Loretta Ross in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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