By Melayna Williams:
The United #StateofWomen hashtag, video, and subsequent conference seems like a step in the right direction following a recent UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report, chronicling the United States as allowing women’s rights to ‘lag’. What do they mean by ‘lag’? It could be close to 300,000 rapes annually, the statistically astronomical yet inexact rates of one out of three women experiencing some form of intimate partner or domestic violence, which kills more women annually under forty-five years of age than car accidents and cancer combined, women being killed in police custody, the confusing individual state-sponsored denial of reproductive rights and the women who turn to pills and hangers to fill in the gap, lack of media representation, objectification when represented in the media, maternal health care ranking, female genital mutilation (FGM) (500,000 girls in the U.S.), treatment of women and children seeking asylum, number of homeless women, working poor women and so on and so forth. In short, there are many reasons why a #StateofWomen conference is urgently needed in the United States. Especially, given the conference is happening one week after the news of a Stanford University rape survivor, being nothing short of tortured, with a California court decision that her rapist’s potential future is more important than her present.
So, on its face, this conference, the press and social media around the conference seems like a very positive step in the right direction. All you have to do is look at the video promoting the conference which immediately went viral with an all-star cast: Meryl Streep, Tina Fey, Oprah Winfrey, First Lady Michelle Obama, Kerry Washington, Laverne Cox, Christy Turlington, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, and many more. “We are the United State of Women…” Moving past the social media, the website calls the movement to take on “key gender equality issues” and that will “make a difference in our collective future.” More plainly, in the words of Sheryl Sandberg, “Lean in.”
Society will come around, between you working overtime, being denied space in that lab, raped in your dorm room, living in poverty, lacking access to the rope to climb the social ladder nailed together in privilege, you’re not doing enough leaning. Lean in to the military where scathing reports staple together a code of silence and injustice when you’re raped. Lean in and ask your boss, why you’re not getting paid as much as your male counterpart who does less work than you. Lean in and ask why you’re being dragged out of your car, thrown from your desk, handcuffed, but better do it fast.
Why are women being called on to take on key gender issues and not men to rectify their misogyny, nor the government to live up to the social contract that is stationed on it’s value of guaranteeing equal rights under the law? So what is the #UnitedStatesofWomen aside from a hashtag and the video, a compilation of glossy shots of various wealthy women making vague references to pay equity and general female empowerment, while throwing out statements about college (where one out of four women are raped and those rapes are covered up by the college), women coding (where women’s numbers are critically low) and being the boss of a company (women hold 4.2% of leadership or CEO positions in the U.S.)? So, historically, or ‘her-storically’, where do an oppressed people usually go to rectify their social, economic, political or cultural position? Well, perhaps, first, the institutions i.e. college women protesting being raped and denied adequate resources and recourse #CarryThatWeight, @RapedAtSpelman, #RapedAtMoreHouse, #StanfordSurvivor and the plethora more on Facebook, twitter, Tumblr, blogs, tags, and pictures circulating at any given time? Usually Ivy League or Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) get the most attention, boosted by the racial parity, in speaking to rape, in mainstream media. Where do the women lobbying for justice for family members murdered in police custody, denied abortion, targeted for their religion, go? Where are all the tweets and hashtags out in cyberspace targeting, addressing and redressing online harassment so that it ends? People hold the government accountable to policies and values that sustain and promote citizen’s livelihoods.
Anyway, last week: Tuesday, June 14. The State of Women, a two-day event packed with women activists, those selected by the White House out of thousands of applications. Oddly, a trans-black woman was apparently accosted by security and told she better be on good behaviour. Nonetheless, from not being there, we have the tweeted recordings of what took place. President Obama declared that he was a feminist. Next came the Vice President Biden who spoke about consent, not withstanding how it didn’t apply to Anita Hill during the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who was accused by Hill of sexual harassment, when Biden was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that moved Thomas’ nomination to Congress for a vote. Oh, and the White House created a hash-tag #ItsOnUs to deal with those university rapes for the activists to hold the government accountable.
I observed many brilliant and well-known feminists of colour on Twitter, who were at the Summit so it is clear some were in the room. To what extent, the conversation was wholly intersectional and inclusive, I’m not sure. From the extensive and impressive list of speakers, through plenary sessions and solution seminars, the summit seems to have addressed the crucially important global issues facing women today. There does not seem to be much detail about the breakout sessions, and the media seems to be emphasising Barack Obama’s remarks as well as Joe Biden’s and the conversation between Michelle Obama and Oprah. While impactful, we need to know what level of nuance was in the other sessions and the summit overall – was it inclusive and intersectional feminism, or more of the same? Mainstream feminism, packaged neatly for a celebrity co-sign, political lip service and quick public consumption, is not the kind of feminism this world needs.
I understand that unity is a theme that feminism needs on a very general, basic level. What these Hollywood types don’t understand is that they cannot have it both ways: associate with a movement and feel immune to critique as if they are experts at the movement. The nuance that many know is required of intersectional, inclusive feminism is completely absent from this public, state-sanctioned message. This is the kind of feminism that was critiqued by third-wave feminists over twenty years ago. This is the kind of feminism, scholars have dismissed for decades, calling out the erasure of women of colour from literally every ounce of its rhetoric, from false messages of who the suffrage movement served, to today’s skewed statistics of equal pay that erase the dire realities of women of colour. This kind of critique is why this tweet went viral.
The problem with mainstream feminism is that it is power centered – it lacks equity. If a movement is merely trying to catch up with white males, for example, that doesn’t involve sharing when and if the goal is attained. Driving ‘feminism’ into the public discourse is two-fold: it brings about much-needed conversation around equality wholesale and it erases the tireless advocacy of intersectional feminism. Why? For the same reason #heforshe or any of Lena Dunham’s offensively bare-bones analysis works – people don’t ask for more.
We need more than wealthy white women, assuring us that they will let us in, give us crumbs, some jobs and a healthy dose of tokenism. Ideally, we need white women with power and privilege to make space, but as history tells us, space is not usually given, it is demanded. We need more from our feminist icons and well-respected feminist scholars than a stamp of approval for this watered-down messaging .
So when I think of the true #StateofWomen in the US, I think of the trans women who are murdered for existing, the Muslim women erased from mainstream ‘feminist discourse’ and the black women at the front lines of black liberation. That would be a cute commercial – what I saw was more of the same. So when they ask “You with us?” of course I am – kinda, I guess.
About the author: Melayna Williams is a legal-educated, anti-oppression specialist. Melayna is pursuing her masters of law in anti-discrimination law, with a focus on racial justice, advocacy and judicial discussions of race at all levels of the bench. Her academic work is grounded in community mobilisation, social justice, critical race theory and intersectional feminism. She has worked in human rights law, education law, alternative dispute resolution, social justice and sexual assault crisis response. Along with her academic work, she is interested in the new and creative ways, racial justice work is being done globally and especially outside academic circles and within communities, particularly on social media. She is currently the chair of the Rights Advocacy Coalition for Equality (R.A.C.E.).