Could Equality be a Trap?
You know, I have this awful paranoid thought that feminism was mostly invented by men so that they could like, fool around a little more. You know, women, free your minds, free your bodies, and sleep with me (Celine, Before Sunrise).
I often wonder if this is how most women striving to attain independence feel like; as if their struggle for “equality” led to the benefit of the society more than it benefitted themselves. Perhaps, this is what sprouted a generation of frustrated feminists, who like me, are wondering if the excessive need to project and prove strength in itself is a product of assertion of “equal rights” over “women’s rights”.
Women’s Rights vs. Equal Rights: A Cultural Feminist Perspective
I was introduced to “cultural feminism” in my feminist jurisprudence lectures at law school. One of the phrases I encountered was “equality trap”. What this refers to is the change of socio-political thought and activism from “women’s rights” to “equal rights”. It originates from the idea that men and women are, by factors attributable to nature, nurture or a combination of the two, different and are thereby entitled to different sets of rights. Hence, “equality” is a trap in itself as two different entities cannot be equated.
Let me provide a practical example. Imagine a workplace employing 10 men and 10 women between the ages of 21 years to 50 years, all of them fit and interested in exercising their right of creating and nurturing off-springs. In an effort to promote equality, all the employees, irrespective of their sexes, have a right to a salary increment if they have worked for at least 10 months, in one financial year, without a long- break. Assume that 10 months of continuous labour results in the optimum amount of surplus production just enough for the employer to afford the increment. Which of the two categories of employees do you think are more likely to receive the increment, men or women? At a quick glance, of the given facts, it is logical to presume that men are more likely to receive the increment as they are not considered primary care givers and (in most countries) not entitled to a maternity leave of 3 months or more and are thereby most likely to work without long breaks for 10 months. In such a case, furthering equal rights for the sake of equality would mean either of the two things – (a) lower the 10 month threshold to 9 months so women can participate in availing increments, or (b) enable men to take paternity leaves for 3 months at the same time their female partners do. However, both these suggestions for furthering “equality” results in lowering overall productivity. Thus, in such a scenario, a cultural feminist would argue fairly that owing to the biological differences that are inherent to human beings, it only makes sense that the women assert their right to paid maternity leave and an ‘equity based’ wage policy rather than the one based on ‘equality’.
The Equality Trap
“The equality trap” argument was brought to light by Mary Ann Mason’s book. She, in a very articulate manner expresses her concerns regarding the excessive burden on women to both earn a living for themselves and their families as well as to take care of domestic chores. In the context of evaluating 'no fault divorce' laws in the USA (which propounded the aspects of “no contest, no alimony, minimal child support, and assets cut down the middle, which for most women meant sale of the family home and a move downhill to a small apartment”), she says this led to women being forced to flood the labour markets. This implies that these women needed to “prove” themselves as strong, independent and as a result claim no protection. Laws aimed to empower the independence while ignoring the need for support and protection of rights they ought to have. She also observes how the surge of women in the labour markets traditionally occupied by men meant that women had to either “prove” themselves or accept a job at a lower wage owing to prevalent notions of inequality.
Mary says, “It struck me that the idea of equality for women has worked well for the economy but not for women. In order to survive as an economic giant, America has had to lure women into the workplace at low wages. The egalitarian ideal glorifies work, even its meanest forms, for all women, including mothers, and it asks for no favors. It is clearly to the advantage of employers and the government to treat women as it treats men. The kinds of special consideration today’s working mothers desperately need — maternity leaves, children’s sick leave, flexible hours, part-time work with medical benefits, and child care — cost money. It costs little or nothing to hire a woman rather than a man as long as the woman does the same job as a man and asks for no special consideration."
Laws for protection
A proposed and tried solution by cultural feminists is to promote laws that aim at protection of women’s rights. An extension of this thought means the promotion of affirmative action, maintenance in divorce, regulating unfair prenuptial agreements, period leaves, and maternity benefits among others. The radical feminists however, challenge protective laws as promoting dependence of women on men and thereby defeating the very purpose of the feminist movement. The radical feminists for instance would provide the example of the origins of polygamy in the Islamic culture. Polygamy, they say has its roots in the “protection of women” against war crimes. However, today the same protection has turned into oppression. Another criticism of the laws that promote right to protection over right to equality is the idea that when an employer is forced to choose between a man and woman for a particular job and is liable to provide women more benefits than the man, the employer is more likely to choose men over women. This essentially leads to the job markets once again being populated with men and women being pushed solely into the kitchen. Some liberal feminists argue that the “equality trap” argument only stands good in the transitional phase between a patriarchal society and a more equal society. If feminists, especially women, are able to put up with this in the transitional phase and avoid seeking the “protection” approach, state of affairs will eventually improve.
So is equality really a trap?
In my subjective opinion, equality is not always a trap. Equality is needed for empowerment and it is of paramount importance with respect to rights. Equal right to education, equal right to participation in political sphere, are all essential for a healthy democracy. However, I believe that equality is not always antithetic to liberation and hence, cannot at every instance be seen as a trap. Equality can be achieved through protection and protection through equality. For instance, affirmative action for women, (a protective step) might have an effect of producing an equal number of women and men qualified for the job market. Mandating equal pay for equal work may result in ‘protecting’ the right of women to fair wages. Mandating paternity leaves and maternity leaves in turns, may lead to sharing of duties between men and women in the domestic sphere. Once hiring men becomes no different than hiring women with respect to the additional facilities an employer will have to provide, preference for males will decrease.
In Mary Ann Mason’s words, it is true that "Equality is a two-edged sword that can cut women down as well as help them up. Equality works as a strategy only in the limited situations where women are actually in the same situation as men." However, it cannot be denied that laws aiming to provide ‘protection’ for women, might positively lead to a state where men and women are in the same position.