When the sun shone on the Womens’s March against Trump on 21st January it gave hope to the many who were there, and the many who weren’t, that the possibility of solidarity between women against various forms of misogyny was not just a memory. It was clearly an occasion of great vitality and warmth.
But we might also ask why it took the inane and sexist ramblings of the new President of the United States to spark off this reaction. Because it is very far from the case that gender inequality has disappeared anywhere on the planet or that people are not still saying the kinds of things that D. Trump chose to say in public. In some contexts, notably in the formal acceptance of diverse intimate relations by secular authorities some parts of the world have changed considerably in the past forty years. Yet in other contexts there is a powerful argument for suggesting that a great deal else has not changed. Leaving aside the stubborn refusal of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches to adopt anything other than a fundamentalist stance on the diversity of human sexual relations (a stance which may well bring about the institutional collapse of those churches) there are other less obvious, but more important ways, in which women remain radically unequal. The list is this: the presence and authority of women in the public world of power still remains problematic; women earn less than men and are – should they be lucky enough to be in jobs with a career structure – less likely to be promoted; women do most of the care that is essential to the lives of children, the elderly and anyone else in need of care and women’s bodies are the great ‘new found land’ of commercial exploitation.
This is not equality. But it is an account of the world of the twenty first century which is often challenged by narratives which assume that forms of technological progress and women’s greater presence in paid work inevitably include greater social and gender equality. Those who endorse – as the advertisement for cigarettes once did – the idea that ‘women have come a long way’ are all too eager to refuse persisting, and indeed new, forms of inequality. To return to the list above: yes, there are notable women in public life but consider how few they are, the abuse they encounter and /or the strategies that they employ to ‘manage’ their gender. There is no evidence to suggest that men in public life are confronted by the same questions about their appearance or presence. Nor is there any evidence, apart from a few Scandinavian countries, that any government has taken seriously the demands which contemporary forms of paid work make upon women. Middle class, and particularly upper middle class professional, assumptions about paid work always assume that it is liberating, engaging and rewarding. But this applies to a limited – and decreasing – number of jobs which evidence suggests are the preserve of a few, privileged people. In this context abandoning comfortable (and comforting) narratives about the emancipation of women might help us to achieve what remains elusive.
Mary Evans is Centennial Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science.