Could pri­or­i­tiz­ing the hap­pi­ness of women save the world?

ELLE (Canada) - - Politics - BY SARAH LAING

WHEN JILL FILIPOVIC’S BOOK, The H-Spot, landed on my desk, it was mid-win­ter—lit­er­ally and metaphor­i­cally—and its sub­ti­tle, “The Fem­i­nist Pur­suit of Hap­pi­ness,” caught my eye like the flu­o­res­cent pink of a cer­tain kind of knit­ted kit­ten hat in a land­scape that was de­press­ing, dis­heart­en­ing and plain terrifying for any­one who wasn’t a wealthy Cau­casian man. (Love your work so far, 2017. JK.)

I flipped the sunny-yel­low ad­vance copy over and, read­ing the back blurb, found the gen­eral premise of this Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist’s book equally ap­peal­ing: If gov­ern­ments pri­or­i­tized the hap­pi­ness of women, the world would be a bet­ter place. “What a sim­ple, straight­for­ward ‘Like, duh’ idea,” I thought. Oh, what an in­no­cent and priv­i­leged lit­tle mo­ron I was.

You see, as I be­gan read­ing Filipovic’s ex­haus­tively re­searched book (and do­ing more in­ves­ti­gat­ing of my own), it felt a bit like soak­ing a new vin­tage dress just to get out a few weird brown stains and then watch­ing it dis­solve into pu­trid garbage, go up in flames and have bats fly out of the smoke-belch­ing inferno and then have that mess trans­form into the mean­est, scari­est of Mog­wais. Why? Well, the more I read, thought and talked about this, the more it be­came clear that we live in a world that is not only not putting the well-be­ing of the fe­male sex first but also ac­tively work­ing against it. (And that was be­fore I read a new World Eco­nomic Fo­rum re­port that con­tends that, best-case sce­nario, the world is 170 years away from true gender equal­ity; in­deed, we are cur­rently mov­ing back­wards.)

When I reach Filipovic on the phone a few weeks later, she sum­ma­rizes it this way: “The idea that women are en­ti­tled to pleasure and hap­pi­ness is not com­pli­cated, but there are so many ways, big and small, in which that no­tion is de­mo­nized and de­nied to women.” (Some ex­am­ples that Filipovic cites in her book: the built-in idea that to be fe­male is to sac­ri­fice, the con­stant de­nial and polic­ing of women’s in­dul­gences in ev­ery­thing from food to sex to opin­ions, and what she de­scribes as “a soft hum of fear” that ac­com­pa­nies a life lived in a fe­male body.) “Try­ing to make women equal in a sys­tem built by and for men is never go­ing to work,” ex­plains Filipovic. “The sys­tem is rigged in favour of men be­cause they made it—and a cer­tain sub­set of men made it: white Chris­tian men with money.”

That’s right: In or­der for women to achieve true hap­pi­ness, we ba­si­cally need to dis­man­tle the en­tire foun­da­tion of Western so­ci­ety. “The prob­lem isn’t that the things that make women happy are so dif­fer­ent from what makes men happy,” says Filipovic. “The prob­lem is that

our in­sti­tu­tions, work­places and po­lit­i­cal uni­verse are struc­tured to en­able men to re­al­ize those things more eas­ily than women. Men have this kind of back­ing to pur­sue their own hap­pi­ness, much of which is built on in­vis­i­ble and free fe­male labour,” says Filipovic.

Filipovic keeps her def­i­ni­tion of “happy” as broad as pos­si­ble, in­clud­ing higher-level hap­pi­ness, like the feel­ing of pur­pose, and more he­do­nis­tic plea­sures, like a de­li­cious meal and plea­sur­able sex. It should also be noted that she ac­knowl­edges her priv­i­leged po­si­tion as a white woman from a large city and in­cludes the per­spec­tives of Amer­i­can women from dif­fer­ent so­cio-eco­nomic and cul­tural back­grounds in her book, such as the story of Janet, an older African-Amer­i­can woman liv­ing in North Carolina and caught up in poverty’s re­lent­less grind: “I missed my [el­dest’s] first two years...I wasn’t even there when she started walk­ing be­cause I was work­ing two jobs. It hurts.” (Janet saw her next daugh­ter’s first steps, but that’s be­cause she was un­em­ployed. In­ter­est­ingly, Filipovic points out else­where in the book that “stay-at-home moms” are ac­tu­ally more likely to be poor and lack­ing a high-school di­ploma than af­flu­ent and well ed­u­cated, and, in fact, only 5 per­cent of that group have mas­ter’s de­grees and a fam­ily in­come of more than $75,000.)

Many of the prob­lems that Filipovic points out are, at their root, struc­tural so­cial at­ti­tudes, so I was cu­ri­ous as to why she points to chang­ing laws and gov­ern­ment poli­cies as a so­lu­tion to gender equal­ity. Can we re­ally leg­is­late the kind of deep, in­ter­nal change these is­sues re­quire? “One thing we can do is re­move the in­sti­tu­tional bar­ri­ers that block women from be­hav­ing as sole hu­man be­ings as op­posed to sacri­fi­cial do­ev­ery­thing-else-for-oth­ers types,” she says. She cites ma­ter­nity leave as an ex­am­ple: Even when ma­ter­nity leave is leg­is­lated (it isn’t in her home state of New York), its focus on moth­ers re­flects the so­ci­etal be­lief that car­ing for chil­dren is women’s work. The fix? A pol­icy more like Swe­den’s, which in­cen­tivizes both par­ents to take leave. (Canada re­cently ex­tended parental leave to 18 months, al­beit with the pre-ex­ist­ing 12-month ben­e­fits spread out over the du­ra­tion.) Given that Filipovic is Amer­i­can, many of her ex­am­ples re­flect the re­al­i­ties of life in the United States. So what about us here in Canada, with our openly fem­i­nist prime min­is­ter and rel­a­tively pro­gres­sive poli­cies?

En­ter Lau­ren Ravon, di­rec­tor of pol­icy and cam­paigns at Ox­fam Canada. The de­vel­op­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion, which fo­cuses on ad­vanc­ing women’s rights do­mes­ti­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, re­cently re­leased its first an­nual Fem­i­nist Score­card, which tracks how well our cur­rent Lib­eral gov­ern­ment is do­ing at ful­fill­ing its prom­ises across eight ar­eas, in­clud­ing, for ex­am­ple, rep­re­sen­ta­tion, jobs, care work and vi­o­lence against women. Ravon says that over­all—and given they’ve only been in of­fice a year—the gov­ern­ment is headed in the right direc­tion, with just one area la­belled a “red flag”: work.

And here’s where “in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity” comes into play. This is the idea, first pop­u­lar­ized by the scholar Kim­berlé Wil­liams Cren­shaw, that dif­fer­ent forms of op­pres­sion— like racism, sex­ism and clas­sism—of­ten ex­ist si­mul­tan­eously and so can’t be ig­nored or sep­a­rated. “In­ter­sec­tion­al­ity is why pay eq­uity is only a small por­tion of our over­all as­sess­ment of work—be­cause pay eq­uity is very of­ten a mid­dle-class white-woman issue,” ex­plains Ravon. “If you’re poor, a migrant worker or in­dige­nous and you’re mak­ing min­i­mum wage and your male col­league is mak­ing eight to 10 cents more an hour than you are, you’re both liv­ing in poverty. The issue there isn’t pay eq­uity; it’s poverty wages.” The eight cat­e­gories Ox­fam Canada looked at also in­ter­sect, and Ravon ex­plains that progress in one can of­ten come at the ex­pense of an­other, which is why we need to “con­nect the dots.” “You can cre­ate jobs for women in one sec­tor, but if you’re not investing in child care, then only women from higher up the so­cio-eco­nomic lad­der can ac­cess those jobs be­cause they can pay other women to keep their chil­dren,” she says.

So what could Canada do to­day to make a dif­fer­ence for women (and, re­ally, all Cana­di­ans)? Ravon’s laun­dry list in­cludes fi­nally pass­ing pay-eq­uity leg­is­la­tion; boost­ing our com­mit­ment to a na­tional do­mes­tic-vi­o­lence-pre­ven­tion strat­egy, which stands at $100.9 mil­lion over five years (she says this is “throw­ing pen­nies at a prob­lem that costs the econ­omy $12 bil­lion a year”); mov­ing away from a record-low for­eign-aid bud­get (due to the fact that spend­ing en­ables im­por­tant work for women in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries); and show­ing what she calls “lead­er­ship” on the in­ter­na­tional stage in the era of Trump­ism.

Oh, and giv­ing Sta­tus of Women Canada more than a pid­dling 0.01 per­cent of the fed­eral bud­get. “It’s one thing to say that our prime min­is­ter h

is fem­i­nist, but it’s an­other to say we’re sup­port­ing fem­i­nists in Yellowknife or in B.C.—the ac­tual or­ga­niz­ing on the ground,” says Ravon. She cites a study about vi­o­lence against women that was con­ducted in 70 coun­tries over 40 years and found that the strong­est in­di­ca­tor of progress in end­ing the vi­o­lence is the strength of the lo­cal fem­i­nist move­ment. This rather neatly segues into the story of Cather­ine Mayer, the au­thor of a new book called At­tack of the 50 Ft. Women: How Gender Equal­ity Can Save the World!

In her book, Mayer, who is also co-founder of Bri­tain’s Women’s Equal­ity Party, talks about an imag­i­nary land called Equalia, a par­adise in which gender equal­ity has been achieved at last. Mayer con­firms that Equalia is, in­deed, a happy place. “It seems to me, and the re­search ab­so­lutely backs me up, that the closer you get to a so­ci­ety that al­lows women to find out who they are and what they’re ca­pa­ble of and en­ables them to par­tic­i­pate fully, it takes the pres­sure off re­la­tion­ships be­tween the sexes,” she elab­o­rates over the phone from her home in Lon­don, Eng­land. “It also takes spe­cific cul­tural pres­sures off men, cre­ates af­flu­ence and ease and should hope­fully re­duce vi­o­lence, men­tal-health prob­lems and all sorts of things.”

But she does issue a cau­tion of sorts about how we de­fine women’s hap­pi­ness. “It’s very clear that women are sold an idea of what hap­pi­ness and suc­cess look like that is very dif­fer­ent from the idea that men are given,” says Mayer. “We are told that we can­not be com­pletely ful­filled and happy un­less we are moth­ers and that there are cer­tain ways of do­ing ma­ter­nity that seem to be very dif­fer­ent from the ways in which fa­thers do pa­ter­nity.” Es­sen­tially: The stan­dards by which women are told to eval­u­ate their rel­a­tive hap­pi­ness are fun­da­men­tally un­achiev­able.

Mayer has been busy tour­ing the United King­dom to pro­mote her book and says that one of the most dis­heart­en­ing things about the ex­pe­ri­ence (and this is coming from a woman who is well versed in Twit­ter anti-fem­i­nist trolling) is the num­ber of men who say they’re buy­ing the book for the lady in their lives. “I’m like, ‘No!’” says Mayer, half laugh­ing. “‘Read it for your­self!’”

It’s not in the book, but Mayer says that lately she has been think­ing a lot about the role of men in equal­ity. “In a funny way, men are the sil­ver bul­let,” she muses. “The big­gest sin­gle ob­struc­tion to gender equal­ity is a world in which even nice men don’t un­der­stand that it’s about them too.”

It’s not just the men who might be a bit “bias blind.” Here’s where we loop back to in­ter­sec­tion­al­ity once more: If those leg­is­lated so­lu­tions, those im­posed quo­tas, those vis­i­ble women in power largely ben­e­fit and re­flect the lives of No al­co­hol,* no harsh scent, no stiff­ness,

straight mid­dle-class white women, then that’s also part of no stick­i­ness. Noth­ing but strong,

the prob­lem: a world in which even nice white mid­dle-class beau­ti­ful, brush­able hold.

women (like me!) don’t un­der­stand that it’s about them too. n


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