There are powerful people in the United States who advance the argument that women have no guaranteed civil rights under the Constitution. They point to the word “male” in the Fifteenth Amendment and the need for the explicit extension of women’s suffrage under the Nineteenth Amendment to justify their perspectives. While fewer people challenge the celebration of Women’s History Month every March, the declining ferocity against the acknowledgement (when compared to Black History Month) is largely a function of the nearly complete dismissal of women as a serious and powerful segment of world society. Nothing could deny reality more strenuously than this approach.
Patriarchy is so pervasive the word privilege cannot begin to encompass it. Privilege has many purposes to expose the inequities that gays, lesbians, transgender, and ethnic “others” face on a daily basis. Rather than limit the conversations about global political economy to the various forms of discrimination, privilege opens the door to understand the more pervasive ways that *belonging* is communicated through private and public institutions. Instead of looking at the penalties inflicted on disadvantaged groups, the benefits and advantages transmitted through traditional habits and policies come into focus.
Women struggle against such fundamental forces that language and culture are insufficient to capture them. The fact that the suffragist and feminist movements of the last two centuries have had any successes is testimony to a determination and resilience all of humanity should respect on a daily basis. Far too many men and boys find it difficult to imagine that women think and experience their lives in ways fundamentally similar to their own. The biological and anatomical differences between males and females fuel too many men’s denial of women’s essential humanity.
It was invisible to me for many years. The first glimpse I remember was teaching a class on children’s fiction. A boy in the class attacked a girl’s writing about the death of her puppy as worthless. His critique had no basis in her language or imagery. He condemned it simply because she was female – to the gleeful laughter of the other boys in the room. I was stunned both at the viciousness of an 9-year-old in invoking patriarchy in this way as well as the ready participation of the other boys in this ritual. Worse, the girl who was the target did not have the psychological tools to respond to the attack on a work in which she had invested considerable intellectual and emotional effort. Worst of all, the other girls in the room drew back from the conversation and became unwilling to share their own creativity. The respectful safety of the classroom had been suspended, and, as a teacher, I was unprepared to restore it immediately.
It took weeks of redesigning the curriculum and daily lesson plans towards a workshop style to restore any possibility of general student participation. The overall culture of engagement and improvement never fully recovered. Over the two decades since that day, none of my subsequent classes have had a similar breach. Any hint of derogation earns immediate correction and affected students have the opportunity to respond on their own terms. In the best cases, students who proudly celebrated reenactments of gendered violence have been held accountable by both women and men who share a commitment to lives that heal and affirm. Even public protests have taken root to empower whole communities to stand together in spite of institutional abuses.
Yet the privileges of patriarchy remain resilient. I am still a man, teaching history and economics, in a national framework that recognizes my work and accomplishments ahead of too many of my women colleagues. So, in this Women’s History Month, it is time to name the names of the professional women who inspire me, who break down barriers daily, and who make the world safer for absolute human dignity. From historic figures like Ella Baker to future world leaders like Sophie Viale, this month is yours. And it is only the beginning. The problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the gender line, as it has been for eons. This moment is ours to stand for true justice.
Dr. Walter Greason is the Chief Executive Officer of the International Center for Metropolitan Growth and the author of Suburban Erasure: How the Suburbs Ended the Civil Rights Movement in New Jersey. His work is available on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).