Of all the topics I’ve covered and plan to cover in this column, feminism is the one I’ve researched the most. I’ve read far more about women’s rights than I have about any other hot button topic–even environmentalism, which is my #1 passion. Even so, I almost decided to postpone writing this particular installment of Activist Reads simply because feminism is such a vast, multi-faceted topic and it’s a little overwhelming. I could probably write a monthly column just about women’s rights and have enough material for years.
Here are just some of the challenges women disproportionately face here in the U.S. and/or around the world:
- Pay discrimination
- Rape, both as an individual crime and as a weapon of war
- Domestic violence
- Sexual double standards
- Absent or severely limited access to birth control
- Lack of reversible male birth control options
- Absent or severely limited access to safe abortions
- Human trafficking and sexual slavery
- Forced child marriage
- Inadequate family leave
- Sexual and street harassment
- Mandatory clothing restrictions
- Mobility restrictions
- Female genital mutilation
- Underrepresentation in medical studies
- Unequal representation in government
- Unequal representation in media and entertainment
- Unhealthy cultural beauty standards
- Additional discrimination because of race, sexual orientation, or gender identity
- Discrimination and lack of representation within churches and religious institutions
And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.
All these issues deserve individual attention but it’s important to remember that they all stem from the same root–patriarchy. Patriarchy is defined as “a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is traced through the male line” or “in which men hold the power and woman are largely excluded from it.” (For clarity, I use “patrilineal” when referring to the first definition.)
Women comprise 19.3% of the House of Representatives and 20% of the Senate. A woman has never held the office of president and women account for only 16.7% of Trump’s cabinet. Since women make up slightly more than half of the people in this country, it is clear that we are underrepresented. And, with the exception of Trump’s cabinet, this is the best these numbers have been in our nation’s history.
Our society and, I think, the majority of societies around the world are slowly moving in a more egalitarian direction, but we still cling to many of the ideals and beliefs that shaped our more blatantly patriarchal past. I believe these ideals and beliefs largely arise from a fear of and subsequent urge to repress female sexuality. If a society is patrilineal, as most around the world are, controlling female sexuality becomes a social and economic imperative. Effective control of female sexuality involves restricting economic and bodily autonomy and access to positions of political power–the sum total of the injustices I listed above.18 Books + Resources on Women's Rights at Home & Abroad + What You Can Do to Make a DifferenceClick To Tweet
The United States and most of the Western world is currently in that messy transition phase when most of the worst expressions of patriarchy have been mitigated by the law. There are, of course, notable exceptions. For example, seven states offer no legal protection against men claiming paternal rights of children they conceived by rape. Twenty-four states require a rape conviction to prevent this from happening, which is a serious problem since, according to research funded by the Justice Department, only 3-18% of rapes result in a conviction. Obviously, we still have a long way to go in cleaning up our own house.
In other regions, such as parts of the Middle East and Africa, the war on women is waged openly in the most brutal ways imaginable. In the worst areas, a woman’s life is defined by mutilation, subjugation, rape, and hopelessness. These horrible conditions are the result of the same system that allows the injustices women experience in America; the difference is in scale not kind. The situation is compounded by the broader problems of political instability, poverty, and theocracy–issues that affect America far less. Needless to say, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to secure rights for women and girls around the world.
Recommended Books + Resources
Note: This post contains affiliate links. Complimentary copies of some of the books mentioned here were provided by the publishers.
For a simple, concise, and compelling introduction to feminism, read We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
If you’re a parent trying to figure out how to raise your daughter well in a world that sends a lot of unhealthy messages to women, start with Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Also, read Cinderella Ate My Daughter (for the younger set) and Girls & Sex (for parents of tweens/teens) by Peggy Orenstein.
If you’re looking for female role models either for yourself or your kids, check out Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl. Also try Women in Science and Women in Sports by Rachel Ignotofsky and Bad Girls Throughout History by Ann Shen. There are, of course, loads and loads of individual biographies and memoirs of great women and I couldn’t possible list them all here. A couple to start with are I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai (which also comes in a young reader’s edition) and Mighty Be Our Powers by Leymah Gbowee and Carol Mithers.
If you want a global perspective on women’s rights, read Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and The War on Women by Sue Lloyd-Roberts. Mona Eltahawy’s Headscarves and Hymens provides a great perspective on feminism and women’s rights in the Middle East.
If you want to explore third-wave feminism in the United States, try The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. I’m always a bit more hesitant to recommend Western-centric feminist books because I usually find a lot more things to disagree with. These two are pretty good but, as always, you’ll have to figure out which parts of their feminism make sense to you and which parts need tweaking.
If you run into anyone who tells you that the wage gap is a myth, as happened to me recently, here is a very handy article over at The Guardian that explains the nuances of the wage gap and how you can research it yourself. The seventy-seven cents on the dollar statistic is misleading but the wage gap is real and affects women differently depending on a variety of factors, such as age, race, industry, and geographic location. (It also affects most male racial minorities.)
If you are a Christian and you’re looking for encouragement from feminist women in the church, trying to suss out your own beliefs, or want something to give to a fellow Christian to convince them that feminism is a good thing, start with Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey and Half the Church by Carolyn Custis James. I also wrote a post about Christian feminist books.
How You Can Make a Difference
There are numerous organizations that help women and girls around the world, and it should be noted that organizations that generally address things like disease, poverty, education, and access to clean water disproportionately benefit women. Here are just a few that help the most vulnerable women and girls around the world:
- Days for Girls – provides sustainable feminine hygiene products to girls who need them. Many girls in developing countries have to stay home from school during their periods. Organizations like this can greatly impact their ability to receive a good education.
- Fistula Foundation – provides surgery for women with obstetric fistula, a truly horrible childbirth injury that develops over many days of obstructed labor. It has mostly been eradicated in the Western world but still affects many women in developing countries who do not have access to good obstetric care.
- Girls Not Brides – works to end child marriage.
- Heifer Project International – works to “bring sustainable agriculture and commerce to areas with a long history of poverty.” Women are disproportionately affected by hunger and poverty.
- Polaris Project – works to end human trafficking and slavery.
The more power you have, the more power you have to help others. If you’re a woman with a gift for leadership, consider running for office. If you’re a man in a position of power within your company, community, or church, look for ways to empower and uplift the women around you. We will fight for a seat at the table if we have to, but it’s nicer for everyone if you simply make space for us.
Little things matter and they build over time. Men, if you hear a sexist joke, witness discrimination or sexual harassment, or find yourself in a situation where you are expected to participate in speech or behavior that is demeaning or degrading to women, refuse to do so. Stand up and take action. Patriarchy is terrible for women but it’s bad for men too. We need to work together to dismantle the system.
What are the best books you’ve read about feminism and women’s rights? What are you doing to empower the women in your life and around the world?