In the long-run America and the rest of the modern West appear to be a civilization increasingly run by and for women, something that will benefit us greatly.
If you missed it, the latest issue of Time magazine has caused a kerfuffle among the nation’s chattering classes. Plastered right on the cover for its ever-dwindling readership to easily see, a tiny man hangs dangling from the back tip of a high-heeled shoe with the question “Can anyone stop Hillary?” in bold letters up above.
While the text poses a straightforward question about the political ambitions of America’s most famous female politico, the subtext is also quite striking. It suggests that in Hillary the nation’s male politicians are facing not just an unstoppable juggernaut, but an emasculating one, too. She is, Time seems to be saying, a political dominatrix who is about to whip just not any and all opposition in her assumed bid for the White House, but male presumption to the nation’s most powerful office.
Time’s fawning over Clinton notwithstanding, the imagery chosen to accompany the story is nonetheless apt. Not because it describes Hillary Clinton, of course, but because it describes so well the larger context that a second run at the White House by Clinton represents that Western women are on the cusp of beginning a far-reaching revolution in gender norms and relations that, though long in the making, will transform the 21st century in almost every way. Women, put simply, are going to take over – and that is likely to be an extraordinarily good thing.
The skeptical among you might well ask how this could possibly be. After all, pay inequity between men and women still exists, and women are nowhere near being a majority in the nation’s boardrooms, legislative chambers, or executive suites. More to the point, with much of the country in the grip of reactionary conservatives who seek to roll back reproductive rights as far as possible, the idea that women will soon be in charge seems laughable.
Indeed, goes the counter argument, how can women control anyone if they cannot first control their own bodies? Clinton or some other high-ranking woman might soon win the White House, even as early as 2016, but that no more means an end to gender inequality and patriarchy than Barack Obama winning the White House meant an end to white reaction and racism. In fact, given what happened with Obama, a woman winning the White House may actually be something of a setback for feminism, as it could lead to a more vocal, strident, opposition by those seeking to keep women in their place.
Such concerns, while justified, nonetheless focus too much on the short run and ignore emerging trends in American society and the Western world more broadly that point to a huge amount of social change coming the in the not-too-distant future. Like wooden piers rotting away unseen beneath the waves, the whole edifice of male domination that has for so long defined even the most basic aspects of Western society is so riddled with holes that it will take a miracle to save it – not that any thinking person would, after due consideration, really want to.
First, consider the declining state of organized religion in both the U.S. and Western Europe. While the U.S. has long been immune to the secularizing process that has long left churches empty in Britain, France, Germany, and much of Scandinavia, new data suggests that, at long last, the role of faith is also declining in America as well. This is important for feminism because the biggest ideological oppressor of women and imposer of harsh patriarchal cultural norms is, beyond doubt, organized religion.
In the West, the relationship between institutional Christianity and women’s rights is one where every facet of women’s gender has been deemed sinful or somehow evil. From the biblical story of Genesis, of course, we get the ridiculous account of how Eve succumbed to the serpent’s temptations and ever since male priests have been quick to condemn women as the weaker, more sinful sex. Indeed, Christian women went from being leaders and key members of the early Church to, once the faith became Rome’s official creed, being outcasts demonized by male clergy.
From this starting point the basic position of Church fathers – taking a cue from Roman gender norms – was that women were best seen but not heard, were in effect their fathers’ and husbands’ property, and that this subordinate position was one ordained by the almighty. Women who resisted – such as the witches that were burned by the millions over the course of the Christian centuries – were deemed harlots at best or agents of the devil at worst. A woman’s place was, accordingly, in the home.
This began to change, however, when the economics supporting such an oppressive arrangement began being undermined by technological progress that negated men’s natural advantage in muscle power. Women had always enjoyed a comparative advantage in such ‘non muscular’ work, of course, but in the 19th century the industrial revolution and the adaption of first steam power and then electricity to work made women’s labor even more useful and productive. The result was that over time and in most industries and professions women became just as productive as their male counterparts, only without the institutional power necessary to capitalize on their newfound economic value.
Employers greatly benefitted from this as women’s equal productivity with men was not only clear, but cheaper, too, since women were often paid less for doing the same work as their male co-workers – a situation that continues to provoke ire today. As this economic logic for full female employment grew – which in the West was made even more evident by the two world wars when a vast reserve army of female labor was brought into industrial war work in countries like the U.S., U.K., and the Soviet Union – so, too, did arguments for emancipation and political empowerment.
Thus, the modern feminist movement was born out of a tacit alliance between employers hungry for cheap labor and women demanding full inclusion into a society they had long-since proven their worth to. Opposed to this, of course, was the force of tradition backed by the power of organized religion and the raw facts of biology. Women, unfortunately, were still tyrannized by their bodies and male opinion via the basic realities of reproduction – so long as they bore children and most of the costs of raising them, women would always be disadvantaged vis-à-vis men and thus subordinate to them due to sheer economic need.
Once again, however, technology came to the rescue in the form of the pill – that magical piece of modern pharmacology that allowed women to, finally, easily and safely control their reproductive functions on their own terms. Combined with women’s growing economic and political power – which helped create and fortify the modern welfare state both here in America and Western Europe, as well as modern divorce and family law – women, for the first time, could enter the job market on more-or-less equal terms with men by the 1970s.
Enter they did, and in so doing sparked off a revolution that not only challenged deeply-entrenched views of just what women could and could not do, but transformed Western notions of what constitutes a just and fair society. To be sure, this revolution did not occur without resistance. The culture wars in the U.S., for example, are to a great extent merely a continuation of the fight over changing gender norms that emerged as women – empowered by technology, the pill, and capitalism’s rapacious need for cheap workers – entered the labor market en masse. This reaction by the forces of cultural conservatism, however, is but a desperate rearguard action being carried out by those who have lost out due to these changes.
In short, in the modern West the triumph of the idea of feminism is so thorough that societies that continue to retain institutional obstacles to female emancipation and liberation – such as many of those found in Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East – are considered horrifically barbaric and hopelessly backward. Likewise with any belief system, religious or secular, that deems women inferior or subaltern by their very nature. Machismo and male chauvinism is still alive and kicking, true, but increasingly it is a toothless beast capable of wielding little actual power against women as a whole. Like the poor, it seems, the easily-bruised male ego will always be with us, but the despotism of patriarchy seems very much on the way out.
In the long-run, then, America and the rest of the modern West look to be a civilization increasingly run by and for women, something that will benefit us greatly. Women’s labor power, for instance, has made us incomparably richer and more efficient while the emancipation of women has given freedom to men, too, as a breaking down of gender norms and stereotypes allows men to also escape the deadening shackles of cultural expectations. What’s more, as women gain even more power and influence in society, expect change to accrue even faster.
That’s because preliminary evidence suggests that women may make better leaders than men. Science, which was once used to discredit the ability of women to do anything at all useful outside the home, is now suggesting that it is they who should be calling society’s shots, not men. Women, for instance, tend to make better lawmakers, while as bosses women are more likely to reward good work than men. Given that women also tend to be more accommodating and interested in interpersonal dynamics than men, this may make them better managers, too.
Combine this with women’s more pacific nature – they are far less prone to physical violence than men – their more general concern for children and family, and the tendency of groups of women to make much better long-term investment decisions than men, there is a prima facie case to be made that perhaps we would be all be much better off if women were put in charge of not just the local PTA and the White House, but everything in between as well.
As this young century rolls on, this proposition will no doubt be tested over time. If these early trends hold, it could be that in the coming decades we will see a lot more women running a lot more things than they do now, both here and abroad, because they are better at it than men. Men won’t disappear from public life, of course, but the growing clout of women both in the West and the wider world will force a reconsideration of political and cultural values and concerns that can only be described as revolutionary. The East may not be red, it seems, but is very likely to be a sharp shade of pink.