(This is one of those topics for which the disclaimer may be worth reading first.)
Until the late 1800s women in India got no education, were routinely married off at ages of ten and under to men who were much older, and, in case of the husband’s death, got sentenced to a lifetime of widowhood, spent in the shadows of society because remarriage was impossible, and widows had next to no social standing. These things seem heinous to us today, and yet, there was a time when they were the norm, and it took many courageous men and women to challenge and change this. Ramabai Ranade was one such woman, and is the subject of a Marathi TV show called Uncha Maza Zoka at the moment. The TV show is highly embellished and often has an over the top emotional register, but the stories of Ramabai and her husband, M. G. Ranade, are so strong to begin with, and their ideas on women’s equality come across as so radical for that time period, that the positives exceed the negatives and the TV program becomes valuable in my eyes. (I should add that my opinions of it are based on the few episodes of it that I have seen here and there, and no more.)
Comparing that time period to today, many things are different, but some remain the same. An underlying common truth about women’s equality and the struggle for it is that no one really knows what a society that had this much vaunted equality would actually look like, thus making it unclear what exactly to aim for in the long run. Perhaps if one knew how the sons and daughters of that imaginary society were being raised, one could potentially attempt to get there by raising today’s children in that way.
In any case, unlike the India of the 1800s, many parents today do make a conscious effort to raise their children in a gender-neutral manner, trying to eliminate any discrimination at home. However, kids do not grow up only at home. There is a whole society out there that systematically teaches girls to excessively value a circumscribed notion of feminine beauty, and to dream of handsome princes riding in to save them, and that teaches boys that crying is not allowed. Thus, even in those countries where girls get educated alongside boys and can aspire to professional and financial equality, several differences remain and studies show that the women there remain severely underpaid compared to men, and there are far fewer of them in positions of influence.
There are a few different reasons for this. One is that a lot of modern women are choosing domestic pursuits and/or child rearing over having a career. Where the women of one or two generations ago wanted to “have it all” i.e. to have a career as well as a family life, there is a trend now to pick one or the other, with the family often winning out. One reason for this, which hasn’t changed from the 1800s is that not only do women continue to be the primary child bearers(!), they also continue to be seen as the primary caregivers, as much by themselves as by others. Thus, when a modern woman tries to maximize her “happiness function,” she often feels comfortable choosing children over a career, in a way that a modern man rarely does. (There are exceptions.)
Furthermore, if it becomes necessary for one spouse’s career to take a backseat to another’s, it is often the woman who steps back, or becomes the trailing spouse. The commonly given reason is that often the husband has a higher paying job to begin with and since he is often older, is likely to be further along in his career as well. Put another way, the cost of the children’s daycare, for example, always gets compared to the mother’s salary, never the father’s, partly because hers is lower, and partly because that’s just the way it is, and women, along with the rest of society, subscribe to “the way it is.”
Whatever the reasons, it cannot be denied that women do not make these choices in a vacuum. The cultural and social environment perpetuates these choices, often subtly, and it is a loop that feeds back on itself. It also cannot be denied that to the extent that women make this choice freely, or at least without overly obvious external pressure, they owe a big debt of gratitude to the Ramabai Ranades from all over the world for being in a position to make any choice at all.
Interestingly, and sadly, there is a similarity between today’s women and those from Ramabai’s time and place. Back then, there were many widows who themselves opposed her ideas of change, preferring to remain marginalized, arguing that something that had “worked” for generations had to be right. I suppose that is what idealogies do — they make perpetrators even out of their victims. Today’s women may be less blatantly victimized, but many of them are too satisfied with the status quo, and too comfortable with it, and this complacency can be a dangerous barrier to further progress.
Because further progress is undoubtedly necessary. Certainly, compared to the Indian widows of the 1800s these seem like times of far less inequality in several countries. However, we have to wonder if today’s society will one day seem as backward and antiquated as the 1800s do today.
This brings us back to the question of what the ultimate conclusion might be of the move towards women’s equality, if indeed there is a point of resolution. It is interesting to think of social frameworks very different from our own, to see if they hold any clues for future societies. In her book The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula Le Guin considers a planet where there is only one gender, and people spontaneously take on male or female roles for two days out of every 26. This thought experiment allows Le Guin to explore how various aspects of a society are affected by gender, and what shape a genderless society might take. Of course, one cannot argue that the end result of the women’s equality movement would or should be at all similar to the scenario in the novel. And so, here on planet Earth, the only way we’ll figure out what a society that has women’s equality might look like is by continuing our efforts to become one.