The Chronicle Review

Equity for Women--Still

For the 10th-anniversary issue of The Chronicle Review, we asked scholars and illustrators to answer this question: What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?

August 29, 2010

Nearly 25 years ago, when a case about employers and pregnancy benefits came before the Supreme Court, Thurgood Marshall noted that the key question was whether "women, as well as men, [can] have families without losing their jobs." That's a question of equity, and it is the battle for equity that will define the next decade.

There is a lot of talk about postfeminism these days; all of it is simultaneously silly and dangerous. The half-century struggle to establish equality between men and women remains unresolved. To be sure, much progress has been made when it comes to equal access to education and training, equal pay for equal work (and for work of comparable worth), and equal promotion to leadership positions in all fields. These accomplishments are real, but they are incomplete. Moreover, those accomplishments rely on a definition of equality that is rooted in sameness—same access to opportunities and the same rewards—but it is the less-understood idea of equity that will be most bedeviling and vital during the next decade.

The idea of equity—outcomes that justly and fairly accommodate different situations—for all citizens, men and women, goes to the heart of democratic practice. Equity recognizes, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg phrased it, "a woman's autonomy to determine her life's course." Achieving that goal will require us to adjust, disrupt, and reimagine how men, as well as women, live their lives.

We can begin in the workplace. Unpaid family and medical leave is no gift at all for people whose rent or mortgages will therefore also be unpaid. Employers need to be able to accommodate workers who must leave to become caregivers. School districts have long embraced the concept of the "permanent substitute" to cover for teachers on maternity leave; inventive programs are now under way to staff research laboratories so that they don't depend on a single principal investigator.

But the workplace is only the beginning. The deeper question is whether we really believe men and women are equal. If we do, then we would eliminate legal preferences based on marriage, opening them to all citizens, and embracing same-sex marriage; we would more easily recognize gender-based violence as grounds for asylum; and we would scrub our citizenship requirements of gender bias (eliminating, for example, the ease with which unmarried American men can deny citizenship to the children they father abroad).

The feminist visionaries of the 1970s named what were then new harms: quotas masquerading as preference; sexual harassment; and criminalized abortion when it was known to be a safe medical procedure. The visionaries of our own time need to focus on new harms, like family-responsibility discrimination. The struggle won't be pretty. But since virtually all of us are happy to enjoy feminism's accomplishments, we dare not let them erode; we'd better embrace the challenge of making equity in our relationships, public and private.

Linda K. Kerber is a professor of history and a lecturer in law at the University of Iowa.