A Challenge to American Women

Read our profiles of five U.S. groups advocating for equality.

In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Jessica Valenti writes about American women's tendency to look far across the oceans to get their pity fix while ignoring the sexism that still pervades our very own communities, classrooms, and workplaces. "We're suffering under the mass delusion that women in America have achieved equality," Valenti writes, arguing that we fall into this trap because it's a "feel-good illusion."

You'd be hard-pressed to find a day on which that illusion is more prominent than today -- International Women's Day. What began as a socialist political event has evolved into a global reckoning with the work still to be done to empower women -- economically and otherwise. The United Nations' designated theme this year is "equal rights, equal opportunities: progress for all."

You can bet that university women's centers, feminist philanthropists, and nonprofit organizations all over the United States are brimming with outrage today. They are marching against sex trafficking in Eastern Europe, donating to women-led microenterprise efforts in India and Bangladesh, sending their bake-sale money to help build Eve Ensler's "City of Joy" in Congo.

As they should. But what about the women who still struggle for safety and economic opportunity in our own backyards? What about the woman who just did your nails who doesn't have health insurance? What about the SAT-prep course you just splurged on for your own daughter while your caregiver's daughter struggles to even afford the price of taking the test at all? What about maternal mortality, not in Chad but in California?

Focusing on injustices abroad allows too many American feminists to look up and out rather than around and within. It's more than a "feel-good illusion" -- it's also a guiltless one. Not only are we released from examining the ways in which sexism still affects us, we don't have to get real about the ways in which our lifestyles, affluence, and networks keep inequality firmly in place for other American women.

There's no question that we have a moral obligation to focus on international women's uplift in this increasingly globalized world, but this reality doesn't erase the more local, more personal one in which economic disparities and de facto segregation, not to mention old-fashioned racism and xenophobia, continue to shape so many American women's lives. And here's the kicker -- just because you condemn these disparities in word doesn't mean you aren't upholding them in deed. Discrimination isn't only perpetuated by mean, old white guys hoarding trust funds in offshore bank accounts.

Let's take public education as a prime example. Greg Mortenson's work to build schools in Afghanistan may strike U.S. feminists as romantic, but we often ignore the educational crisis in our own country to the determinant of so many American girls. No doubt education reform is one of the most difficult and complex challenges facing the U.S. today. Part of this is philosophical and pedagogical -- what is the best way to teach a child? But this kind of question goes unanswered, and becomes practically irrelevant, when there simply aren't enough resources or political pressure. Those who can afford private schools in failing districts don't call for reform, and those who live in wealthier districts are already happy with the state of their schools. Too many American feminists wouldn't even name public education as central to the domestic women's-rights agenda, even while recognizing that it's the key to empowerment abroad.

I'm not arguing that social change is easy. It's far more cut-and-dried to send a check to an entrepreneurial woman via Kiva.org than it is to examine your own daily practices and privilege. It's difficult, but necessary.

I believe in the power of mentoring, for example, so I have made a concerted effort to create relationships with younger women where I provide emotional support but also share resources -- information about the journalism or publishing industries, personal finance tips, etc. I find that, most often, it's white, economically privileged college students who reach out to me for mentoring. So while it may be intuitive for me to create relationships with these proactive young women, and I usually do, I can also see how it perpetuates elitism. I only have so much time and energy to use in this way, and if I expend the majority of it on helping already race and class-privileged women who have the confidence to reach out to me in the first place, am I really living my commitment to intersectional feminism?

I've posed these questions to a few of my feminist mentors, all of whom told me I was overthinking the issue. I'm not sure they're right. While gender studies has given us a framework with which we can criticize the pants off patriarchy, sometimes we still settle for a less-than-rigorous analysis when it comes to our own beliefs, behaviors, and relationships.

International Women's Day is actually an excellent opportunity to resuscitate and update the old adage: Think and act globally and locally. How do we provide some of our disproportionate resources to women leaders in foreign countries so they can organize women in their own communities? But also, how do we simultaneously look around and interrogate our own lives for activist opportunities?

It's not an either-or equation, but a both-and challenge.