Friday, June 06, 2008

Just add women and stir? (by Suzie)

           (Keep reading and I’ll get to the controversial part.)
           The idea that we can’t “just add women and stir” has been credited to feminist theorist Charlotte Bunch in 1987. Since then, many feminists have picked up this phrase, with different permutations.
           A common idea is that someone writing a textbook on art, for example, could not simply add the names of female artists and think that she has covered gender in art. Instead, the author would have to look at ways in which female artists worked differently than men, how they were perceived differently, etc. The author might have to rethink concepts, such as: What makes an artist great? Here’s how this might work in regard to peace activism. Here’s an example from geography.
          Similarly, it’s not enough to add women to systems that are dominated by men and revolve around men. You have to examine the system itself from a gendered perspective and change accordingly. Here’s a reference from philanthropy. A nonprofit might find that it wasn’t sufficient to open a training class to women. It might need to offer childcare because women are more likely to be the primary caregivers of children. For the same reason, the nonprofit might find that children were more likely to benefit if resources were given to women instead of men in some communities.
          Along those lines … when some feminists say, “You can’t just add women and stir,” they mean that hiring, promoting, electing or otherwise adding women to fields that have been dominated by men does not guarantee that other women will be helped or that the system will change.
         Sandra Harding writes about science and technology (S&T):
          One major approach to dealing with women’s concerns has been to try to “add women” to S&T educational programs and workplaces and, sometimes, as beneficiaries of S&T products in such areas as health maintenance and domestic work. Such efforts are extremely valuable and far too scarce. Principles of social justice require that women, as well as men, gain access to the benefits of S&T development. Moreover, because women tend to be more alert to the distinctive needs and aspirations of women and their dependents in every generation, they try to get these addressed whenever they have the opportunity. Thus, women educate men as individuals and in their roles as community leaders, policymakers, and administrators about those parts of human needs and aspirations that appear primarily in women’s worlds. Furthermore, access to S&T work can often bring women together in public settings in ways that enlarge women’s consciousness of their role in social relations and empower them as community representatives (Collins 1991). For these reasons, even greater efforts should be made to increase the participation of women.
           However, it was clear from the beginning that such additive projects made unrealistic predictions about the likelihood of gaining equality for women, or even of achieving significant improvements in women’s situations, through such strategies alone. “Adding women” to S&T development has all too often meant adding a few elite women to the high-prestige areas of S&T — a Nobel Prize here, a university appointment there — and otherwise recruiting women’s labour for low-skilled and low-paying jobs to benefit their families, their employers, local governments, consumers in the North, and multinational corporations, but not women themselves. It quickly became apparent that merely “adding women” to existing S&T development projects would not advance either women’s situations or sustainable human development. The S&T sites that women entered remained structured by the understandings and interests of men, for women had been excluded from their design and management.
          Last year, blogger Freewomyn criticized Kathleen Rogers of the Earth Day Network for saying “that if more women were in leadership positions, we would have a solution to the environmental crisis.” She cited Condoleezza Rice as a woman who would not provide the necessary leadership on global warming. “Let’s just way that it’s going to take more than a woman in the White House to save the planet.”
         This week, Laura Flanders said we shouldn't have to elect women to get gender justice (among other things). 
           I agree. But doesn't gender justice include having women in government? I think putting more women into positions of power will improve society, if only because it opens up opportunities for women. It’s odd that this concept seems to have become controversial among feminists.
           I would much rather have Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state than a white man who shared the same views. Her promotion may inspire girls, especially black girls. Having the career she does may make it easier for white men in power to imagine another black woman in that job.
          I understand that it isn’t enough to add only a few token women. But it’s a start. We don’t get parity overnight. It starts with a few women, followed by a few more women, followed by a few more. I think women are more likely to change systems if we can get a foothold in them.
         I'm writing this before I go on vacation, and so, I don't know the latest in the presidential race. But I have been mystified by progressive women who say gender doesn’t or shouldn’t matter when choosing a candidate. I guess this means that they have no problem with men holding the presidency forever as long as the men have good policies. The same goes for race.
         I’m not saying gender or race should be the only things that matter. If you think Obama would significantly improve the lives of women, or the lives of some women, or your life, and Clinton wouldn’t have done so, I understand your vote. If you think it’s important to have an African American in the White House and you like Obama’s policies, I understand your vote. (Mix these thoughts up however you want.) But if you’re a feminist and you say that the gender or race of a candidate doesn’t matter, then I’m floored.