Women in the U.S. Are Still Second-Class Citizens: Not Interested? You Should Be

Despite the progress women have made in the last several decades, they are still treated like second-class citizens in all the ways that matter. Caring about the equal treatment of women in society doesn't make people feminists -- it makes them good humans.
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For several months, I've wanted to write about the way women are treated in the United States today. It has taken some time to organize my thoughts because I feel so deeply about this issue. Uh-oh. I'm a woman. With feelings. Am I going to get too emotional? Will there be tears? How is it possible that I can have intelligent, clear, informed thoughts with all of these emotions flowing through me? This is partly why women generally earn less than men in almost every occupation (in 2012, female full-time workers made 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, a 23 percent gap) -- because implicit and explicit stereotypes still exist. And despite the progress women have made in the last several decades, they are still treated like second-class citizens in all the ways that matter.

Although I received my education at the all-female Smith College, my few post-college years have actually stirred my feminine consciousness more than Smith ever could have (notice I didn't say "feminist consciousness" because, let's be honest, caring about the equal treatment of women in society doesn't make people feminists -- it makes them good humans). That's because out here in the real world, I deal with and see other women face prejudices that make their lives challenging, at the very least.

Women are supposedly regular citizens, yet they continue to be systematically discriminated against. Are women inherently less competent in their jobs than men are in theirs? Of course not. So why are they paid less? When women leave the house in the morning, are they seeking to attract more attention for their appearance than men are for theirs? Or might they be trying to get to work/walk the dog/frequent the local coffee shop without receiving an unsolicited stare from a male stranger? (It's like, "They're mine... and they're covered... so stop burning a hole through my chest with your eyes.") Are women's ideas any less valid than men's ideas? Maybe women, as a gender, lack the relevant experience to comment in certain situations? Wrong again. Yet men are typically taken more seriously when they talk. I don't need a statistic for this. I've been there. These are only a few of the ways women are discriminated against every day. Outside of the U.S., discrimination against women is more explicit and brutal -- perhaps the topic of a future article.

The language used to identify women and their "issues" in the U.S. promotes these stereotypes. If a woman has an opinion, she's called bossy or overbearing. If a man is bossy, he's just taking care of business. In an effort to combat this language, Sheryl Sandberg and Anna Maria Chávez have launched the "Ban Bossy" campaign. If a woman sleeps around, she's a slut (or worse, a *cough* slut *cough*). If a man sleeps around, he's just doing what men do (which women are still supposed to accept as a rationale for infidelity, by the way). If a woman speaks loudly and confidently, she's shrill. If a man does the same, he's authoritative. These subtle identifiers -- used by both men and women -- undermine women, whether those who utter them intend to or not. They are ways of taking women down a peg when they step out of place.

It's time America stops referring to issues that affect women as "women's issues." Almost a century since women's suffrage, it's insulting to address equal pay, reproductive rights and topics surrounding the home and children as issues solely relating to women, when they have consequences for men as well. Similarly, "women's rights," "women in the media," "women in politics," and "women in the workplace" are unnecessary categories. Why not simply say "media" or "politics" or "workplace?" You don't hear people say "men in the media" or "men in politics." And yes, women arrived in the workplace after men, but we're no longer new here. Thanks for the distinction, now kindly remove it.

Separating "women's issues" from other political and economic issues limits America's leaders as they seek to come up with solutions to our country's problems, as Gloria Steinem recently wrote. In January, The Shriver Report revealed that the poverty rate for women would be reduced by half if they were paid the same amount as men for the same work. The same study found that in 2012, the U.S. economy would have produced $447.6 billion more in income -- 2.9 percent of GDP -- if women received equal pay. Will policymakers consider this so-called "women's issue" when looking to lessen poverty in America? Probably not, because it has been differentiated from the "real" issues our nation faces.

In the last few weeks, both male and female politicians have demonstrated just how far the U.S. has not come in treating women equally. Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee has stood by his claim that Democrats are sending the message that women who use birth control "cannot control their libido or reproductive system without the help of government." Dear Mike, you may be unaware, but it's been almost 100 years since Margaret Sanger opened the first birth control clinic. Move on already. State Senator Steve Martin (R-VA) referred to expectant mothers as "hosts" while defending his anti-abortion views. Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-MN) stated last week that Americans "aren't ready" for a female president. Why not, Michele? Because of the cooties? Fox News' Bill O'Reilly agreed with Bachmann, adding, "There's got to be some downside to having a woman president, right? Something that may not fit with that office?" Former Democratic Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently said that advancing opportunities for women is "not a women's issue," but rather "a responsibility that we all share." While Clinton's remark is accurate, she shouldn't have to say it. In Afghanistan or Nepal, this is a different story, but if America operates under the assumption that women are no longer second-class citizens, which in theory it does, there should be no such thing as "opportunities for women." In a country where men and women are truly equal, chances to advance are simply called "opportunities."

One of the worst results of all this is that it leads to women treating one another poorly. Women supporting and empowering one another would go a long way towards reinforcing their worth and helping them become first class citizens. Yet I've seen girls and women from age three to 53 pick each other apart, cut each other down, and shut each other out. This is a direct result of the language people use to talk about women and the innate prejudices they still have towards them.

I am not a second-class citizen. For my entire life, I've been in control of me. I identify the things I want and I make them happen. I work as hard as any man. And no one can tell me I deserve less than exactly what men receive for doing the same work. If you're with me on this, start by not holding yourself back. Continue to strive for what you want, even if it's in a male dominated field. Fight for what you're worth at home and in the workplace. Constantly praise the hardworking women around you, just for being themselves. If you're a man, start by taking interest in this cause that affects you, too. Finally, vote for a female president so we can catch up with the rest of the world (over 50 countries have had female leaders), alter these implicit and explicit prejudices, and institute policies that further solidify the professed equal status of men and women in America.

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