I’ve had during my time here.
It occurred to me while reading my way through that recent passing moment when a number of young women employed at what appeared to be fairly well compensated office jobs in the freest, richest county in the history of the world, held up signs explaining why they were feminists and posted the pictures to the internet. Hey, it’s a free country (for now), shine on, you crazy diamonds.
Reading through them, though, I couldn’t help thinking that I saw a problem: underlying the sense of achievement or sense of being held back that seemed a recurring theme in the signs, was the assumption that the workplace, and indeed the world, is mostly fair. In fact, many of the complaints or aspirations seemed to assume the world WAS fair – except to women. As if, for example your average working man gets hired, promoted and paid in a just and fair manner, with no social or political games, no mindless and petty discrimination, no demeaning treatment, no disrespect, while women have the opposite experience. To put it broadly, that men waltz into the job they want, at the pay they want, with the firm they want, while women are left to beg for the scraps.
Do women suffer discrimination and mistreatment in the workplace simply because they’re women? Sure, and such behavior needs to be opposed. Do men suffer discrimination and mistreatment in the workplace simply because they aren’t related to the boss, are not from the right school or part of the country, or for any one of a million other reasons? Of course! Should we constantly strive to make the world a better, more decent place for everyone, with special attention paid to the weakest,in a way that encompasses the injustice done to women, or Is the suffering of women in this regard so outlandishly different from the suffering of men that it can reasonably become, indeed, DEMANDS to become, the basis for an all-encompassing world view?
Let’s take one example from history, sadly not even unusual in its brutal injustice. Similar things happened and continue to happen all the time. in the middle of the 13th century, Mongol armies swept through eastern Europe. The lands were not particularly rich in anything except people. The Mongols rounded up tens of thousands of peasants and craftsmen, and sold them as slaves, largely to the Islamic world. Men, women and children. The Mongols had a practice of keeping any craftsmen who they found useful; they also had a practice of saving the most attractive virgins as prizes for the chiefs. The other women and girls were sold as slaves along with the men, and probably some were added to somebody’s collection of concubines or otherwise abused. The men and boys got to work as slaves for Muslim overlords down in Egypt and the Middle East, which it’s safe to assume was no picnic.
The injustice here is staggering: one day, I’m a peasant tending my land, raising my family; the next my family is destroyed, my daughters hauled off never to be seen again, my husband and sons forced into a herd and driven like cattle to be sold at market. Perhaps I am driven off with them, but there’s no sympathy for family ties – we’re sold however the Mongols feel like selling us.
Now, what would be the point of distinguishing the injustice done to those Hungarian women from the injustice done to those Hungarian men?
Let’s take a more peaceful example. Throughout history, in settled lands, 80-90% of any given population lived in the country. This is another way of saying that since only about 10-20% more food than was required for the farmers’ subsistence could be consistently produced year after year, only 10-20% of the population could be spared for anything other than food production. This brute fact led to some good and bad things: in Europe, when science first arose in the the 12th century, men turned their attention to making life better for farmers by inventing things – millworks and wheeled plows, for example – that allowed the farmers to produce more food with less labor. (In the middle of the 14th century, the Plague set these efforts back a century or two – a great what-might-have-been). On the downside, since the land was only worth something to the lord if there were peasants to work it, the peasants became more and more tied to the land – if I sold land to another lord, the peasants on it were part of the deal. Serfs eventually became near slaves, not quite slaves because they had certain rights, but certainly not free to go wherever they wanted.
In such a world, families suffered as one: if times were good, they were good for all; if times were bad, they all got to starve together. But then as now, whatever injustices existed within the family were dwarfed by those within which the family suffered: a stupid, cruel man might bully his wife, or a bitter woman might henpeck her husband, but in general, everybody suffered and celebrated about the same. In other words, while there might be and certainly were specific cases where injustice was done within the family, the general way in which a man or a woman was treated within the culture had much more to do with your social status than your sex. And those cultural conventions had a lot more to do with not starving to death than with men lording it over women.
I’ve always rebelled at attempts to describe one group’s suffering as trumping other groups’ suffering – what would be the point? What we want to do, what we are morally obliged to do, is to strive for justice. Now, it is unfair, perhaps, for a woman to endure leers from her male coworkers; it is also unfair for schoolgirls to get kidnapped by Boko Harum. Unfairness is where the similarity ends: The first calls for a sharp look, and perhaps a rebuke – confident women have been dealing with such annoyances for centuries without needing much outside intervention – while the second calls for military intervention. Similarly, if an innocent man is on death row, that trumps my not getting a promotion I think I’m entitled to.
No, the world, including the American workplace, is not fair. As long as people are running stuff, it never will be. Our job as grownups is to do what we can to make it better for everybody. Be kind. Be considerate. Be fair when it falls to us to make decisions. But to imagine that a woman with a professional office job in 2014 America is somehow in the vanguard of those suffering great injustice, so much so that my entire world view is shaped by it – well, that’s kind of clueless.
(NOTE: I have daughters and a wife, and I want them to be happy. They seem to be, even if their dad/husband is a troglodyte. I do not treat them the same as I treat my sons, for the simple fact that they are not my sons. Towards them and towards everyone else I shoot for love, which isn’t fair at all – it is more and better than fair.)