The Femo: Why I’m proud
My semester in Italy has been one fluid stream of culture shock. Every day I’m surprised by something new, ranging from the lack of takeaway coffee cups to the incessant delays of the public buses, to the fact that any small store or restaurant will not or cannot accept your credit card, let alone bills over €20. It does not take much to generate the feeling that I’m not on College Hill anymore.
This has been a truly enlightening cross-cultural experience, and the program directors and professors in Bologna have often encouraged students in my program to think critically about the differences between Italy and the United States.
One of my favorite professors, a middle-aged working mother, is fascinated by participatory discussions about the plight of women in Italy and the comparison between the position of Italian women and American women in society. She has been a wealth of information about the difficulties of working and raising children in Italy, the astronomically high costs of child care, the high rates of female unemployment, and the conspicuous lack of women in positions of power.
In the past two decades, Italy’s mounting public debt and serious fiscal crisis has severely weakened government support for a number of social programs. With the government unable to support individuals in need, working women have been largely ignored by their government, and their situation remains stagnant as the cost of private child care becomes increasingly unaffordable. Finding and holding a stable job is a challenge in itself for Italian women. According to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, the female unemployment rate in October hit 11.8 percent, compared with a male unemployment rate of 10.1 percent.
It has become clear from discussions with my professor and other Italian female directors that these statistics hint at undertones of stigma and discrimination, of a national discomfort with women in positions of power, of working women in general, or of a widespread train of thought that women will always leave their positions to be mothers and are thus unworthy and unreliable employees. These women seem angry, frustrated, and, above all, silent. These are not problems brought to the forefront of Italian political discussions. They are the problems of women that stay among women.
Amid these discussions, my professor often asks about the position of American women in our society. Do American women confront similar problems? Are working women ignored or aided by the state? Are American women capable of reaching positions of power?
It is an odd sensation to try to describe such a complex and multifaceted situation to someone who comes from a country with a completely different set of cultural norms, history, and knowledge. Yet the first time I began to confront these questions in our discussion, I was the one surprised, not by my answer, but by my sentiment. As I began to answer her questions, I began to feel an unexpected sense of pride.
We as a nation are far from perfect on these questions. The plight of working mothers, including the difficulty of finding a balance between family and career, pay discrimination, and lack of affordable child care continues to plague the United States just as it plagues Italy.
But I was proud to tell her that as early as the 1920s, our government began to implement provisions to help working mothers and recognized the challenges of being a woman in the workforce. I was proud to note that even today, organizations, activists, and politicians are recognizing and discussing the difficulties of working women, as well as proposing solutions to their plight.
I was able to boast that women in the United States are seeking higher education in greater numbers, starting families later, and striving towards high-power careers; that our country has produced fearless and bright role models and leaders such as Gloria Steinem, Hillary Clinton, Brown University’s former and current presidents, as well as the CEOs of IBM, Yahoo, Xerox, and Pepsi.
I was delighted to say that President Obama is both aware and supportive of women’s economic and employment issues and that his first piece of legislation signed into law was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helps remedy pay discrimination for equal work. I’m proud to support a president who recognizes the challenges of working women and seeks to support them, and who advocates for policies in favor of equality and progress.
But there were parts of my answer that I was not proud to tell her. I am ashamed that there is a possibility of a political party coming into power that continually reduces women to objects — to applications filling binders, to bodies to be illegitimately raped, to houses for fertilized eggs destined by God, regardless of whether or not their creation was consensual. This widespread and increasingly popular rhetoric of the GOP leads me to fear the loss of female autonomy and the possibility of women being reduced to controlled objects instead of increasingly influential individuals or head executives capable of running a university, a corporation, or even a country.
I am afraid that our next president could be one who refuses to address the issue of equal pay on the national debate stage, who opposes affordable access to reproductive and preventative health care services, who prioritizes “the economy” above the equality of American citizens, and whose own wife boasts that her husband respects the “right to choose” to be a housewife but not the right to choose to responsibly delay or terminate pregnancy.
Next Tuesday, around 130 million Americans will turn out to vote in the presidential election. In 2008, 60.4 percent of these voters were women. Female voters have outnumbered male voters in every presidential election since 1964. Women continually and consistently outnumber their male counterparts in voter registration and turnout in non-presidential elections and are dedicated to mobilizing their friends and families in support of policies they feel best represent their needs. Women are a politically active, aware, and engaged community, committed to exercising a right that they once worked so tirelessly to gain.
Rest assured: this Tuesday, American women will turn out to vote for the candidate and party that best moves them forward, and I couldn’t be more proud.
photo of Hilary Clinton by the US Embassy Malta