Conversations with Sheila: Women's History Month

March 2014

Conversations with Sheila

Before I begin this month’s Conversations, I want to thank everyone who made Street Culture such a fabulous Ethnic Arts event! The country tables were exciting, the food scrumptious and the talent superb. Thanks also to the Oneota Film Festival for bringing such amazing films to our community and for being such great partners in marketing both events.


It’s Women’s History Month! When I think about this particular heritage month, I’m surprised by how little we discuss patriarchy on campus. None of us seem willing to mention the P-word, these days. Yet with increasing restrictions on women’s access to reproductive services, the continued use of rape as a weapon of war, the rapacious sex trafficking industry, and the rampant sexual exploitation of young girls, not to mention domestic violence and sexual assault, I wonder why the idea of patriarchy is so little discussed.

I also wonder if the men on campus that are seriously opposed to perpetuating systems that oppress women are as involved as they could be. Clearly, to be effective, activists for gender equality must be men and women. Coalitions should also include LGBT activists and allies that support marriage equality, inclusion of gender identity and expression under civil rights laws, and barring workplace discrimination against transgendered individuals. 

Gender equality is inclusive but thanks to patriarchal systems that support sexism, US women remain underrepresented in positions of power and influence. For example, the shortage of women in Silicon Valley is directly related to the fact that nationwide only about 20% of bachelor’s degrees in Computer Science go to women. This problem starts with how we educate girls. For example, recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that US girls lagged behind boys in eight grade science. These disparities reflect a hidden gender bias that makes girls think that science and technology is for boys. Moreover, just as women are underrepresented in high prestige fields, they are overrepresented in low-wage employment and significantly overrepresented as victims of sexual violence.

As a woman of African-American descent, I’m reminded how easily our nation ignores the relationship between race and gender disparities. For example, while many educated, inspiring and entrepreneurial women of color are boosting family income and local economies, bias affects their access to educational resources and economic opportunities while reproducing toxic social conditions in the poor communities of color in the US and around the world. An example--when parents and children face these enormous obstacles to getting basic needs met, girls often take on responsibilities well beyond their years; sometimes these conditions diminish their opportunities and aspirations. 

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, it’s appropriate to celebrate the fact that women have made unprecedented gains in education, human rights, and access to economic opportunities. But it is equally important to dedicate ourselves to eliminating the remaining vestiges of patriarchy and to oppose sexism wherever we find it. Things are changing but not fast enough for all women in all places. Remember that even in the US, one of the most powerful nations on earth, women generally lag behind their male counterparts in income, power, and privilege. In my view, these realities make Women’s History Month a cause for celebration and a call to action.