Little did the ACE Women’s Network of New York know that when they asked me to give a talk on “Legal Challenges Facing Women” at the Culinary Institute of America last week that I referred first to my historian’s training and then to the law degree in preparing the materials. I can’t talk about law without thinking about its historical context. And it turns out that an audience wants to go a layer deeper, into anthropology, to understand why trans-historically and cross-culturally men dominate women. Long before she won a MacArthur “genius” award, Sherry Ortner was my go-to answer to that question, to be found in her groundbreaking essay “Is Female is to Male as Nature is to Culture.”
What does technology have to do with this discussion? Technology – or the business world thereof – is, as my friend Susan Perry would say, the last frontier of the cowboy in the marketplace. Hers is an astute observation. In any number of studies of men and women in the professions, social scientists and historians have noticed how as men move onto the most dynamic, and remunerative, of professions, women pick up the slack from behind. Anyone remember Ann Douglas’s terrific book, “Feminization of American Culture?” This was one of her principal themes, how women entered into religion as men were leaving it behind. Follow that pattern from clerics to clerical to bank tellers to professions such as law and medicine and you have a trail of women filling in the spaces that men, by and large, have left to move on to … in late twentieth century: investment banking and … technology, Ursula Burns, Marissa Mayer and Sheryl Sandberg notwithstanding.
Still, I took a chance when I suggested that the greatest legal challenge facing women today is the lack of law or social policy to reverse the widening gap between rich and poor globally, as well as in the United States. For the U.S. particularly, the shrinking of the middle class is a contributory factor in this dynamic. What do these patterns have to do with women specifically? Where women as a social category go, so goes the society, and visa versa. To wit: Feminism was only possible because of the rise of the middle class in Western society. Elizabeth Cady Stanton in Seneca Falls in 1848 advocated for education, property rights and the franchise because her father, brother and husband had them. Take the vast majority of European settlers back far enough in their family history and you will almost certainly find that they were serfs living in the feudal structures that emerged at the end of the Roman Empire. They had no education (save what the Church taught them orally), property rights or a vote. Once middle class men had those rights in the modern era of democratic societies, women wanted them too.
And so now once again: what does this have to do with technology? A lot. Books could and should be written on this subject, but let me outline a few chapters. The first would be on education and encouraging math and science for girls punctuated by digital literacy with programming as the centerpiece of that instruction. To the detriment of boys? No, but let’s encourage all girls to know the basics and those with the interest and acumen to keep pace, not just in grade school, and not just in middle school (where gender conformity becomes an impediment), but right up through high school so that they enter college as encouraged and as skilled as any young man with same ken.
Next, if we cannot fix all of social policy with regard to greater equity around childbearing and nurturing of children for women, a complex set of circumstances that together with gender socialization creates the greatest barriers to women’s advancement in the professions and parity between men and women in the workplace, then let’s demand the current market leaders to reset the frame. For the big Internet companies, government is a plaything anyway, usually in a game that avoids regulation about their trade. No one expects government to fix this gender challenge anymore. Let’s go instead to where power for change lies: Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, etc. This is a challenge that engineering alone will not fix. That point alone is worth the lesson. People and societies cannot be “engineered” with algorithms, but let’s bring the intelligence, problem-solving skills and, let’s face it: money of the Internet Titans to the table of the gender question.
Finally, the law. The single most important social category lacking in U.S. Constitutional law for today’s ills is class. Moreover, the United States has failed to keep pace with other developed countries that correct for this gap but by establishing certain opportunities as rights, such as education, health care and privacy. One example: the United States, while it hosts the United Nations, has not signed the Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, a foundational document of that body. Another: the U.S. regularly does not sign international sustainability accords. And it continues to expect to get “safe harbors” for international privacy laws. The extreme Republican Party views about U.S. exceptionalism are a delusion. It is time for the United States to meet reality and get into step with other countries that lead in these areas, and for us to become a leader to those developing nations that look to us for clues.
Tax law is the closest this country gets to a social policy about wealth distribution. Since the Reagan Administration, U.S. tax law has been ridiculously tilted in favor of not just “the wealthy,” but the extreme wealthy. If an adjustment was needed at that time (which I do not believe to be the case but I could imagine an argument might be made), it is time now – and yesterday – to adjust our tax policy again the other way. Dial back the overly magnanimous opportunities for those with the money not to pay and put some breaks on the burden that the middle class carries. And make the tax laws such that U.S. corporations pay too, and cannot easily reincorporate in another country to avoid those taxes.
Finally, now, back to women. Pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Raise gender to the highest level of constitutional scrutiny. And let’s think about how we can turn those creative, innovative policies that the Internet giants are going to instantiate for families and women into general social policy.
Aren’t you sorry now that you asked me to talk about these issues?