Editor’s Note: Marcie Bianco is author of the forthcoming book “Breaking Free: The Lie of Equality and the Feminist Fight for Freedom.” The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.
The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which states that equal rights under the law cannot be denied on account of sex, has been in a perpetual state of limbo for 100 years. Originally written by suffragists Alice Paul and Crystal Eastman and first introduced into Congress in 1923, last week in the US Senate, there were not even enough votes to pass a resolution to lift the 1982 deadline for full ratification by the states for its adoption into the US Constitution.
In the intervening years since 1977, when 35 of the 38 states required to amend the Constitution ratified the ERA, six states (Idaho, Kentucky, Nebraska, Tennessee, South Dakota and West Virginia) rescinded their ratifications, rendering the ERA’s constitutional validity questionable even if the Senate had mustered the requisite 60 votes to waive the deadline.
In the US, an equal rights amendment may never become law. And worldwide, those dreaming of gender equality will have to wait another 300 years, according to the latest United Nations estimates. Arguably, billionaires will land on Mars before we achieve gender equality.
With odds like those, it’s well worth asking: What does “achieve gender equality” even mean? Laws can exist on the books, but how they are implemented and practiced determine their collective impact. It’s past time to give up the ghost of equality and pursue a goal that has hope of transforming women’s lives for the better: freedom. Doing so means accepting that achieving equality is impossible.
Equality isn’t working
Equality isn’t impossible simply because the people in power won’t give it to us. It is impossible because it cannot be faithfully implemented in supremacist and capitalist institutions created by men, for men. Our institutions are fundamentally conservative and were established to preserve the status quo.
Including women in our existing institutions does not fundamentally change those institutions but only expands them, swallowing women and demanding we conform to the rules and values of those institutions. As feminist writer Jill Filipovic said, “Women can’t flourish in a system that needs us as support pillars for someone else’s building. We’re here to prop it up, not live in it. This is not a place that was built for us to thrive.”
Even when equality is written into the Constitution — say, in the form of two amendments granting enfranchisement for all citizens (18 and older and who have not been incarcerated) — it is not guaranteed or protected in practice. From the moment the Fifteenth Amendment gave Black men the right to vote, there have been state-sanctioned and citizen-led efforts to prevent them from voting and from their votes counting, from gerrymandering to voter restrictions, to armed vigilantes intimidating voters at polling sites. This isn’t to deny the tangible benefits of the law, but we must acknowledge that White supremacy remains firmly rooted in our institutions and our society in ways that compromise the promise of even so-called “constitutionally protected” rights, from voting to abortion.
We suffer from an equality mindset that has resulted in a shortsighted politics that feels so deeply detached from people’s needs, especially in light of the increasing number of legislative attacks aimed at eradicating and limiting our freedom, from the freedom to control our bodies to the freedom to move and cross state lines in search of health care. In service of the status quo, equality has become the political cudgel of conservatives seeking to undermine the human dignity and self-determination of women and marginalized people.
Recent legislative and judicial trends indicate equality’s increasingly overt weaponization. Take, for example, the 18 states that have banned trans athletes from participating in school sports. Such legislation leverages a gender-essentialist interpretation of Title IX — which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded educational institutions— to claim that allowing trans girls to compete in sports discriminates against cisgender girls because, the essentialist argument goes, gender is biological and therefore immutable. Hence we see the language of equality, primarily that of “fairness” in the name of “protecting” or “saving” girls’ sports, as a defining feature of these bans.
Meanwhile, Democrats and progressives have largely failed to translate equality legislation into lasting change in people’s lives, through either continued structural supports or cultural messaging. And that’s when their legislation even becomes law in the first place — Democrats in the Senate in recent years have lacked the collective will to pass legislation in support of voting rights or police reform, for instance. For years, some progressives wrongly marginalized abortion rights as a niche issue (even at times refusing to say the word), while others failed to recognize the staggering vulnerability left by pinning abortion-rights efforts to federal, not state, access.
Regardless of party affiliation or political ideology, the equality mindset too often consists of a one and done – or won and done – mentality, a belief that once an equal right is “won,” there is little to no effort required to do the work necessary to make it a practical reality. But rights only have meaning and impact in their doing and in their living.
All of these realities only sharpen the need to ask: Why are we fighting for inclusion into systems and institutions that were built upon our oppression? Why have we limited the scope of our political vision and ethics to equality, as men have defined it?
Why are women waiting for men — who are the majority of our politicians, justices and judges — to benevolently bestow equality unto us? Here you go, little ladies, welcome to our club, classroom, workplace and C-suite…if you play by our rules.
We could stop playing by men’s rules. We can decide that equality isn’t good enough.
How the politics of freedom could change everything
Many feminists and proponents of the ERA cite abortion as central to their fight for the amendment’s passage. But abortion and issues pertaining to bodily autonomy, self-determination and human dignity of historically oppressed and marginalized people are not equality issues. Rather, these are matters of freedom.
I do not mean the type of American freedom understood as the unfettered pursuit of one’s desires, no matter their impact or consequence — what writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and historian Tyler Stovall have called “white freedom.” I mean freedom defined as the ongoing process of self-creation and world-building rooted in accountability and care, because freedom is collectively — not individually — realized and experienced.
Freedom is not carelessness but care-fullness, and requires we hold ourselves accountable to care for each other. As Audre Lorde, echoing generations of Black freedom fighters and Black feminists before her, wrote: “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.” My freedom is not limited by yours but broadened by it.
And, our freedom is situated — distinct for each of us — based on the conditions of our lives. Freedom acknowledges the reality that we are not treated equally in society and in our institutions, and we are not born and do not die on equal terms.
Practicing freedom is available to all of us, daily, in our choices and actions in how we engage with other people and choose to account for their human dignity.
This looks like respecting people’s human dignity, allowing them to fashion and become, for example, the woman of their dreams, rather than policing their gender identity and expression. Whereas an equality mindset reinforces the gender binary and limits women to a small box in opposition to men, a freedom mindset understands that the inclusion of trans athletes, for instance, elevates the competitive level of all women, and celebrates self-creation as the pinnacle of freedom.
Practice freedom by asking new questions
Practicing freedom is being careful with our words, both on and offline, because we understand that our words have power — our words affect other people. It is acknowledging that we are responsible for our own actions.
While a politics of equality might argue that the best way to solve for mass-shootings in schools is to give teachers guns (so that everyone has a gun), a politics of freedom begins with the recognition that guns threaten our freedom and, specifically in the context of education, threaten children’s ability and willingness to learn in school.
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Freedom work within our conservative institutions will inevitably face pushback. We witnessed this just last month with the ”Tennessee Three,” who took to the floor of the Tennessee House of Representatives to petition their colleagues to take real action against gun violence in light of The Covenant School shooting in Nashville. Two of the three representatives — who are young Black men — were expelled from the House for “disorderly behavior.” (Both have been reappointed to their seats by their local officials.) Whereas equality efforts are complicit with institutional norms and values, freedom work is institutional defiance.
From a freedom mindset grounded in accountability and care, abortion becomes part of reproductive health care. It isn’t oversimplified as an equal right to make a single “choice.” Abortion is never based on one choice but rather determined by a person’s circumstances, personal and financial supports, age, aspirations and dreams for how they want to build their own family.
All of this necessitates letting go of equality and an equality politics, built upon the patriarchal gender binary, of complicity and reliance on governments institutions to create a freer and more just world. It requires asking new questions. How might our politics change if we, finally, relinquish equality? How might doing so liberate us to become the women we want to become, on our own terms?