If you doubt that the 21st century belongs to women, just look at the statistics. Throughout the developed world, women live longer and healthier lives than men. They earn three-fifths of the university degrees. They make up half the enrolment in law and medical schools. Women with the same work experience as men make the same money as men. Women are the main breadwinners in a growing number of households, and fared far better than men did during the recent man-cession. Even the universal parental preference for boys is disappearing in North America. Today, the vast majority of couples who seek out high-tech sex selection to help conceive their kids opt for girls.
So let’s spare the lamentations for the so-called decline of feminism. The war for women's rights is over. And we won. Here is just one small example. How many people came to the defence of Robert Dewar, the Manitoba judge who sentenced a rapist to probation, and blamed the victim for dressing in a tube top and creating “inviting circumstances”? Answer: no one. The outrage was universal. Everyone agreed that the judge was a complete blockhead who must’ve spent the past 25 years in a coma. He was immediately barred from hearing sexual assault cases.
If you are a woman reading this newspaper today, you are singularly blessed. You belong to the freest, most educated, and most affluent group of women in all of human history. Your own daughters will have more choices than any girls who ever lived. Of course we have feminism to thank for some of this. But we also have science and the Industrial Revolution.
Once the Industrial Revolution got under way in the West, the women's revolution was inevitable. Even though conditions in the factories were generally miserable, for the first time in history women were freed from rural serfdom. Even the most overworked factory girl had a few pennies of her own, and could marry whom she pleased. She may not have had many legal rights, but at least she was her own property.
International Women’s Day sprang out of the European socialist movement of the early 20th century. In 1910, a German political activist named Clara Zetkin proposed a women’s day, to be celebrated every year on the same day in every country, to press for women’s demands. The first such day was held on March 19, 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. The following year, the date changed to March 8, where it has remained. In North America, nobody paid attention to International Women’s Day until modern feminism came along. Today it’s an official holiday in many countries, including – oh, irony – Afghanistan.
Since then, Western women have steadily gained voting rights, property rights, marriage rights and employment rights. Perhaps the greatest step of all was to gain control over the means of reproduction – an epochal achievement that Marx never contemplated, but should have. When biology no longer determines destiny, any destiny becomes possible.
A lot of us forget how rapidly these changes have come about. In fact, it’s been an eye blink. If my mother and my mother-in-law had been born a few years later, both would probably have become doctors or scientists as well as housewives and mothers. In the 1960s, working women were expected to quit when they got pregnant. When I began my own career in the 1970s, sexual harassment was nearly as pervasive – and unremarkable – as cigarette smoke. I owe everything to the gutsy women half a step ahead of me who battered down the barriers so that I could have it easy.
People who persist in looking for systemic discrimination against women in (name your field here) seem more and more desperate. They might as well complain about discrimination against male kindergarten teachers. We are finally learning that equality can also mean the freedom to make different choices.
In the West, International Women’s Day doesn’t mean much any more. It’s little more than a marketing opportunity for businesses, or an excuse for the last remnants of women’s grievance groups to keep griping. Their daughters and granddaughters aren’t buying it, though. They’re too busy becoming doctors, bankers, judges, writers, mayors and Web pioneers. They’ve watched Mad Men on TV. They can scarcely believe the kind of sexism depicted on Mad Men existed only 50 years ago. The world of 1960s America probably seems as remote to today’s young adults as the world of Chinese foot binding seems to me. And that is something to celebrate.