Nonetheless, their ambivalence about recognizing privilege suggests a deep tension at the heart of the idea of American dream. While pursuing wealth is unequivocally desirable, having wealth is not simple and straightforward. Our ideas about egalitarianism make even the beneficiaries of inequality uncomfortable with it. And it is hard to know what they, as individuals, can do to change things.
In response to these tensions, silence allows for a kind of “see no evil, hear no evil” stance. By not mentioning money, my interviewees follow a seemingly neutral social norm that frowns on such talk. But this norm is one of the ways in which privileged people can obscure both their advantages and their conflicts about these advantages.
Ma and Dad have been worried about me since I started high school last year. It’s because I tried out for the track team and didn’t make it, even though I can run faster than anyone else at the school. Than anyone in the city. It’s because the state athletic board has rules about wild carders competing in sports against nats. Unfair advantage, they say, even though I’m just me. But my friend Beastie can’t go out for football because he’s like seven feet tall and super strong. He’d kick ass at football, and I guess that’s the problem. The coach says there’s too big a chance he’d hurt somebody. But I know Beastie. He can control himself, and he’d never hurt anybody. He just wants to go for a letter jacket like anyone else.
–The Thing about Growing Up in Jokertown (A Tor.com Original) by Carrie Vaughn
Calls from liberal and left social critics for advantaged people to recognize their privilege also underscores this emphasis on individual identities. For individual people to admit that they are privileged is not necessarily going to change an unequal system of accumulation and distribution of resources.
Instead, we should talk not about the moral worth of individuals but about the moral worth of particular social arrangements. Is the society we want one in which it is acceptable for some people to have tens of millions or billions of dollars as long as they are hardworking, generous, not materialistic and down to earth? Or should there be some other moral rubric, that would strive for a society in which such high levels of inequality were morally unacceptable, regardless of how nice or moderate its beneficiaries are?
Keeping silent about social class, a norm that goes far beyond the affluent, can make Americans feel that class doesn’t, or shouldn’t, matter. And judging wealthy people on the basis of their individual behaviors — do they work hard enough, do they consume reasonably enough, do they give back enough — distracts us from other kinds of questions about the morality of vastly unequal distributions of wealth.
…Such moves help wealthy people manage their discomfort with inequality, which in turn makes that inequality impossible to talk honestly about — or to change.
What is Women’s Empowerment?
Simplified, it is the actions that result in women being able to own and control property. It is primarily financial, but extends into the areas of body autonomy (the ability to chose what is done with your own body), childcare, education and violence against women because they all directly impact a woman’s ability to work, run a business and/or manage property.
Addressing inequality and Human Rights violations are key to resolving poverty. When inequality is high, poverty goes up; when inequality is low (and equality is high), poverty goes down.
It’s an important economic concept that has been thoroughly examined, discussed and researched by academics and activists all over the world (see references below).
My Own Experience
Since I’m just a poverty survivor and not a world-renowned academic expert in economics (or anything else), allow me to provide a ground-zero perspective from life here in the United States of America.
The examples I have collected show how an individual is kept in poverty or under absolute financial control of another individual. Therefore, it is important to understand that placing one person in a family (or community or collection of humans) under the absolute control of another person contributes to poverty overall.
The most simplistic explanation for this statement is this: If the controlling person is wealthy, the person they control is impoverished because they care unable to own property.
However, these human rights violations continue the cycle of poverty in many other ways. If a woman is unable to make decisions, maintain control over her body or well being, is subjected to violence, or is simply trapped in her home, then she is not contributing her full potential to the household or the community. Also, if something happens to the individual who is controlling all finances, leaving him unable to work, then the entire family becomes homeless.
For the purposes of this answer, I will focus on the effect on the women (specifically). Please understand that there are others who are effected, both directly and indirectly, by these issues.
Image source: Asterisk
(Note: this is NOT a photo of my mom. Technically, it’s a 1950s photo, but the hairstyles remind me of photos of my mother during her late teens.)
During the late 1970s, my mother told me the story of her first drivers license. She a navy child, so my grandfather was out at sea when it came time to go to the DMV, take the test, and get her license; so, my grandmother took my mother in herself.
The man behind the counter asked one question: “Where’s your father?”
They explained the situation and he flat out refused to allow my mother to get her license without a man present, providing his permission. She was not allowed to drive until my grandfather returned home. You can imagine how infuriating it was for both my mother and my grandmother.
Why this is important
Not being able to drives means being shut out of nearly all forms of employment in the far majority of people in the USA. It also significantly restricts movement and the ability to complete simple daily tasks, like shopping for food and going to the doctor.
Simply making divers licenses available to women (and punishing this sort of discrimination on the part of DMV workers) improves both women’s rights and women (economic) empowerment.
Images Source: NIH:
As a kid growing up in the Midwest, I had a stay-at-home-mom and lived in a house surrounded by houses filled with stay-at-home-moms. Some of the women were literally trapped in their homes without a vehicle or access to public transportation (at that time, it did not exist outside of the city). A few were doubly trapped by an abusive spouse.
Domestic violence was also common. Not just in my little town – everywhere.
This was when the women’s movement was picking up steam and making a lot of progress, but deep social and political change always seem to take an extra 5–10 years to reach the deeply rural areas and the states located in landlocked areas between the coasts. It took a while, but it did, finally, arrive.
Why this is important:
Without realistic options for income, these women were unable to escape violence and abuse against themselves and their children. Without employment they could not escape. Employment was not possible until after they managed to escape. It was an impossible situation.
When domestic violence awareness campaigns reached all corners of the USA, and changes to the laws provided all people of all ages protection from violence and abuse, then large numebrs of women were finally able to achieve both physical and financial freedom.
Image Source: 1985 cover of
As a teenager in the 1980s I found myself faced with some strange contradictions. There were people who were claiming that women had achieved equality and feminism was dead (sound familiar).
Yet, at the exact same time, many of my classmates were getting pregnant due to many difficult realities. Chief among them were the anti-birth control and anti-abortion sentiments of the local religious and political leaders and the disturbingly common occurrence of date rape.
While the majority of teenage girls simply gave their babies to family members to raise, there was a not-insignificant minority of teenagers who were forced to marry their boyfriend and/or rapist. I listened to more than one story that roughly translated into the following process:
- Boy ‘likes’ girls and wants to control her (permanently).
- Boy rapes girl.
- Boy tells everyone, including girl’s parents, that they had sex and the baby was his. There may not be a baby on the way. This did not appear to matter.
- Girl is now socially tied to boy. Other teens and adults perceive her as ‘his.’
- Boy continues to rape girl until she gets pregnant.
- Boy demands marriage.
- Parents force marriage, while trying to absolve themselves of any wrongdoing.
- Girl is now physically, socially and financially trapped by boy.
This is not a relic of the past – it continues to happen.
Why This is Important:
Body autonomy is about significantly more than ‘wanting to be a parent.’ It’s about physical safety and freedom – literal freedom.
No human being, regardless of age or gender, should be subjected to rape. Laws are in place to protect the victim, but they are difficult to enforce. The circumstances are also frequently complicated, particularly when it’s ‘date rape.’
The ability to prevent a pregnancy under any circumstance is the last line of defense against this particular kind of predator. Therefore, birth control is absolutely necessary in the fight against rape, domestic violence, and women’s inequality.
The ability to raise a child as a single parent, and still pursue a career and/or life goals is something our entire society MUST support, because it provides freedom to girls facing this kind of abuse,
The ability to address everything that goes along with a teen pregnancy, including medical care, without being forced into a marriage, is also absolutely necessary.
Those who have access to these necessities are also provided access to the possibility of a financially independant and reasonably secure future.
Image Source: Huffington Post:
I started working full-time after college. Then I went to grad school, and returned to working full time immediately after. That makes the 1990s the decade of my introduction into the regular workforce. Here are somethings that I heard on a regular basis during that decade (said to me directly and to other women):
- Of course your pay is low, you’re married. Your husband is bringing in the real income.
- You’re young and married. You’ll be having babies soon. We don’t expect you to stick around.
- We need someone to take notes. [Name of only female in room], you can be the secretary for the meeting.
- The best job [a woman] can get is secretary (nurse, teacher, [other stereotypically female position]).
- You should wear clothes that are tighter (more revealing, more fashionable, etc.). If you want to get ahead, you have to learn to work it. Don’t you want to succeed?
I could go on but you get the idea.
While all of these things were frustrating, uncomfortable and occasionally infuriating; none of them were perceived as harassment. In fact, the possibility of harassment didn’t come up until the Anita Hill hearings brought the topic into the TV sets and living rooms of every American with access to standard news channels. Even then, the focus was on extreme examples of sexual harassment.
Therefore, I will put aside the general atmosphere that was prevalent a few decades ago, and focus on the one specific comment that had real and far-reaching consequences for every working woman in the USA:
- Of course your pay is low, you’re married. Your husband is bringing in the real income.
This is just one of the many excuses/responses to questions about pay disparity that I, personally, encountered. Attempts to pursue this line of inquiry, or negotiate for a simple pay raise, were usually (invariably?) met with threats (direct or implied) of dismissal.
(Note: Reason it’s important will be explored in 2000s)
2000 to Present
Image Source:(Also see: )
While being held back in the pay-scale during my 20s was frustrating, I didn’t realize just how important it was until many years later. The problem is this:
- New employers base their pay-level offering on the amount of money previous employers have already paid you.
Requesting pay history and verifying the amount former employers paid is standard background check process. These are also standard discussion points during the interview process.
When it comes time to talk salary, it’s ALLWAYS based on information the new employer has on what previous employers paid. If you made $30,000 doing the same (or similar) work at your last company, why would the new company pay you significantly more? The fact that the men in the company are getting $90,000 during their first year, is irrelevant.
Bottom line: Your price has been set.
Why this is important:
Women consistently making 70% of the salary earned by men (across all professions) has serious implications for total household income. It reduces a woman’s ability to sustain herself and her children without a roommate or a husband. It significantly reduces her ability to find a job that pays a living wage, if she happens to be an unskilled worker.
However, it also has wider implications that directly affect men. The existence of wage disparity establishes a process by which some people are financially discriminated against. This process can be…and often is…applied to any group of people, as the company sees fit.
This isn’t about finding the best candidate or paying for a stronger skill set. Wage disparity is the act of paying significantly different wages to people who are doing the exact same work.
This perpetuates poverty by systematically restricting select groups of people from accessing key resources.
What the Academics Have Said
There are many highly respected academics and activists who have been saying poverty is reduced when women are economically empowered for a long long time. Here are a few examples of published academic papers that illustrate this fact:
- World Bank:
- UN Univ:
- World Bank:
- UN Women:
For an excellent speech on the effects of violence (specifically) and unenforced laws (in general) on poverty, please watch this TED talk:
Ted Talk () Gary Haugen: The hidden reason for poverty the world needs to address now
Originally posted in response to How powerful is female empowerment in resolving world poverty? on Quora.
People who are not poor and who are not dependent upon public assistance for housing need not fear that, if their son, daughter, caregiver, or relative is caught with some marijuana at school or shoplifts from a drugstore, they will find themselves suddenly evicted—homeless. But for countless poor people—particularly racial minorities who disproportionately rely on public assistance—that possibility looms large. As a result, many families are reluctant to allow their relatives—particularly those who are recently released from prison—to stay with them, even temporarily.
–The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
It is truly unfortunate that quality work does not move a person forward in a career. The advice being given in Ms. Hewett’s article (and soon to be published book) are effectively an admission that the academic and business worlds are made up of a ‘cronyism’ network – it’s not the quality of your performance (what you know), it’s the amount of power held by the people in your professional network (who you know). This is not ideal. Yet it’s both a reality and a topic the author has covered before in multiple publications, including Find a Sponsor (pictured here).
Yet, idealism aside, an interesting reaction can be found in the comments, which focus a lot of time and attention on a) the importance of professional appearance and b) the definition of professional appearance.
The comments that jumped out at me were those focused on how women must dress the part by locating designer clothes and bags, including heartfelt advice to shop at discount stores in wealthy neighborhoods. Mind you, I’ve done this many times over many decades – and I can spend loads of time talking about both the shopping techniques of non-wealthy women and the frustrations of being plus-size and/or curvy. To be more clear: when I am overweight it’s practically impossible to find appropriate new clothes. When I am not overweight I still do not have a fashion industry approved body. I can make it work but I rarely, if ever, manage to find clothes that actually fit correctly (new or used).
All of which sends me into a knee-jerk frustration-fueled reaction of: why…WHY….is it so important for women (not men, just women) to wear not only professional looking attire but labels?
“…I made the classic mistake of assuming that success was all about doing my job extraordinarily well. If I put my head down and worked as hard as I knew how, my value to the organization would be self-evident, and, of course, I would be recognized and promoted. Right? I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
“In addition to my not understanding the importance of dressing the part, I didn’t understand that at these beginning stages of a serious and super-competitive career, I needed a sponsor – someone with power who believed in me and was prepared to propel and protect me as I set about climbing the ladder. Don’t get me wrong: I did acquire a ton of supporters and developed mentors among several close female colleagues. But they had little clout where it counted: when I came up for tenure.”
“‘m sorry – but I don’t see how your appearance was the problem here. It sounds more like not having made those crucial connections all the way up the chain of command is what damaged your chances at success. If it were your appearance – wouldn’t your own department have issues with you? You are selling yourself (and all women) short by suggesting you need to “look” a certain way in order to be considered for promotion.”
“Last but not least, dress the way that best emphasis’ you and project the image you want the world to see. Sorry jeans and a t-shirt are never appropriate except at home or after work. [Name], you got it right. Goodwill and Thrift stores in “upscale” or good neighborhood have designer brands that people donate. That was my secret years ago and still is when I need a good designer bag. Look the part without the price tag.”
“It’s sad but true, people judge you by your appearance first. As a minority woman, I know this truth first hand. It’s amazing the difference in response you get simply by your style of dress or hair style. You must look the part if you want to play the game. It pains me to admit it, but it’s true…Albeit, I agree we definitely have to make the right connections. Your appearance and connections can get you through the door, but it’s your knowledge and abilities that keep you there”
The ‘Noble Savage’ is a fictional character that portrays an innocent outsider untouched by the corruption of civilization.
- Amazon.com list of books about the Noble Savage
In Hollywood, this generally produces a storyline that goes something like this: a respectable (usually white, well educated and rich) man loses his way in unknown territory and stumbles across a local (the savage) who helps him find his way home, usually after saving the respectable man’s physical life and assisting him in establishing a spiritual one. Then, upon returning home, the respectable man participates in the demise of the local and his or her entire family or village. Usually, the participation is accidental or the result of naiveté, which conveniently eliminates the potential long-term relationship between the respectable man and his new friend. It also presents an excellent opportunity for the Hollywood ‘Nooooooo!’ (done with great drama, tears, and a fall to the knees).
Here are my selections for the top three movies using homeless people or people in poverty in a classic ‘Noble Savage’ storyline:
1) A Christmas Carol Is it possible to forget that moment when Scrooge is heartbroken over the possible death of Tiny Tim? Of course, between the help of otherworldly spirits and the benevolent poor surrounding the old man, Scrooge the miser finds his way home and becomes a very happy man.
2) Down and Out in Beverly Hills A homeless man is taken in by super-wealthy Beverly Hills family and proceeds to fix all of the heartbreak, disappointment and self-destructive habits of his new benefactors. This movie does not have a ‘Noooooo!’ moment, but it does have a horrible scene where the homeless man insists that he is a ‘good homeless’ person because he likes being out on the street – most of the rest of them hate it and are, therefore, ‘bad’ homeless.
3) The Fisher King I must admit that I actually like this movie because of the relationships between the main characters, but it remains in the top three for the following reasons:
- The two lead males are both respectable men who have lost their way (and their minds) due to a horrible tragedy.
- Both lead males interact with homeless people while lost and use those new relationships to find their way home.
- One character snubs a homeless ‘friend’ after regaining his rightful status as super-wealthy-powerful-famous-man and is unable to find this friend when he has a change of heart (say it with me: Nooooooo!).
- The other leading man is returned home (regains sanity) through the help of his new respectable friend and a woman who has fallen in love with him (another standard Hollywood scenario), thereby leaving behind the people he knew while homeless.
Those are my picks – what are yours?
(C) Adora Myers 2014