Posted by: emjb | May 9, 2006

Compulsory gratitude

As a not-wealthy woman living in the 21st century, I often find that some people think I simply don’t count my blessings enough. After all, I can work and own property and vote. I don’t have to wear a burkha. My husband is not my owner, and I can divorce him if I want, or charge him with a crime if he beats me. And of course I’m grateful for all that. So much so that the whole premise of the Meg Ryan movie, Kate & Leopold, filled me with rage. I mean, Meg Ryan kind of has that effect on me anyway, but any woman with half a brain would hopefully know that traveling back in time for good would not only mean becoming chattel again, but also losing out on things like penicillin and vaccinations that let you live to a nice old age. Hope Kate never got breast cancer.

Anyway, yes. I am grateful to be living when and where I do. Hooray for progress! But you see, my right to vote is not a “gift” given to me by my government or the patriarchy or humanity in general. It is my right, which I deserve, as a human being. At least as much as any human being deserves that right. And when I am grateful, it is in the “phew! dodged that bullet!” sense, not the “thank you, o great male overlords, for your benificence” sense. It’s easy to confuse the two.

You see, it’s not uncommon for a woman to complain that, say, she gets whistled at and threatened by jerkwads on the street, and then to be told “Hey, at least you don’t live in Afghanistan!” Well, yes, but isnt’ that setting the bar a little low, fellas?

The thing is, the struggle for equality isn’t finished yet. We’ve made progress, but there’s still a lot that needs fixing in the ways we treat and perceive men and women in this culture (or in any culture on this planet). Several thousand years of oppression aren’t going to vanish in a few decades. Old destructive ways of thinking take time to root out. And it’s the job of people who believe in equality to keep that process going. We don’t have time to sit around marveling at how good we have it compared to great-grandma; we have work to do so that our great-grandchildren will be better off than we are.

What I hate about the constant exhortations to be glad I don’t live under the Taliban is that there is also a sort of implied threat. The threat that if you keep complaining, hey, you just might lose the rights you already have. It’s a diversionary tactic, designed to make you think that the rights you have now are fragile and could be easily lost, making you like Those People, and you don’t want that. Better not rock the boat!

But sometimes, the shit needs stirring. No matter how much it annoys people or makes you look ungrateful, sometimes you have to keep reminding people that hey, the world still contains injustice and suckitude, and somebody needs to do something about it. Or we might lose the ground we’ve already gained.

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