Looking back at decades of activism within the feminist, LGBT, and human rights movements, Charlotte Bunch sees tremendous progress. “I think there’s no question there’s been enormous gains for women’s rights in the last 25 years,” she told a roomful of International Women’s Health Coalition supporters at a luncheon Wednesday, October 22.
Bunch, the Founding Director and Senior Scholar at the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University, spoke with Susan Wood, IWHC’s Director of Learning, Monitoring, and Evaluation, who questioned Bunch on the event’s theme, “Perspectives on Global Women’s Rights,” for the first luncheon of the 2014-2015 IWHC’s Leadership Council series.
“I think that one of the biggest gains that we have is that the issues that women have been talking about for the last 40 years are now in The New York Times, they’re on the agenda of the World Bank, they’re out there in the public arena.”
In addition to greater attention to issues that weren’t previously discussed, Bunch noted that activism within the women’s movement has opened up possibilities within women’s lives that were previously unavailable to them. “If you look at both the questions of violence, the questions of women’s role in economy, poverty…there are women everywhere who live very different lives because of the women’s movement.” But while she celebrated this fact, she noted: “But the problem that I think is staring all of us in the face is: it’s not true for all women.” In fact, she pointed out that inequality “between those of us who have benefitted from women’s rights changes and those who haven’t has grown. The distance has grown.”
Bunch spoke at length about how patriarchy is universally embedded in most cultures. “You hear over and over again in every region, that ‘these are things that are unique to my culture.’ But if you look at the attitudes, they’re very similar to the ones that come out of almost every culture about men dominating women, about control of people.” Citing the recent domestic abuse scandal involving an NFL player, Bunch pointed to the deeply embedded patriarchy in the U.S. “What male athletes are allowed to do and get away with is a really good example of how our patriarchal culture still is embedded in our male sportsmen,” she said. But, on the bright side, she noted the media attention surrounding the scandal embarrassed the NFL about domestic violence, an issue that rarely receives enough attention.
Wood asked Bunch to speak about her activism in both the women’s movement and the LGBT rights movement, and asked her thoughts on why LGBT rights have advanced while women’s rights, specifically their reproductive rights, have seen more setbacks. Bunch marveled at the changes she’s seen in her own life as a result of the parallel movements. “My rights as a lesbian have advanced, but my right to control my body in terms of reproduction…is under attack in some ways.”
But, she pointed out that even the LGBT movement has benefitted from patriarchy. “It helped LGBT rights to have male power. I mean, let’s be clear: I worked with the gay movement, I have wonderful gay friends, but there’s power in being male that even gay men often have that women haven’t yet achieved.”
Misdirected male power, however, often leads to dangerous results. Noting high unemployment and under-employment in countries such as Egypt, Bunch linked economics and poverty to the rise of religious fundamentalism. “What we’ve seen in the last 20-30 years is that regions in the world where there is a reaction against globalization and the people who feel left behind by that have become breeding grounds for an extremist ideology that wants to change those powers.”
Despite this, Bunch is optimistic about the future of the women’s movement, citing as inspiration a recent teaching trip in Nepal with 38 young feminist activists from nine countries in South Asia. “Women out there exist, they are everywhere, and they are trying to make change, and I think for me that’s the most important achievement is that we have that kind of grounding around the world for women who are seeking change, and we have that visibility of the issues.”