The American Dream of equality is heralded as one of the pillars of our democracy. In a country that prides itself on equal opportunity, the United States stands as a seemingly endless horizon of possibilities; one that allows the entirety of its citizenry the same possibility of realizing its full potential. We like to believe that we are a culture of Cinderella stories. There are few people we admire more than those with miraculous tales of rags to riches: Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Vince Papale, Mike Tyson. All of these men captured the hearts of Americans by embodying the American Dream. But as noble as our American Dream may be, it is unequivocally clear upon closer examination that, for many Americans, it is quickly becoming an American myth.
Female representation in politics and the public sector reveals that American equality is a fable. As dramatic and incendiary as this may sound, the real issue is the finesse with which we have adapted to this somewhat devolutionary trend. Americans constantly strive for an intangible sense of liberty and egalitarianism; but in reality, we are far more enamored by the shadow that these concepts cast than in the figures themselves. If we block out the sun, so to speak, a reexamination of these ideals reveals them to be far less affirming. Indeed, women in America are privileged with numerous rights and protections in the political spectrum, but whether or not this translates into equality is an entirely different issue.
A mere 18% of representatives in Congress are women, and only 4% of Fortune 500 companies have women at their forefronts. And yet, it seems as though the entire country has been desensitized to the gendered phenomenon. Certainly, there are no laws in place that prevent women from attaining these high-ranking positions of power. And yet, there is an undeniably disproportionate divide between men and women.
This trend begs the question: do we embrace the abstract ideals of equality while turning away from its application in day-to-day life? Is equality, that ultimate goal of American livelihood, really just a dream? Perhaps the problem is that we have been dreaming for so long that we have lost sight of reality, and waking up to face the incongruent truth is no longer an option. The dichotomy between what is preached and what is practiced cares not for gender, race, or any other delineation. Rather, there seems to be a far-reaching, pervasive tendency for support in theory and rejection in practice. Unfortunately for us, the broader and more impactful manifestations of the inconsistencies between what we claim to believe and what we readily perpetuate is truly worrisome. The issue is particularly upsetting because of the quality of the veneer the United States has created and furthered in regards to women. And it is only perpetuated by female acceptance and, to a certain extent, female support.
Women seem to be taught to dream smaller. Even though the percentage of women attending college now exceeds that of men, if we look beyond the benchmark of a college degree, the number of men who apply their college educations in the workplace still far outstrips that of women. In scientific fields, data shows that the number of women in each successive stage of post-collegiate education steadily declines: the ratio of men to women in PhD programs may be the same, but steadily shifts in favor of men when postdocs are taken into consideration, and shifts even further when examining the number of women who have their own labs. A similar issue arises when we examine the labor force—of the 46.9% of the women who comprise the individuals in business, only 14.3% are executive officers, and only 4.2% are CEOs. The same applies in government, with the 113th Congress bearing a record number of 97 women holding seats, which corresponds to 18.1% of both the House and Senate. The simple fact of the matter is, whether in academia or politics, American women simply don’t have the presence that they should. This is especially noteworthy considering that America is one of the few countries in which the female population actually exceeds the male population (51% and 49%, respectively).
Women have developed a sense of complacency that stagnates their presence outside of the home. A responsible employee is not an irresponsible mother; and yet, women who seek a career in addition to their jobs at home are too often condemned rather than supported. While we herald the freedom of American women to make independent choices regarding their futures and their occupations, the truth of the matter is that their choices are not so independent after all. Such a statement, however, often draws criticism not only from men, but more importantly, from women who become defensive of the status quo. We must remember that the goal is not to accuse the mother of not doing enough, but rather to support her in pursuing her dreams. There is no nobler role than that of a parent, and yet, being a parent is not mutually exclusive from innumerable additional positions in life.
Examining the idea of inequality is a sensitive subject, particularly for those still receiving the short end of the stick. The natural human reaction seems to be to create an “us versus them” mentality in which women who work outside of the home are framed as threats to those who work at home. The very notion that women are not actually on the same playing field as their male counterparts almost reads as criticism, and it is this incendiary reaction that chokes change and impedes progress.
In order to have equality, women must truly strive for equality. Somewhere along the way, Elizabeth Cady Stanton became a feminazi, and we as a nation began to align feminism with a particularly negative and confrontational connotation. But this simply isn’t the case. Women, it seems, refuse to want more because they are afraid of the labels such motivation might induce. It is not enough to hide behind our maternal roles as an excuse for dreaming smaller. Instead of attacking the woman who has both a career and a family as an aggressive worker and inadequate mother, we must celebrate her desire to do more. This desire is manifested in equality, and it is the human responsibility to foster and support such a noble and natural goal. The face of feminism is unique to each and every person in our country and on our planet. It does not suggest the elevation of women above men. Indeed, there is no comparison necessary. Rather, it is the philosophy of equality that women should pursue, and by holding themselves up to such a universal standard, they render irrelevant the idea of gender appraisal. Women are not the same as men, and should not be treated in the same way. But nor should they be treated differently. Ultimately, differences do not validate unequal treatment. Recognition of men and women’s inherently dissimilar anatomies and biological capacities should not translate into an all-encompassing delineation of each gender’s mental and social capacity. Instead, the ultimate goal should be for each and every individual to achieve his or her zenith. Only in this way can we transform the American dream into a reality.