Opinion

Is 2018 the year women will finally overthrow patriarchy?

Will South African women be lifted by the current wave of female empowerment that's sweeping the globe?

14 January 2018 - 00:00
This time last year an extraordinary period in the fight for equal rights  kicked off with a Women's March on Washington, DC, that soon spread to a global movement.
This time last year an extraordinary period in the fight for equal rights kicked off with a Women's March on Washington, DC, that soon spread to a global movement.
Image: Gallo/Getty

The fairy-tale prospect of Oprah Winfrey heading to the Oval Office sails on the river of happy tears shed over her Golden Globes speech (which of course received a standing ovation). She was accepting the Cecil B DeMille Award for lifetime achievement when she gave a rousing oration about how "time's up" for those in power who have oppressed and abused women.

While the entire speech is worth a read (we've sampled an excerpt below), what stood out most about it was Winfrey's acknowledgement that the scourge of sexual harassment, assault and violence wasn't unique to Hollywood, although that's where the spotlight is being shone the brightest. She gave recognition to "all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They're the women whose names we'll never know."

Actress Garcelle Beauvais, left, and civil rights activist Tarana Burke, founder of the #Me Too movement, at a Golden Globes after party.
Actress Garcelle Beauvais, left, and civil rights activist Tarana Burke, founder of the #Me Too movement, at a Golden Globes after party.
Image: Supplied

The hype surrounding Winfrey and her possible run for president is the culmination of a year when women's voices rose above everyone else's.

Last year was the year the Me Too movement, created by US activist Tarana Burke a decade earlier, gripped the world's attention: after several actresses publicly shared their sexual harassment and assault stories, it emboldened women without the currency of fame to come out and share their own using the hashtag #MeToo.

It was the year Time magazine chose anti-harassment female activists as their collective Person of the Year (they beat out Trump - but that's a low bar). It was the year Iceland criminalised the gender pay gap.

So is 2018 gearing up to become the year that women finally overthrow the captain that is patriarchy and take control of the ship? On paper, why not? It's difficult to imagine things going back to regular programming after this. Much like Hollywood attempting to self-correct its lack of diversity and inclusion after the #OscarsSoWhite drama, it will be hard for abusers to abuse without them now being stoned in the streets.

As Allison Janney said backstage at the Golden Globes: "There will be more accountability. I don't think we can ever eradicate the abuses of power ... Hopefully the repercussions of it will make people think twice."

At least for the women of Hollywood, things are looking up.

But the reality is this: for hundreds of millions of women across the world, things will stay pretty much the same. Women will still smile tersely through sexual harassment instances at the office. Not because they like it, but because, as Oprah said, they have "children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue". Women will still hold their keys in their hand when they walk in certain places, as a weapon in case anyone attacks them. Women will still be killed at the hands of their intimate partners. Women will still be afraid to wear short skirts in some public spaces or afraid to catch taxis alone at night.

In a country like ours, women are still fighting for the most basic rights. And the women who are empowered already hold "higher" positions in society. Because the truth is, empowerment benefits the privileged - those with access and proximity to power.

When we look at transformation (be it gender or race) in a South African context, we tend to judge its success according to what we see - and what we see is who gets attention, not who doesn't. That leaves a lot of people behind.

So when we see a handful of female CEOs, for instance, we assume that things must be changing. And sure, they are, but a female CEO doesn't automatically equal a more inclusive and empowered workforce. And in most cases, female CEOs will still be surrounded by a board of men with massive influence.

The problem is that when a few are empowered we act as though the work is done and change has happened

This is not to say that the empowerment of a few is meaningless, but the problem is that when a few are empowered we act as though the work is done and change has happened.

Social media has been an instrumental tool in monitoring conversations around gender in South Africa. Our timelines have become more "woke" and it's wonderful to see fellow young women constantly, loudly and boldly challenging sexism and misogyny using just their words.

If you judged societal shifts according to the internet, you would be justified in thinking that men are finally becoming aware of the fact that there are consequences to their actions and words. A lot of them tweet and write about what a "difficult" or "dangerous" time it is to be a man.

And in a way, it is - if "being a man" means asserting power and authority over women and their bodies. The men on the internet are starting to be afraid of women. But the men stalking us on the streets, sitting beside us on the bus and signing our pay slips at the office are not.

Placards from 2017's Women's March on Washington, DC.
Placards from 2017's Women's March on Washington, DC.
Image: Gallo/Getty

Even women with close proximity to power aren't guaranteed actual power themselves, of course. Just look at our politics.

In the same way that the US came close to having a female president, we almost had a female ANC president (who would have most probably gone on to become South Africa's president come 2019). And as much as it would have been a win for gender equality if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had emerged victorious, the truth is she was hardly the best option we could have had.

She represents a party that, much like our constitution, is a feminist one - at least on paper: the National Assembly (in which the ANC is in the majority) is about 40% female, and half the cabinet members are women. But the ANC top six has only one woman, even though the 2017 elective conference was filled with female delegates.

The ANC Women's League is hardly a feminist organisation. Time and again it has proven itself to be the defender of patriarchy rather than its dismantler

The ANC Women's League is hardly a feminist organisation. Time and again it has proven itself to be the defender of patriarchy rather than its dismantler. The "feminism" of the ANCWL benefits only the ANCWL - the real women of South Africa aren't even a footnote in their quest for power.

Other parties aren't any better: remember when Helen Zille appointed an all-male cabinet in the Western Cape back in 2011? Fast-forward to present day and a pitiful quarter of the DA's national leadership is female.

And the EFF is a patriarch in progressive (and bright) clothing. It, too, is male-dominated and male-run when it comes to leadership positions - of its top seven key figures, only two are women.

So if empowerment for even those at the very top is minimal, what hope do the rest of us have? If women in corporate South Africa are afraid to report instances of sexual harassment, imagine how many cleaners, farm workers, helpers and nannies are terrorised daily yet shrug it off because they have no choice?

What will it take for our country to truly empower its women? What will it take for us to storm the Bastille of sexism in South Africa?

Or are we doomed to watch a few countries perform gender equality while we applaud them yet still live like second-class citizens?


PRESIDENT WINFREY?

The #Oprah2020 presidential campaign is under way, with or without the mogul's permission. Here's who has voiced their support - and who has expressed their disdain at the idea of Oprah being the US's first female president:

Supporters

Meryl Streep, actor: "I want her to run for president. I don't think she had any intention. But now she doesn't have a choice."

The Rev Jesse Jackson, activist: "Oprah is eminently qualified to be president. She is a patriot. She has integrity, is smart, and communicates with the broadest cross section of Americans ... She can raise our moral standing in the world."

Anne Rice, author: "Madame President, choose Joy Reid as your running mate."

Roxane Gay, author: "Our president is giving her state of the union." (Tweeted during Winfrey's Golden Globes speech)

Sarah Silverman, comedian: "Oprah/Michelle 2020."

Opposition

Ashley Feinberg, Huffington Post: "Oprah and Trump aren't so different in their relation to their fans. They both offer catharsis on the cheap, with Oprah as the liberal-values alternative to Trumpism - a better, more humane alternative, certainly, but the choice of a people determined to suppress the real conflicts at the heart of the country."

Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York Times: "The ideal post-Trump politician will, at the very least, be a deeply serious figure with a strong record of public service behind her. It would be a devastating, self-inflicted wound for the Democrats to settle for even benevolent mimicry of Mr Trump's hallucinatory circus act."

Paul Waldman, Washington Post: "Being president isn't like hosting a talk show or running a media brand. Oprah's success in her field is no more indicative of her potential to be a good president than Trump's success in real estate was."

AN EXCERPT FROM OPRAH WINFREY'S GOLDEN GLOBES SPEECH

"What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have. And I'm especially proud and inspired by all the women who have felt strong enough and empowered enough to speak up ... Each of us in this room are celebrated because of the stories that we tell, and this year we became the story.

So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue
Media mogul Oprah Winfrey

But it's not just a story affecting the entertainment industry. It's one that transcends culture, geography, race, religion, politics, or workplace. So I want tonight to express gratitude to all the women who have endured years of abuse and assault because they, like my mother, had children to feed and bills to pay and dreams to pursue. They're the women whose names we'll never know.

They are domestic workers and farm workers. They are working in factories and they work in restaurants and they're in academia, engineering, medicine, and science. They're part of the world of tech and politics and business. They're our athletes in the Olympics and they're our soldiers in the military ...

For too long, women have not been heard or believed if they dare speak the truth to the power of those men. But their time is up. Their time is up ...

I want all the girls watching here, now, to know that a new day is on the horizon! And when that new day finally dawns, it will be because a lot of magnificent women, many of whom are right here in this room tonight, and some pretty phenomenal men, are fighting hard to make sure they become the leaders who take us to the time when nobody ever has to say 'me too' again."


ANC Conference 2017
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