How come a woman reaches the age of sixty having accumulated one million dollars less than a man of the same age who has had the same job? As we approach National Women’s Equality Day on August 26th, I’m thinking of that startling, stubborn pay difference—our 77 cents to men’s dollar—and of what it takes to end it.
One of women’s greatest quests is an internal one: a search for self-knowledge, self-authority, self-expansion, self-esteem. While this focus on “self” may sound idle—or, as the culture has long claimed, “selfish”–to those who see political activism as solely external, it’s clear to me that this quest is what will determine our monetary future. Only if each of us understands our own psyche, as well as the collective psyche of women over time, will we have mojo for change. The selfless woman, heralded still as being “good”, will never feel good enough inside herself to make a big difference outside. In the words of the poet Adrienne Rich:
“Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge in women, is more than a search for identity. It is part of our refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society.”
Our common experience of the self, is that it can be submerged, diminished, even lost. When we speak to our male lovers and companions about the experience of “losing” ourselves—in family, in love, in relationships—they give us that uncomprehending look: “How do you lose a self?”
Ask women with eating disorders about diminished selves. Ask women whose marriages have hurled them into depression. Ask any woman: I don’t know a single one who doesn’t feel that her self is a mutable, precarious thing; one who doesn’t worriy from time to time about her self-esteem, her self-regard, her sense that she has the right to nurture her self and expand it without being called “selfish.” One of our national treasures, Gloria Steinem, whose special on Channel 13 this week focused on the extraordinary external work she has done throughout her many years of fighting for women’s rights, wrote in her book, Moving Beyond Words, about turning away from her self to the point where she felt burned out and totally drained. “….I began thinking about the need to link self-esteem to revolution…..I’d come to know the stories of brave and talented women of all classes, ages, races, sexualities, and abilities, too many of whom assumed they were somehow “not good enough,” even though they were performing miraculous feats under hard circumstances.”
We will only feel good enough when we recognize the importance of attending to our selves as carefully and lovingly as we tend to our mates, our children, our parents, our inlaws, our friends, the needy; and as passionately as we for social change. This doesn’t mean giving short shrift to our usual concerns, it just means giving ourselves equal time. Equal time for ourselves. So we can feel good enough to insist once and for all on equal pay.