The Early College at Guilford
Democracy: An End to Gender Discrimination
Glued to the television screen, I waited in anticipation for the 2016 U.S. presidential election results between Republican Party representative Donald Trump and Democratic Party representative Hillary Clinton. Deep down, I had the slightest hope that we would have our first female president. Clinton’s nomination as the first female presidential candidate by a major American political party reveals that as a result of democracy, the nation continues to gradually advance towards a future without gender bias playing a role in national decisions. In the end, Donald Trump won the election, as my mother expected. “Of course he won,” she commented behind me. “People would rather have a more authoritative male figure as the face of the nation than the weaker female figure.” Her statement reflects the traditional belief in Vietnam, her homeland, that men prove better political leaders than women, reminding me of the issue of gender discrimination that persists in many regions around the world today.
Unfortunately, women are still restrained by gender stereotypes in the U.S., even though the nation adopted a democratic form of government. But are we living in a complete democracy if women remain standing on a lower platform than men and receive unequal treatment, despite legally possessing equal rights and opportunities?
Democracy can be defined as a form of government that enables complete participation of the public in sharing opinions or calling for a redress of grievances. However, democracy is not limited merely to a government system; it is a manifestation of ideals that involve freedom, social equality, and unity. Democracy ensures the preservation of our fundamental human rights. Democracy is the will to push for change, to turn weaknesses into strengths, to turn threats into opportunities. Democracy enables us to communicate ideas and paves the way for individual expression and societal development. However, just as democracy enables men and women alike to exercise their rights, only when we achieve complete gender equality will we be living in a true democracy.
In both the U.S. and Vietnam, gender discrimination based on patriarchal values had been a part of culture since ancient times. Men considered women as stereotypically inferior physically and mentally, so women were rarely allowed to deal with economic or political matters. Instead, society expected them to bear children and raise the family as well as assume responsibility for housework; in other words, they only had control over domestic matters as housewives and mothers. Physical abuse towards women and gender disparities in access to public services, employment, education, and other opportunities regularly occurred; thus, women lacked an equal voice in decisions affecting their lives.
For instance, earlier this month, it was reported that the Boston Symphony Orchestra paid Elizabeth Rowe, the principal flutist, about $70,000 less per year than John Ferrillo, the principal oboist. She requested to be paid the same salary as Ferrillo, but the orchestra refused. Despite both musicians occupying leading positions in the orchestra, the female was paid less, revealing that the gender pay gap remains an issue concerning gender discrimination today.
In Vietnam, women continue to face double pressures. According to Vuong Thi Hanh, director of the Centre for Educational Promotion and Empowerment for Women, the traditional expectations of women’s roles in families remain unchanged and women struggle to balance their education and jobs with their household duties. However, women legally possess equal rights regarding economic and political participation as well as access to education due to increasing acceptance of democratic values and advocacy for women’s rights. According to the 2017 Gender Inequality Index (GII), the United Nations ranked Vietnam with the 67th lowest measurement of gender inequality out of 160 countries, which demonstrates Vietnam’s growing social achievements in raising women’s status. Though gender equality and women’s empowerment in Vietnam have yet to fully develop, Vietnam is undeniably improving at embracing social equality by developing a strong legal framework on gender equality.
Many people continue to argue that women should return to their traditional, domestic roles because a mother’s presence at home would keep housework taken care of and would help raise the children with love and care. However, constantly confining women to the home would result in lower employment rates and reduce economic improvement, which would be especially detrimental to rapidly developing societies. And with more mouths to feed, families may need more income in order to address their children’s needs and live comfortably. Although, whether the decision to work or stay home depends on the situation of the family, which is exactly why the women themselves should judge which option seems more suitable for dealing with the circumstances. Additionally, if women returned to traditional roles, they would be subjected to gender stereotypes that would encourage degrading and condescending views toward women.
Democracy as the foundation of fundamental human rights existed before the emergence of gender equality as an issue, but growing emphasis on gender equality serves an important factor in developing a true democracy. The absence of women’s involvement in national policy decisions leads to a biased and incomplete form of democracy. In the U.S., only white males initially enjoyed democratic rights. These rights, such as the right to vote, extended to women in the 1920s after a long period of women’s rights movements and advocacy by activists like Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul. In Vietnam, as society gradually embraced the idea of gender equality and acknowledged the potential of women’s participation in national decisions, political, economic, and educational opportunities were legally granted to women during the 1960s and 1970s. The existence of democracy thus allows for advances in women’s rights and contributes to the elevation of women’s social standing in society.
Conversely, increasing recognition of women’s rights also improves and strengthens democracy. With the right to vote in a democracy, men and women alike can not only express their opinions and call for action on controversial issues without consequences, but also gain the ability to improve and change the nation. If a democracy ignores the voices of females and judges a woman’s abilities based only on her gender, it is a democracy for only half the people, and thus an incomplete democracy. We must work together to eliminate gender discrimination and stereotypes in order for women to reach their potential on an equal basis with men. Only then will a true democracy emerge.
It is important to live in a society with democratic ideals in order to exercise our basic human rights and live in freedom. But that does not necessarily mean the governmental institution must be democratic. What is more important is not necessarily the implementation of a democratic government in a nation, but the democratic ideals presented and valued in a society. For instance, although the U.S. and Vietnam adopted different forms of government—democratic-republican and communist, respectively—both nations value the democratic ideal of equality. As such, whether a nation follows a democratic government matters less than whether the nation follows the democratic values.
However, living in a democratic society also means we must work towards ending gender discrimination and stop gender stereotypes from influencing our beliefs concerning a woman’s potential in previously male-dominated areas of expertise, such as politics. For example, we can take advantage of our democratic freedoms (such as the right to vote or the right to participate in mass demonstrations) to address the issue of the gender pay gap and encourage legal change. Even small actions such as distributing housework more evenly between the husband and wife can help the nation reach further towards gender equality and engender social improvement. As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright asserts, “Success without democracy is improbable; democracy without women is impossible.” By promoting women empowerment and ridding society of gender discrimination, women can project their voices on an equal footing and achieve the same level of success as men without being held back by stereotypes. A nation driven by democracy needs women in order to completely represent the people. As the existence of democratic principles in a society strengthens women’s rights—through advocacy movements, for instance—realizing women’s rights also strengthens democracy. In a sense, democracy improves itself. Therefore, we must work together in creating a world equally meant for both men and women. Only then can we promote social change and strive towards living in a true democracy.
“Democracy and the Challenge of Change.” NDI. National Democratic Institute, www.ndi.org/democracy-and-the-challenge-of-change. Accessed 18 December 2018.
Edgers, Geoff. “A Boston Symphony Orchestra Flutist Was Paid $70,000 Less Than A Male Counterpart. She Sued.” Boston.com. Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC, 11 Dec., 2018, www.boston.com/news/local-news/2018/12/11/boston-symphony-orchestra.... Accessed 20 December 2018.
Goodkind, Daniel. “Rising Gender Inequality in Vietnam Since Reunification.” Pacific Affairs, vol. 68, no. 3, 1995, pp. 342-359.
“Role of Vietnamese Women Changing.” Việt Nam News. Việt Nam News, 7 Mar. 2016, vietnamnews.vn/opinion/in-the-spotlight/283270/role-of-vietnamese-w.... Accessed 18 December 2018.
“Table 5: Gender Inequality Index.” United Nations Development Programme | Human Development Reports. hdr.undp.org/en/composite/GII. Accessed 18 December 2018.