The New York Times recently published a fascinating and tragic article about a small group of women in rural India who challenged the social order of their village by seeking and obtaining jobs at a meat-processing factory. The women walked 10 miles each way (to save the 7-cent rickshaw fare) to the factory. There, they labored crushing rocks to rubble, carrying cement, and washing pans for daily wages of $3—substantially more than their husbands made.
These women eventually pooled their money in a financial cooperative, made loans, and bought a cell phone and life insurance.
The men of the village then turned on the women. Their progress threatened the male-dominated local order that had kept them in virtual peonage. The village had long subsisted on begging, and the women’s income challenged both that economy and the male-dominated order that it had long sustained.
Although the women sought the assistance of an elected official, the police, and the courts, the calls for help fell on deaf ears. Eventually, the village excommunicated the women, formed a lynch mob, terrified the women, and beat their families—all to prevent them from working.
In typical Times fashion, the Times also did a follow-up article on reader comments. Two comments in particular struck me. First, one woman physician in an underserved community in the US, but who had also worked in India, commented that “[t]he glass ceiling that exists in the U.S. is definitely much worse than what exists in India.” She explained that, in India, she had “treated several women from poor societies who are the breadwinners for their family and have raised the standard of living for the entire household by putting all their children through college, etc.” On the other hand, she observed that in the United States, “women are much worse off here, having to face additional problems of sexual abuse and drugs.” A second woman, a scientist working in academia who had also lived in India, similarly observed that the glass ceiling affects American professional women more than female professionals in India.
These comments recalled a moment from my third year of law school. I was asked by the Human Rights Program to moderate a discussion between two prominent female academics and two prominent male scholars. We offered them a scenario in which I, as the moderator, meet an orphaned fifteen-year-old girl during a fact-finding mission abroad. The girl explains that she has been raped in a credible way, and that her community in the refugee camp in which she lives has ostracized her because of the rape. She asks for help, which I can provide by transporting her to a local contact, but this arrangement would require providing financial assistance to the contact, and would cost me valuable fact-finding time.
Much to my surprise, the women argued more vigorously against intervention than the men. Both began the discussion by doubting the girl’s credibility, and both demanded corroboration (in spite of the hypothetical’s description of the account as “credible”) before taking any action.
I was shocked by the willingness of the female participants to abdicate all responsibility for the victim’s wellbeing once they determined that the woman was in no immanent physical danger. They tacitly accepted a distinction between the raised knife and the slow death of starvation that the girl might endure from her ostracization. And yet both of these female academics had been pioneers in their fields, challenging a male-dominated order at a time when few women did.
These women’s views paralleled a line of argument that we often see in domestic sex equality litigation in the United States: Where the plaintiff can prove immediacy—can prove that someone made a deliberately discriminatory decision that cost her equal treatment, she will win. But when society as a collective imposes structural conditions that prevent women from attaining equality, the case becomes more difficult.
So here’s the connection: The comments in the Times are prescient on two levels. First, they recognize that insidious discrimination is more difficult to detect and prosecute than the overt discrimination of ostracization or a lynch mob. At the same time, however, they understand that the problems faced by women in rural India and woman professionals in the United States both include structural components. The members of my group, unfortunately, appeared not to apprehend this distinction.
On the other hand, I find the comments in the Times troubling for the same reasons that that I was troubled by those of the academics whose discussion I moderated: Those who have often do not sufficiently seek to mitigate the struggles of those who do not have, and there is a tendency for those who overcome to deny assistance to those who would follow their path.
In my view, all of these views miss a few important points: First, inequality is not about superlatives. Women face substantial and unjustifiable hurdles to equality in both India and the United States. Second, sharing stories of discrimination and victimization is important to remedying discrimination. Hearing the stories of these women in rural India turned a mirror on the discrimination in our own society. So why don’t we hear more about people who challenged the professional order in the United States?
More on that next time.