When Will Women be Safer? When the 1% Has Less Power

The ugly truth is that more people are still motivated by the desire to prioritize men’s income-generating and reputations than they are by the desire to ensure women’s rights and safety.” — Soraya Chemaly, Rage Becomes Her

women's rights
Photo by Michelle Ding on Unsplash

Prioritizing women’s rights and safety in today’s world is not easy, and it won’t become any easier as long as our culture puts men’s earnings and men’s reputations first, which it almost always does. Think of any number of powerful men whose reputations and money-generating capacities completely undermined women’s rights and safety: Harvey Weinstein, R. Kelly, Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Jeffrey Epstein….and the list goes on and on. It’s a list that defines our culture, a culture of men and money first, and women and safety last, in our public and private lives, in government, business, and the non-profit sector.

How do we reverse this pattern? How do we become a culture that puts women’s rights and women’s safety first?

First, We Need a Fairer Tax System

Our tax system essentially ends up being part of the pattern of prioritizing men’s reputations and higher status in society and prioritizing men’s money-making capacities. It does this by giving extra tax breaks to the already-rich and to the investor class (run mostly by men), the very people who need tax breaks the least.

A fairer tax system is the essential first step. We need a tax system that begins to take back the extra money that has been accruing in the wealthiest people’s bank accounts since the 1980’s when Ronald Reagan made tax breaks for the rich fashionable. Without a fairer tax system, no substantial change to the equation for women is going to occur.

Why? Because with the current tax system, it’s kind of like women are constantly being set up to play a board game with no chance of ever winning. Women can’t win because they don’t get the same basic resources from the start, and don’t get opportunities to accrue resources at the same rate by playing the game.

All the Philanthropy in the World Can’t Touch This Problem

Here’s one thing I’ve come to realize after over seven years spent writing about philanthropy. Supporting the premise of philanthropy’s value to society is 95% an exercise in buying into the false premise that the rich are smarter and more virtuous than the rest of society. Without buying into this false premise, it’s hard to spend more than a short span of time paying attention to philanthropy. If you buy into this premise, it makes it much easier to spend lots of time fawning over MacKenzie Scott’s latest billion-dollar deluge of donations, or — the one that particularly caught my attention and generated significant attention from me — Peter and Jennifer Buffett’s 2016 dedication of $90 million in funding to uplift women and girls of color, a commitment that has since been partially withdrawn as the foundation has decided not to fund women’s rights at the level it once did.

It took me a long time to realize that all of that philanthropy from the Buffetts couldn’t do much to fight the tide of a culture that puts men and money first almost every time. The checks from Melinda French and MacKenzie Scott can’t do much about it, either, even though it seems like these large chunks of cash should be able to produce measurable results. But our broken systems will mostly just swallow up these funds with no real accountability for how this money is spent. It will all add up to another tenth of a percentage point or so more in funding for women and girls, and will help to buffer the losses from donors like the Buffetts who are scaling back. But beyond that, the impact will likely be hard to define or measure. Without any change in our cultural values of domination, exploitation, exclusivity, and idolizing of those at the top of the class hierarchy, this money will mostly serve to perpetuate more of the same.

Philanthropy: The Ultimate Time Suck for Others That Protects and Validates the Rich

Most people who work in philanthropy play a significant role in idolizing the rich and propping them up as the saviors for our crumbling world. They spend their careers believing that all of this attention and validation for the donor class is making the world a better place.

The problem, though, is that philanthropy isn’t getting us much closer to treating all people with respect. It’s continuing to push the false narrative that we must look to the rich to guide us toward a better society, while the rich continue to accrue their massive power by irreparably damaging the world and most of its people.

With Less Philanthropy, Perhaps We Could Get Closer to the Root of the Problem

A select percentage of donors in philanthropy like to claim that they are addressing the roots of problems with their philanthropic spending. But actually, the root of the problem is them having too much money, and until they have less money, they won’t be getting to the root of the problem.

For women, this means our safety and rights will continue to rank miles behind the cultural value placed on becoming wealthy and on convincing others of your added smarts and virtue that go along with your immense wealth. As long as the wealthy (mostly white men) and their reputations are protected first, and valued above women’s safety and rights, we will stand still with women’s rights, if not regress. COVID provided a unique opportunity to see how this regression can take place, and how the cultural idolizing of the wealthy can shred to pieces any purported value we place on women’s health, safety, and rights.

It’s still a man’s world, and by and large, philanthropy makes sure it stays that way. That’s one of the reasons why, if my writing career continues, it will be taking a turn away from philanthropy and toward a broader scope of gender lens journalism.


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Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

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