There is nothing natural about social change

Suffragettes

“Be patient“. “These things happen naturally“. “Look how far women have come over the last fifty years!“We should not force these things; society will get there in due time“.

The idea that our societies will somehow spontaneously evolve towards equality seems to be fairly popular out there – this is true for gender issues, but also applies to other forms of institutional discrimination (race, class, sexual orientation, religion, disability…). According to that idea, we are “naturally” progressing on a linear path towards happy, equal societies. All we have to do is “be patient”.

This belief, however, is both misguided and harmful: misguided, because social change is anything but a natural linear process, and harmful, because this argument is used to criticize and devalue political movements advocating for social change.
Let us take the case of political representation of women in national parliaments. “Natural change” advocates often use it as an example of societies’ innate ability to progress towards more equality. For the sake of the argument, we can set aside the fact that some earlier societies gave a greater role to women in politics than we do today (disproving all idea of a linearity of progress), and focus on the advances that women have actually made in this regard over the past 15 years. And sure enough – the numbers show a steady progress.

Women in national parliaments (1)
Sources: World Bank (data.worldbank.org), Inter-Parliamentary Union (ipu.org)

This is great, isn’t it? Looks like we are “naturally” moving towards an equal representation of women in parliaments. Now let’s look at these numbers in more details: what’s the progression rate like? Well, since 1999, the proportion of women seating on national parliaments in the EU has increased by an average of 2 to 3,5 percentage points (pp) every five years. In the US and Australia, this number is closer to 1 to 2,5 pp. It is worth noting that the EU average reflects a diversity of national trends: for instance, while the proportion of women in parliament has jumped by 7 pp in France and 10 pp in Italy in the last five years, it barely evolved in the UK for fifteen years, before the 2015 elections brought significant change (+ 7 pp).

As a European, this means that at this “natural” rate, I will experience equal representation in parliament in approximately… 37 years. If I am still alive, I will be 64 years old and most of my active, professional life will be behind me. I don’t have children yet but may have grandchildren before I see a national parliament with 50 or more percent of seats occupied by women. And that’s assuming the progression rate doesn’t slow down, stall or reverse – a pretty significant assumption.

So no, I do not want to “be patient”. I want social change to materialize faster, and this is not going to happen “naturally”. In fact, none of the progress already achieved is the result of a “natural process”. Our societies did not just wake up one morning and decided to give women more civil and political rights. They did not just suddenly free space for women in the political sphere and the workplace. Social change happened because some incredible women (and their allies) were willing to fight for it, and did, even when that meant being ridiculed, brutalized or killed. Suffragettes in the UK went on hunger strikes to claim their right to vote. The birth control pill was thought of and financed by women (Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick). Practitioners and employees at abortion clinics still work under threats of death (these threats are very real, as was yet again demonstrated in Colorado last week, and are more and more frequent). And perhaps more frivolously, actresses on the red carpet have only recently been asked career-related questions because of the tremendous #AskHerMore campaign.

And so we actually need to “force” these things if we do want them to happen. We need to point out inequalities, we need to discuss them and think of possible ways forward, we need to make our case and we need to be ready for a fight when the time comes. Because if past history is any indication, social change is nowhere near the “natural” state of our societies – inertia is.

 

Cyrielle Auffray is a French-born, UK-based feminist blogger with a specific focus on gender and diversity in the media. Follow her on Twitter: @thewmind.