In college in the 1980s, I remember "feminism" as a word so confusing and controversial, I dared not speak of it. Over the years, as I lived, worked and travelled, the concept of feminism came into focus.
But how is it defined? I looked it up in Webster's the other day and found feminism defined as "the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes." I'm not sure why that is so controversial in hindsight.
That definition got me thinking: What would society look like if the word "theory" was taken out of the definition and women had perfect equality?
I talked to a number of women and all agreed that if women had half the power, things would be quite a bit different.
If half of Congress were women, many agreed that life would be better for women and children. "The school day just might match the work day and healthcare would cover contraception and Viagra," said Christine Bronstein, founder of the women's social network A Band of Wives and author of the newly released book Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God.
(The significance of women holding at least half of all seats was detailed in this New York Times op-ed last week. The authors outline recent research they conducted which concluded: "female lawmakers significantly reshape policies only when they have true parity with men." So while the electoral gains by women in the polls last week is a step in the right direction, there is still a long way to go.)
In an equal world, with half of all Fortune 500 CEOs being women, instead of 3 percent today, women would earn the same as their male counterparts. Bronstein told The Story Exchange she believes having more women in charge would lead to higher rates of employee retention and paid family leave at companies.
With women earning equal pay, the average incomes would rise and the number of families in poverty would fall. The GDP in the U.S. would grow by 9%, according to UN estimates, so we would all be enjoying a better economy, and the U.S. would have a lower rate of public assistance.
And with more power, the status of women would be elevated and we wouldn't be exposed to the same number of degrading ads. "You would not open a magazine to the Valentino ad shown here because woman would make up 50 percent of the advertising world's creative directors instead of the current 3 percent," Bronstein said.
And many agree we would have fewer wars. "Women send children into wars with a much greater sense of grief than men do," said Carol Evans, president of Working Mother Media and CEO of the National Association for Female Executives.
At the same time, some things would stay the same. "Women still have to fire people, they have to make hard decisions and they have to pass laws. But women would do these things by working together with a longer term view and an eye to the future." Evans said.
She said part of this is because women focus more on what life will be like for future generations, including their children and grandchildren. That longer-term thinking would mean a focus on preventative measures in healthcare today, she adds.
Nancy Hopkins, a molecular biologist and geneticist at MIT, says she believes that the heavily male-dominated field of science would change if the female stereotypic behavior of caring and helping were embraced. For example, this would lead to more focus on preventative healthcare.
Hopkins, who has taught university students for close to 40 years, says she's never seen any differences in how women and men think about science when they are doing science -- for example when designing experiments, interpreting data, discussing science or generating ideas for new experiments.
However, the stereotypes of acceptable and ideal behaviors for men and women are wildly different, she says. "I believe that science -- and the world -- will look very different when the female stereotypic behavior has equal status and power to that of men."
Hopkins says she realized this recently while studying the causes for the underfunding of cancer prevention research. Over the last 30 years there has been spectacular progress in the development of new drugs that are improving treatment and extending life span for cancer patients. At the same time, Hopkins says, epidemiologists believe that 70 percent of cancer deaths are preventable.
Despite this knowledge, the amount of funding that goes to prevention research is a small fraction of what goes to developing treatments for advanced cancers. Currently, Hopkins is on sabbatical trying to find out why. She hasn't found the answer yet, but recounts an emerging theme, illustrated recently by a man -- a scientist turned venture capitalist -- that she met at a cocktail party.
He asked me what research I was interested in. "Cancer prevention," I replied. Appearing to recoil, he almost shouted, "You can't make any money that way." Try to imagine a woman saying that. The stereotypical female would not really be allowed to say such a thing or ultimately perhaps, even to think such a thing. That stereotype is a person who is obliged to see that prevention is applied to as many people as possible as rapidly as possible to save as many lives as possible while we also continue to push for curing cancer.
For Hopkins, it's when the male and female stereotypes fuse to make a new ideal that we will have a fantastic world. "The ideal will be a combination of the driving, bold, risk-taking world of the "stereotypical male" and the caring, lift-all-boats, kind and generous world of the "stereotypical female."
I personally believe we are on our way, but it's a good thing women are long-term thinkers, because it's going to take a while until feminism is no longer a theory, but a reality for the betterment of all.