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Why Do We Honor the Accomplishments of Women So Differently Than Men?

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Earlier this week, Time magazine named “the silence breakers” as its 2017 ‘person’ of the year. The selection is a nod to the women—and a few men—who contributed to the #MeToo movement; they have driven countless people to come forward to announce—and publicly denounce—sexual harassment and assault.

“This movement of survivors—who are a cross-section of race, gender, and class—connecting with each other with the words ‘Me too’ [...] is amazing, and it’s rare,” Tarana Burke, the original founder of the #MeToo Movement, told Levo last month. “I’d always envisioned this could be the kind of thing that could be widely accepted because they’re just two words and they’re so cathartic for some people.”

In recent months, #MeToo has become a truly global conversation and movement thanks to the bravery of these individuals. But while it is encouraging to see these people being recognized for their impact, Time’s decision to name a cohort instead of an individual sheds light on some concerning trends in the way that we celebrate womens’ accomplishments in society.

As the Washington Post recently noted, it’s been over eighty years since an American woman has won Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” by herself. In the 89 years of Time’s ‘Person of the Year,’ the winner an individual man has won 66 times. Only four times has the winner been a woman on her own. This trend begs an important question: why do we honor the accomplishments of women so differently than men?

The list of historical “Person of the Year” winners is a telling reminder of the way power has been distributed in our society — that is to say: concentrated in the hands of white men. Women have only been selected as winners on their own four times and in a group of mostly women — such as this year — only three times.

Given that power has so long remained in the hands of men, the decision to once again select a group of women — as opposed to a single individual — speaks volumes. 

Not only does it bring attention, once again, to how easily men have wielded this ubiquitous power — at times, in the form of harassment and sexual violence — but Time’s choices for Person of the Year highlight, perhaps inadvertently, how much work remains to be done.

To be sure, selecting the ‘silence breakers’ as the Person of the Year is still a reason for celebration. It is an important and much-needed call for attention to the powerful cultural shifts that have taken place over recent months. Further, recognizing the hard work of women—particularly marginalized women—is always something that should be encouraged.

However, though Burke—who has spearheaded the #MeToo campaign and was appropriately included as one of the ‘silence breakers’—is hopeful for what’s to come following this widespread upheaval around sexual violence, she cautions that we not focus our sights too closely on the #MeToo campaign itself.

#MeToo and Time’s ‘silence breakers’ bring to the forefront some of the glaring systemic injustices in our country and world. But Burke has repeatedly urged society to maintain a focus on what comes next — beyond recognition that this violence is, in fact, rampant.

“I deeply believe that if we don’t quickly invest in the next generation that we’ll be in the same space in a few years,” Burke said. “My hope is that in fifty years, we’ll have a generation that has grown up their whole lives hearing about consent and boundaries—about humanity and dignity. That’s the way we have a shift in our culture.”

Ultimately, misogyny and sexism are real things; phenomena whose consequences many must suffer through every single day. And yet, despite the glaring patriarchal male-centric undercurrents of Time’s Person of the Year, this year’s selection is a worthwhile reminder of the power of collective action in the face of deeply-embedded systemic oppression, violence, and inequality.

If nothing else, Time’s 2017 Person of the Year serves as a reminder that, despite the odds we may face, when women come together in solidarity we can move mountains.

(Image courtesy of Time Magazine)

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