On November 6th, Women4ChangeIndiana held a conference, via Zoom, on “Resilience” and the status of women in the Hoosier State. The various presentations, all of which were excellent, went from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., and featured a number of accomplished professional women who addressed the various challenges that face women in Indiana: the diminution of our voices via Indiana’s extreme gerrymandering, the psychological strains of the pandemic, current efforts to improve inclusion and diversity, and the distressing lack of progress in improving the economic status of women in Indiana, among other issues.
I really encourage anyone who cares about policies that affect women in our state to click through and watch some or all of those presentations, (enter password sow21) and Charlie Richardson’s tribute to Indiiana’s icon, Marge O’Laughlin, but today I want to explore the broader implications of a remark made by one of the presenters. Shruti Rana is the Assistant Dean for Curricular and Undergraduate Affairs and Professor of International Law at I.U.’s Hamilton Lugar School in Bloomington.
During her presentation, Rana pointed out that many of the more intractable problems Hoosier women face are the result of policies requiring them to find individual solutions to what are really public problems.
Think about that for a minute, because that observation–and the barrier it represents– is true for all Americans, not just women. It is another way of describing the consequences of our ongoing disagreements over the proper role of government.
What constitutes a “public problem”? Why is a correct characterization important?
Americans valorize “personal responsibility,” and for good reason; the assumption of responsibility for our own behaviors, the “ownership” of our own mistakes, is an important part of mature adulthood (and evidently in short supply–but that is an observation for another day…). However, it is also important to recognize that there are elements of our lives that the assumption of personal responsibility can neither control nor affect to any meaningful degree.
If the electricity goes out, I suppose you could fault people who hadn’t equipped themselves with personal generators, but most of us would recognize the unfairness of such an accusation. Victims of gun violence aren’t responsible for America’s persistent lack of firearms regulation. In the midst of a deep recession or depression, even Republicans recognize that joblessness isn’t due to laziness or lack of ambition. Most of us would bristle at the accusation that we bear any personal responsibility for the rise of QAnon and similar lunacies.
In other words, there is a difference between problems we can solve individually, by dint of hard work and the exercise of personal responsibility, and problems that require a collective response.
In the wake of the pandemic, for example, a significant number of women who want to re-enter the workforce cannot find childcare. The absence of affordable, safe places to care for their children is not, I would submit, an “individual” problem–it’s a social problem that most developed countries have recognized as such.
Rana’s remark led me to an “aha” moment–an epiphany.
I have been depressed lately–a depression shared with a number of my friends and relatives–not because of anything going on in my own life, which is admittedly a privileged one. Along with so many other Americans, I am depressed by the news, by the constant spotlight on the nation’s dysfunctions. Rana’s comment illuminated the main reason for that depression: the feelings of helplessness and powerlessness that are a consequence of Americans’ tendency to categorize public problems as individual ones.
It isn’t that individuals can’t do anything: we can vote (but then, gerrymandering and vote suppression…); we can organize; we can lobby our elected officials. I can educate myself by reading broadly, and I can–and do–pontificate on this blog. But most of the problems we face are not individual problems, and the exercise of personal responsibility can only take us so far.
Clearly, not far enough.
One message came loud and clear through all of the conference presentations: Unless Congress passes the voting rights act, and allows the democratic process to proceed fairly, elected officials will continue to ignore the will of the voters–and efforts to collectively address problems that are clearly public will go nowhere.