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Recently Sigmund Freud’s irritating, macho-man question – “What do women want?” – has been making a comeback.  Several television programs have addressed the question in interviews and soft news stories while exploring topics ranging from work/home issues to the role of activist nuns under a new papacy.  A forthcoming book on “the science of female desire” (written by a man, of course) is actually titled “What Do Women Want?”

In an attempt to lay to rest once and for all the interminable query that causes men to continue scratching their heads, here are some basic answers.

First, we want the question itself to disappear.  The fact that it keeps popping up as if females were a bizarre sub-species beyond human comprehension suggests that, despite growing numbers of women in governance, board rooms, military action, and more, we remain an enigma just for wanting to be part of life in all its sectors and social spheres.

We certainly want to be free from sexual and domestic violence no matter what we wear, where we go, and whether we have a few drinks with friends.  Even after horrendous reports of gang rapes in India, including that of a Swiss tourist, and the Steubenville, OH rape of a 16-year old whose hideous assault went viral we continue to find ourselves counseled to behave defensively while perpetrators of rape and other violent crimes are shielded by their churches, universities, and workplaces.  Why, we ask, are males not taught boundaries, respect for women, and behavioral norms that when violated accrue serious criminal consequences?  And while we’re on the topic, we want the U.S. to join other civilized nations in ratifying the U.N. Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW and to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.

We want our reproductive health and rights - our bodies - to remain in our own control, not that of opinionated, ill-informed, misogynistic men who blather on like Victorian pooh-bahs rather than 21st century humanists or civil rights advocates.  That means men in Vatican Versace – think red shoes with matching chapeau – don’t get to keep us from accessing reliable contraception, or abortion if that is the agonizing, private decision we come to.  Nor do Neanderthal politicians or bad boy bosses get to keep birth control pills out of reach.  We are not forced to undergo medical rape or to die for the sake of a fetus as a woman in Ireland did recently.  In short, as a group of brave women in Boston declared decades ago, “Our Bodies, Ourselves”!

April 9th being Equal Pay Day, we underscore that we want to earn wages equal to men.  Despite some gains in workplace legislation (e.g., The Lily Ledbetter Act) we continue to be paid 77 percent, on average, of what men make even though equal pay for women is legally codified. That means a typical woman working full-time for the course of her career stands to have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income by the age of 65.  No wonder “the feminization of poverty” continues to be a pressing issue for feminist analysts and economists.

Finding ways to balance work and home demands remains a challenge in all western societies but it would be nice if we could join the list of countries striving for gender equality in this realm.  In Sweden, for example, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), men spend 177 minutes a day cooking, cleaning or caring for children, although women there still spend 259 minutes a day on domestic work.  In Australia, both men and women devote approximately 14 hours per day to personal care and leisure.  And in France, parents of two or more children can leave employment or reduce working time after childbirth and receive a flat-rate childcare benefit for up to three years.  Is it really asking too much for American women to want safe, affordable day care so that they can earn a decent living without fearing for their children?

Finally, we want a seat at the tables of decision and policy-making and a place in discussions involving post-conflict resolution. Anyone watching Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) during recent hearings on sexual assault in the military could see the impact of having women legislators.  In the business sector, even given recent gains for women as CEOs of major companies like Yahoo!, only 12 Fortune 500 companies and 25 Fortune 1000 companies had women CEOs or presidents as of 2009.  And as writer Damilola Agbajobi has noted, “paying special attention to the different experiences of women and men is critical in designing successful conflict management and peacebuilding programmes.”  

So, what do women want?  It’s simple: Peace, personal security, a fair paycheck, the ability to parent well, and the right to rule our own bodies. Anyone who still has a problem understanding that ought to ask themselves what they want.  If the answer is a win-win world, there should be no reason to resurrect Freud’s silly question, now or ever.


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