One of the lessons of identity politics is that success requires knowing not just what you’re for, but also what you’re against. Blacks are for racial justice and against racism. Women are for gender equity and against sexism.
Moms are for ending discrimination against mothers (fair pay, flexible work, paid sick days, maternity and paternity leave, quality childcare and healthcare for all kids). But what is MomsRising against? Who or what could possibly oppose such laudable goals?
Unlike racism, sexism, and other familiar forms of discrimination, there is no group that defines itself as being against mothers. We don’t see politicians boasting that they have put mothers in their place. No, the opposition is subtler than that, and that makes the job of MomsRising, and other organizations that work for dignity and justice, harder.
Women and mothers are up against something invidious, pervasive, and formidable. It’s not just sexism, though that’s part of it. Neither is it racism, though of course racism makes things harder for mothers of color.
What mothers are up against is a tacit consensus that their jobs don’t matter as much as others’ jobs. Their work, their lives, their chance to fully realize themselves is held to be of secondary importance. Despite the love that most people have for their own mothers, on some invisible social scale, mothers rank low.
We need a name for discrimination of this sort, discrimination based on social rank. Absent a collective name, victims of rank-based abuse are in a position similar to that of women before the term “sexism” was coined. Writing in 1963, Betty Friedan characterized the plight of women as “the problem that has no name.” By 1968, the problem had acquired one—“sexism.” That simple word galvanized a movement that went on to de-legitimize a constellation of abuses linked to gender.
By analogy, the term “rankism” denotes abuse and discrimination based on rank. Put simply, rankism is what somebodies do to those they take for nobodies. To the degree that society still regards women and mothers as nobodies, they will be vulnerable to rankism. Of course, no one goes around calling mothers “nobodies.” But, relative to others, they are somehow deemed less worthy, they are taken for granted, their needs are assigned lower priority.
“Rankism” is a new name for an ancient impulse: the tendency to hold oneself superior to others, to pull rank, to put others down. Rankist attitudes are what women and mothers are up against. Rankism is the invisible obstacle that MomsRising faces in its campaign for dignity and justice.
Rankism is still below the radar. And it is still rampant. For example, when a boss humiliates a subordinate, a doctor disregards a nurse or a patient, a priest abuses a child, or a teacher or professor denigrates a student, that’s rankism. Somebodies with higher rank and more power can maintain an environment that is hostile and disadvantageous to those of lower rank, much as whites used to get away with mistreating blacks. Now, it’s mothers who, in all the ways described by MomsRising, must struggle to make a go of things in a society that, though it may praise them individually, puts them down collectively.
Apart from having gone nameless for so long, why is the malignancy of rankism hard to target and to treat? The reasons fall under two headings: institutional obstacles and interpersonal obstacles. Let’s begin with the latter.
Although we are all nobodies to someone, we are equally all somebodies to someone else. Unlike the traits that consign us to one identity group or another, rank is not fixed. We may be riding high one day, and be taken for a nobody the next.
Rank is also contextual. You can be a somebody at work, but a nobody at home, or vice versa. Because our society is predicated upon, and saturated with, rankism, our dignity is at risk if we lose rank, just as a gain in status makes us more secure.
Identity politics has functioned, until now, in arenas where victims are clearly demarcated from perpetrators. Victims have relatively clean hands, so it is easier to make accusations of prejudice stick.
In contrast, we are all victims of rankism, and truth be told, many of us are perpetrators. Accordingly, overcoming it is more complex than the campaigns against the trait-based isms. Complex, but not therefore impossible. The day we pin the label “rankism” on indignifying behaviors (as women pinned “sexism” on a range of disempowering behaviors), will mark the beginning of its demise.
Institutional barriers to a dignity movement against rankism are also high. Rankism is woven into the fabric of society as was racism in segregated America, and it won’t be any easier to uproot. But, rankism has an Achilles’ heel and it resides in this sobering fact: dignity works. The productivity gains—in the workplace and the schools—that will result from eliminating indignities and malrecognition will match, if not exceed, those that have resulted from eliminating corporal punishment and malnutrition.
For example, in the workplace the ill-effects of bullying, rigid work schedules, inequitable pay, and other abusive practices are now the subject of a growing body of research documenting the damage done not only to individual employees but to the companies themselves. It turns out that rankism is no better for the bottom line than racism or sexism. All the isms are self-inflicted wounds that limit the productivity and so drain away the life-blood, of enterprises harboring them.
Rankism is not merely unfair, it’s inefficient, counterproductive, and dysfunctional. Indignity and humiliation may have worked in societies where people had few options, but those days are gone. The young are increasingly unwilling to put up with rankist environments. A culture of dignity provides a competitive advantage because it means happier, healthier, and more creative and productive participants. What does it matter if employees work together in lockstep—so long as they get the job done?
To build a multicultural nation, we had to give up racism. So, too, to build a dignitarian society, we shall have to give up rankism. As women and mothers become aware of the rankism that pervades society, call it by name, and declare their unwillingness to put up with it, objections to their policy proposals will melt away. Embracing the broader goal of dignity for all goes hand in hand with securing dignity for a specific group because rankism is the hidden obstacle blocking them all.
Achieving equal dignity by rooting out rankism is the work of several generations, but the process has now begun. Mothers have always defended the dignity of their families. Now it’s time for us to stand up for the dignity of mothers. Once enough of us are on our feet, the demand for justice will be irresistible.