Student Loan Debt Is A Feminist Issue
While sifting through the simmering remains of the 2016 election, liberals have seemed a little too, oh, distracted to fully interrogate the issues millennials most vocally supported while Trump’s bid for president was still being covered as entertainment. To be fair, a man with both the physical hue and intellectual capacity of Sunny D has the nuclear codes; investigating and critiquing the threat he and his parade of equally incompetent minions pose to the basic preservation of democracy has occupied the time of many of those who normally fight more systemic issues of inequality. But while avoiding our nation’s immediate destruction is a valuable effort, we also need to focus on the barriers young people will still face should we manage to avoid such destruction—barriers like the student loan debt crisis.
As of the end of 2016, 44.2 million U.S. borrowers had student loan debt, the total amount of which hovers at around $1.3 trillion. And while clearly threatening in pure economic terms, recent data shows this reality has significant social implications as well—especially, and perhaps surprisingly, in terms of gender equality. According to a recent American Association for University Women’s (AAUW) report on the topic, women hold nearly two-thirds of the outstanding student debt in the U.S.; they hold an estimated $833 billion in student debt while men hold $477 billion. What’s more, not only do female undergrads take on more student loan debt than their male counterparts, but it also takes them longer to repay their loans after graduation. Forty-four percent of female undergrads take on debt as compared to 39 percent of male undergraduates, and their pace of payback between one and four years post-graduation is slower—men pay off an average of 38 percent of their outstanding debt during this time while women pay off 31 percent.
To understand how and why this issue disproportionately disadvantages women, it’s first necessary to consider how the deeply ingrained legacy of women as financial dependents, if not objects, impacts women’s current economic reality. Women may no longer be transferred as actual legal property from father to husband, but full economic autonomy is still a relatively novel phenomenon for American women. For example, until the Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963, it was still legal for men to make more money than women for equal work (and, overall, they still do). Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed in 1974, women could legally be denied a credit card based on their gender. Before the Women’s Business Ownership Act was passed in 1988, some states still legally required male relatives to cosign any loan a woman took out for anything from a business to a car to a home—even if she was employed and financially qualified.
While it’s true women have come pretty far from having the financial autonomy of a toaster, this legacy still largely influences the way American women are socialized. “When girls are born, we start socializing them with the romantic mythology that has always guided women’s lives, which is essentially that all you have to do is find Mr. Right and your destiny is taken care of,” Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake: Are We Giving Up Too Much? told the FBomb. “We indoctrinate them to aspire to be sexually attractive to men from puberty until death and to look to the guy rather than really focusing, prioritizing, their own interest.” In the meantime, she added, we socialize men “to take control of their own destiny. They understand from the get-go that they’re going to have to support themselves because men aren’t dependents.”
Among the many millennial women Bennetts has spoken to over the course of her work, she added, “implicit in their entire vision of their lives was the assumption that ultimately they were not going to be fully responsible for maintaining the standard of living they expected to have.” Even if this assumption was unconscious, which it “often” was, according to Bennetts, many women expected a partner would establish the “standard of living that they aspired to [and] therefore, they didn’t worry that much about how much they were earning. They were relatively unconcerned about their student loan debt. And their projections of their future didn’t really involve taking full responsibility for their financial destiny.”
Of course, it also seems that many parents are exchanging such Disney Princess-influenced ideals about their hopes for their daughters’ futures with pseudo-feminist platitudes about “independence” and “success.” You can be whatever you want to be when you grow up, they assure their little tots, and, later, affirm to her that she has what it takes to be a “girl boss” if only she finds the inner strength to “lean in.” The means by which women are supposed to do this, it’s implied, are rooted in our own social and personal realities—we will succeed if only we build our confidence, persevere, and “empower” ourselves.
Yet we’re rarely taught what it tactically takes to accomplish such financial independence, nor are we as encouraged to address the systemic causes of our frequent inability to do so as we are to improve ourselves. Our old friend the wage gap persists: women still make 80 cents for every man’s dollar, according to another AAUW report, and even less if they’re women of color—who are, in turn, generally at a higher risk of poverty than other demographics. And an increasingly important aspect of this systemic wage gap is the way it cyclically influences and is influenced by student loan debt. As Kevin Miller, AAUW Senior Researcher, told the FBomb, women are more indebted, take longer to pay back their loans, and default more frequently thanks to the “pay gap before school, pay gap during school, [and] pay gap after school.” And, just like they do in terms of the wage gap, women of color also face a particular disadvantage in terms of their student loans; Black women in particular take on more student debt on average than members of any other group, and 57 percent of black women repaying student loans reported they were unable to meet essential expenses within the past year.
It turns out it’s hard to shatter glass ceilings while battling both the wage gap itself as well as its augmented, gendered impact on student loan debt. The socioeconomically privileged women who have prioritized a debate about “having it all” as the crux of the feminist movement clearly failed to consider those who can’t afford to both pay their student loan debt and pay rent and put food on the table, let alone make it to the C-suite. They haven’t pondered the irony that women who default on their loans can lose the professional licenses for which they went into debt in the first place; it’s hard to lean in at an office you can’t even get into.
So, what are the solutions? Well, first and foremost, we need to abolish the gender wage gap. Obviously. That might take a minute, so until then we can try to examine the cultural forces that foment this reality.
First, we need to interrogate how we raise our daughters. Student loan debt is an American issue that knows no geographical bounds, and affects those born in the reddest of red communities—like the ones that still hold purity balls and actively raise women to be dependent, good wives. But even parents who consider themselves feminists should ask themselves if whispering vague rhetoric about girl power to their female fetuses in the womb then giving them G.I. Joe instead of Barbie a few years later is enough. More broadly, while instilling young women with a feminist identity is certainly crucial, it’s not enough. We have to stop focusing on how women can improve themselves to fit into patriarchal standards of financial autonomy and success and focus instead on how to destroy and rebuild those structures themselves.
Speaking of patriarchal destruction, student loan debt is also a crucial example of why feminism is not merely an additive endeavour: Inserting more women into previously male-dominated spaces and institutions doesn’t necessarily translate to equality within those places. Women may make up the majority of students enrolled in undergraduate and graduate degree programs, but the gendered aspect of student loan debt makes it clear that we haven’t interrogated the systemic, economic reality of the “success” of women’s collegiate presence, nor have we really asked how advantageous are the degrees this presence warrants given the debt that succeed them.
Unfortunately, student loan debt won’t likely be at the center of our nation’s legislative concerns for a while. But perhaps by integrating the issue into our social movements for justice, we can at least try to make change in the ways we already know we can beyond the garbage fire blazing in D.C. We can start thinking about student loan debt as an intersectional issue of feminist, economic justice, and start organizing around it as such.
For more on the feminist issues that affect college women, check out College 101: A Girl's Guide To Freshman Year.
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