On Feminism

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

womens movement

What I have tried to assert throughout this book is my belief that feminism’s success has been announced rather prematurely, and what we seem to witness at the level of popular culture is, on the one hand, a flourishing of nostalgia for the “old order” of babes, breasts and uncomplicated relationships, and on the other a sense of powerlessness that as, taken individually, such images are “harmless” or trivial, so there is no clear platform for critique.

-Imelda Whelehan, Overloaded: Popular Culture and the Future of Feminism (London: Women’s Press, 2000) p. 179.

When I read David Willetts’ recent argument that feminism is one of the main causes for lack of jobs for working men, I was both irritated, and not really surprised. This is not a new argument. In fact, it has been trumpeted around since the 1980s. You’d think he’d come up with a new argument by now. But that’s not the point. The problem with such a continually repeated argument is how blatantly narrow-minded it is.

Firstly, does it ever occur to people who are (rightfully) worried about the job situation in many modern Western countries to consider that this problem is separate from feminism, or women in general? How about the fact that our working environment needs to be altered as our lives alter, that we haven’t really progressed as much as we need to in education, that there is still a huge divide between rich and poor, that resources are not allocated fairly and that the working environment is subject to a whole host of other political considerations (class, status, experience, background, race, family situation, skills, etc.) that can’t simply be narrowed down to blaming the familiar scapegoats: feminists. Really, are we still going to talk about such important issues in such an infantile and simplified manner?

Secondly, the implication behind such an argument is that feminism has somehow “won” in a silent female conspiracy against men. This is rather insulting to both men and women. Feminism is not a war against men, it’s a battle against an unjust social and cultural system; a battle that many men are willing to fight as well, I might add. Feminism still has a long way to go, and in fact, comments such as Willetts’s only reinforce how far we have to go.

Imelda Whelehan has put it succinctly in the quote I’ve transcribed above: what we’re seeing, not just at the level of popular culture, but also, in business and political culture, is a rising nostalgia for the “good old days” when women knew their “proper place”. The naïveté of such nostalgia astounds me. As if we could really return to an antiquated and anti-egalitarian social system that completely ruled out one half of the population from contributing to the world in which they live, and living up to their full potential as human beings. I don’t understand why the problems that surround work and jobs are always narrowed down to placing blame upon feminism, and it's laughable to suggest that feminism holds any real sway these days when young women proudly declare themselves not to be feminists. Like Whelehan, I hope “young women of this generation will feel similarly galvanised by the current atrophy of political debate; maybe this time someone will feel nostalgic for the heady days of the women’s movement” (p. 179). Amen.

Image credit: parade down Fifth Avenue, New York, 1970, on the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. Photographer: John Olson. Copyright Life Magazine.


If Jane said...

sadly i have heard many silly accusations against feminism.
one thing i have wondered often is whether or not the young women of today are feminists or not. ??
and if i am still a feminist it is because of pay equity.

Caitlin Rose said...

I find it very disheartening when women my age say that they are not feminists. I also find it disrespectful of the women who had to fight for our rights, and even just the common woman who had to enter the inhospitable workplace. Yes, feminism still has a long way to go. As a lover of pop culture, I find I'm always trying to both be entertained, and also not feel pressured. Thank you for writing this, I think I would like to Whelehan's book, it might help me. Thank you for this.


Caitlin Rose

C said...

I'm a younger (college-aged) person, and I think one of the main problems with girls of my generation and feminism is that our perception of it is often thwarted by poor representations.

I went to an all-girls high school, where feministic values were naturally pushed upon us in our curriculum, given the chance. While well-intentioned, the heavy-handed cheesiness of "girl power" and the blatantly distinct "Role of Women" sections in our history books didn't inspire students so much as make them groan at the awkwardness of it all. In a way, focusing too much on so-called "women's issues" only widened the gap between male and female, as if on one hand, there was history, and then on the other, there were women.

We grew up seeing generic feminists portrayed in the media and movies as angry, confrontational characters. When younger women are criticizing feminism, I don't think they're all calling out to revoke the vote and ban women from the workplace-- I think that it's often a matter of ennui and frustration with the mainstream feminist image that a lot of girls don't identify with.

I completely believe in equal rights for women and men and admire the people who have fought for these rights. I think that girls should feel empowered. But I can understand why some people don't want to be identified as feminists.

SJ said...

Your point about many young women proudly declaring their non feminist status is something that has me so disheartened lately. It's become a dirty word and a lot of girls don't seem to understand that the only reason they have easier access to university or contraception or jobs is because of how hard women have been fighting for decades. And it's an ongoing challenge that women can't give up just because they think that we're already equal. Just because you believe in equal rights for woman doesn't mean you hate men and I think that's what the association seems to be. *sigh*

great post as always :)

K said...

Great post. Thanks for cheering me up. :)

Emily Vanessa said...

Thank you so much for this excellent post and analysis. There's such a backlash against feminism and it annoys me to hear it being blamed for male unemployment (so should women give their jobs and return to the kitchen to reduce that?) or worse still, to hear many prominent women complaining that feminism has made their lives worse because now they have to go to work and be a good wife and mother whereas before it was so much better just staying at home. There is still so much progress to be made as you say and I'm proud to call myself a feminist.

nikaela marie said...

you are always so worth reading. challenging, interesting. I wish I could sit down and talk with you about this. I have been in many quite heated conversations about feminism with my peers in the past. I don't think I can say what I think in this comment box however, it is too small a box and the issue is too complicated.
I guess I all I am scared of is: equality too often means sameness. We are so scared of stereotyping (and rightly so, as rash stereotypes are always born out of some type of misunderstanding) that we limit what we can say productively. My mom reacts to the word “housewife” (being a strong feminist of her generation) in the same way many girls of my generation react to the word feminist. Real equality does mean choice and freedom, but that also includes freedom to identify as “non-feminist”. That girls now can do that (call themselves non feminists while living full lives in a relatively equal society) is because of all the work the women of previous generations went to for them.

I completely agree that the argument that feminism is to blame for taking jobs away from men is completely RIDICULOUS.

naomemandeflores said...

Have you read this? Unbelievable.

Talk about infantile and simplified minds! I guess we still have a long way to go.

Great post, I'm loving the discussion.

Camila F.

tywo said...

Oh dear, I'm one of 15 female engineering students amongst more than 70 male engineering students. Every time, the females get the internships or jobs, someone always finds a way to relate it to feminism.
It does nothing but shocks me to think that a lot of people still live in ignorance.


Tana said...

at university we often had discussions about women's rights (the boys were not so active&inspired to discuss it :).
but personally i'm on the point that there are too many problems to be solved and payed attention to than this ridiculous argument/discussion about jobs and work.

Niina said...

very interesting! i think this is very tricky subject (and everything becomes tricky when you stumble upon it in the university), haha. living in a nordic country, where women´s right to vote happened very early, I actually haven´t heard this accusation of robbing jobs. also, i think that our special historic situation has required women to take part in building this country from the beginning. but still, it´s sad to hear somebody use these kind of rhetorics and actually can pinpoint whose quilty in the whole situation of (re)organizing work. keep up writing what you think because you can make your point so well.

Anonymous said...

Such an interesting post!!! I just discovered your blog, it is so incredibly informative = ) I will have to go and read your archive..
I have had complaints from white male friends about how seemingly there is a university scholarship for every group but them (ie scholarships restricted to girls, certain ethnic groups, for people from financial hardship, for people with very high grades etc) but nothing only for white males. What do you think of this?

hila said...

If jane: I’ve heard and read more stupid comments than I can count. I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad about whether they identify as a feminist, it’s more that I find it disturbing that so many young women and girls go out of their way to explicitly state they are not feminists. And don’t get me started on pay equity! :)

Caitlin Rose: one of the things I like about Whelehan’s book is that it’s readable. Feminism can get burdened by academic lingo, which puts people off even more. And yes, I totally agree that it’s incredibly disrespectful to ignore all the hard work previous generations of women have undertaken for the sake of our generation.

C: I do know where you’re coming from here, and I think that young women these days are reacting to a silly stereotype of feminism (a stereotype that has also been added to by those who despise feminism). Poor representation is key here, but the problem with providing a more identifiable representation is that it relies on the cooperation of people in the wider media, educational system, popular culture, etc., and it’s so much easier to stereotype and go for the really extreme versions. That being said, women do have better access to knowledge these days, so really, ignorance and stereotyping is not an excuse.

Sj: yep, I totally agree with everything you’ve said here. Also, I think many young women are afraid of the “feminist” tag because they think this will make them “unattractive” to men, failing to realise that anyone with real substance and depth would not be threatened by equality and fairness in a relationship. My other half identifies as a feminist, I’m pretty sure he doesn’t hate himself :)

K: I’m glad I cheered you up, I was worried the post was too depressing, ha!

Emily Vanessa: there are just so many things wrong with Willetts’ argument, that I just didn’t know where to even begin. I think there are so many other more relevant factors involved in male unemployment, that to bring feminism into the mix is like cheap trick. I’m proud to call myself a feminist too, I knew we had a lot in common :)

Nikaela marie: I wish I could talk to you in person too :) I think you do raise an interesting point about the idea that equality means sameness to a lot of people. The point of feminism is not to make everyone the same, that’s just silly. We’re obviously different, people have different talents, thoughts, skills, capabilities, personalities, etc. But what feminism has tried to do is to remove the stereotypes associated with gender. I think human beings are very varied and to suggest that you can limit someone’s capabilities and personality type based on gender alone is rather insulting to both men and women. Also, I don’t think it’s just women who suffer from such stereotyping , I think men do too. While we’re not all the same, we should however (in an ideal world, ha) be given the same opportunities, the same starting point, if you like.

Camila: oh no, I haven’t read that, thanks for the link. Sigh.

Tywo: that’s horrible! I guess when people are jealous of someone’s achievements, the first instinct is to attack and stereotype. It doesn’t make it excusable though.

Tana: yes, and often such stupid arguments deflect from more important issues, which makes it even more frustrating.

Niina: thanks! I’m not sure I expressed myself quite as well as I wanted to though.

Anon: my opinion is that it’s a bit rich to complain that there aren’t any special scholarships for white men considering much of the educational system has historically been catered specifically to them. The reason special scholarships exist is because they seek to redress the balance which has been unfairly skewed toward white, middle-class men. And it still needs redressing. This is not an attack on white, middle-class men, it’s a desire to elevate other people with the same capabilities to their educational and social level – to give them the same chance basically. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why some men are upset, but there needs to be some historical perspective here.

hila said...

oh and I wanted to say thanks to all you guys for commenting and debating with me - I know this is not an easy post to comment on, but it heartens me to know that people are willing to discuss this.

you're champs!

Sundari said...

What an inspiring post! I must say I was one of those naive girls going through high school taking all the rights I had as a female for granted and not really interested in the whole issue. Things really changed when I moved out of home and also since I met my current boyfriend who sometimes I think is more of a feminist than I am which is excellent. I have a lot of reading to catch up on though, cause I want to know more. It would be important to know if I am going to look at the 'female gaze' in the future. Thanks again for a lovely post.

hila said...

thanks Sundari. I think it would be such an incredible project to explore the "female gaze" in your photography, as there's been so much written on the "male gaze". I sometimes wonder how differently photographers and writers see things ... anyway, Patrick does sound great, we need more feminists :)

Felix Curds said...

wow, this post kinda just blew my mind. it's frustating that working towards equality, not just in gender but race, class etc. is still considered radical and left wing- COME ON PEOPLE! Also, in accordance to your last paragraph- I don't understand how you can be female and not be a feminist?!! Come on people...

hila said...

and to follow on from what you're saying, what is really the point of going out of your way to say you're definitely not a feminist? Why are young women and girls so defensive about this? It makes me feel a bit sad.

Brooke W. said...

it's sad that there are still people who not only say things like this, but really believe in it! it's ridiculous, actually!

"young women proudly declare themselves not to be feminists": this is true. Many times i'm talking with my friends about this because sometimes they don't understand why am I always "defending" women. Well I don't understand how can they not do it.

Tis happens because people have a wrong ideia of what feminism is. Most people seem to think that it is like sexism/male chauvinism, but "promoted" by women. So, the problem here is pure ingnorance.

ps: I'm a young woman who proudly declares to be a feminist! :)