Saturday, January 27, 2007

Some Thoughts on Feminism

women learn to be women
and men learn to be men
and I don't blame it all on you
but I don't want to be your friend

-Ani Difranco, Letter to a John

Okay, so call me a stereotype. Like every other pseudointellectual queer woman of my age, Ani Difranco is one of my heroes. I listen to her music nearly every day. I dissect her songs and poetry and see how it relates to my life and the world around me. I use her for inspiration in a lot of my writing. And while I don't blindly agree with everything she says, I feel indebted to her, in the same way that I feel indebted to Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin, or Alice Paul and Lucy Burns.

Anyway, these lines from Letter to a John have been rolling around in my head for the last few days, lending themselves to all different interpretations of feminism. I've been thinking about what feminism means to me, and do I even know what it is anymore? As a woman who has a relationship with another woman, who is raising a female child who will someday be a woman, and as a woman who lives in a blatantly male dominated society, what are my thoughts and feelings on the feminist, and if I'm confused, how do women without my strident opinions feel?

I grew up in the 90's, a decade in which there was a huge backlash against the feminist movement. So many of the girls I knew casually in high school refused to even label themselves as feminists. (My closest friends, of course, always considered themselves feminists, even my male friends.) The term of the decade was "feminazi." As though the idea that women are people was so radical as to place it on the same level as "the Final Solution."

So many people I know believe that feminists hate and fear men. That all feminists are either openly or secretly lesbian. That if a feminist "found the right man" she'd stop complaining. I don't hate men. I do fear them. And with good reason, in my case, some might say. I've been exposed to my fair share of dominating, hurtful men. But, I've also had the wonderful good fortune to know amazingly kind and compassionate men. And I'm smart enough to know that men as a species can't be lumped into two categories, good guys and bad guys. And that's what I find frightening. That even the "good guys" the ones on "my side" aren't really on my side. They can't be. They aren't women, can't understand what it means to be a woman in this world, how it feels to fight against every idea of what "womanhood" means. That's like saying I understand what it means to be a black person because I sympathize with the fight blacks have against white oppression.

There is so little movement left in the feminist movement. We've stopped shouting and waving our flags and marching. Women are putting on "power suits" with "sensible pumps" and assuming the biggest battles are over. There are, to be sure, women talking about breaking through glass and marble ceilings. Women fighting for "equal pay" and all these things that people think of when they think of feminism.

But, I think all those things are distractions. They're beside the point. We've been lulled into complacency by the idea that because we can go out there and get jobs and live on our own, we're winning the fight. We go through life like the patriarchy isn't something that should frighten us. We assume that because our fathers and brothers and lovers and friends support our right to choose and our right to be equal that we've won the fight. But the basic issue of male domination of the entire world hasn't changed. Women are still second best at best. We're still in awe of a woman in power. Nancy Pelosi's recent ascent to speaker of the house proves that. It was met with jubilation, rather than disgust that it took so damn long. It's like the men are allowing us the leftovers of their great feast of power and we're just so damn happy to even be invited to the party that we aren't seeing that that we're basically still just sitting at the kids table.

Because even when we ascend to power, and maybe most especially when women ascend to power, they are supposed to be still be "feminine." Take Hilary Clinton for a great example. During her husband's presidency, a lot of people accused her of taking a much too powerful role. She was criticized for being "dowdy" and not wearing makeup and for wearing her sensible suits and shoes. And now, with her new and "improved" image, great hair, plenty of makeup, people are looking at her like...hmmm, a woman president? Not, hey, look at this amazingly competent democratic senator, perhaps that's the kind of leadership the White House needs. Gender is still the main identifying factor, here.

Which maybe wouldn't be such a big deal, except that along with gender come all those "traditional" gender roles. Women are softer, less aggressive. We are expected to compromise. We are the ones who have to choose between family and career. We're the ones who are criticized for working 60 hour weeks while the children are at home with nannies. A woman that has sex whenever she wants is still a slut. A woman with strong opinions is a bitch

And then I think about all the people I love most in my life, male and female. And I get it, why these people are the ones I can sit and talk with and not want to poke out my eye with a sharp stick. These are the people who don't buy into the traditional gender roles. Take, for example, my friend the Archaeogoddess, Erin C., she travels the world by herself. It simply doesn't occur to her that a "mere woman" doesn't usually travel to places like Israel or Jordan without companionship. Whereas I have another friend, a lesbian, but she still plays the traditional "girlfriend" role. Does the laundry, asks her girlfriend's opinion on everything and expects her girlfriend to pay for dinner. And while I love her, every time I talk to her about her relationship, I feel vaguely nauseated. It's a feeling of uneasiness that even lesbians can't shake the traditional gender stereotypes.

We won't have won equality until a woman runs for president, and we don't think, hey, a woman in the white house would be nice. We'll only have equality when we look at people and don't immediately say, she's a woman so she's this, or he's a man, so he's this. When we look at a political candidate and the only question is, is this person qualified? When we aren't surprised by a woman who buys her own home while still single. And yes, when women can march right alongside men into any battle that our foolish governments involve us in.


Erin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Erin said...

The link in the last post didn't work. I'm going to try again.

Erin said...

It’s an interesting ol’ world all right. I never really thought too much about my gender bending. My pension for men’s clothes aside. I guess I’ve always been lucky because my field is chock full of strong women who got things done. Take one of my heroes, Kathleen Kenyon. She was running an excavation in the Middle East back in the 50’s, the only woman on site, bossing men from a patriarchal society around and slamming back shots of whiskey. QEII knighted her for it. Well, probably not for the whiskey, but the rest of it. And then there is Gertrude Bell (1868-1926), the mother of Mesopotamian archaeology, who founded the Iraq Museum in Baghdad and was a spy in WWI. There are simply oodles of famous women archaeologists.

But your post made me think for a minute about feminism and our patriarchal society. The rest of Europe thinks we are so backwards. And we are. The next prime minister of Denmark is probably going to be a woman. Well, if her party comes to power at any rate. And that fact isn’t even part of the campaign issue! It’s a non-issue, if you will. I have had long talks with Danes about American politics. Most of them want to know why the hell we haven’t had a woman in charge yet. They laugh at our so-called belief in equality, because it is so obviously not. And then I read the most fantastic article (which I wish I had kept, I can’t find it on-line) about the meaning of equality in America vs. Europe. Americans believe in equal opportunity, Europeans believe all people are equal. We don’t believe all people were created equal, even though we profess it in our Declaration of Independence (of course the signers said “men” and they meant white land-owning educated men, but we pretend that they meant all of us). We know that there are stupid people and lazy people and mean people and that these people are certainly not equal to smart, energetic and nice people. So our country has come up with the idea of equal opportunity so that the smart, energetic and nice people can take a hold of these opportunities and rise above the others. Well, that was the idea; the reality is that the greedy and ruthless usually rise because the nice people are often too busy volunteering at the local soup kitchen. But in Europe it’s not about equal opportunities, it’s about equality. Everyone gets the same education, health care, retirement, benefits, etc. The stupid, lazy, and mean are given these things in equal amounts to the smart, energetic, and nice people. Since the benefits are being shared equally, that goes for women as well as men. It is much better to be a woman in Europe than it is in America. For proof I send to you a link to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report. It’s a pdf, so give it some time.

I’d like to proudly point out that Denmark is #4 in the rankings for gender equality. The US… #17. And no, in Denmark, women are not part of the draft, never have been, and are not assigned to the front either. That women have to accept this condition in order to have equal rights is an old scare tactic that brought down the ERA. I, for one, have no problem adding women to the draft or allowing them to fight at the front, but that is because I am dead set against ANYONE getting drafted and ANYONE other than volunteers getting sent to war zones. But as the Nordic countries have shown, women in the military are not a prerequisite for equality.

Erin said...

Damn it the link didn't work. Screw it, here's the whole damn messy thing.

If it's too damn long, just cut and paste folks.

Jennifer said...

Ok, so I won't even pretend to be as eloquent as Laura and Erin. But, I will try as best I can here to get my thoughts across.
I was just watching tv the other day, and they were talking about world leaders old and new. I was surprised to realize just how many other countries have had women leaders. Even Canada had a woman Prime Minister, however short a term it was. And I found this very sad, that I would be so surprised. Don't get me wrong, I am no huge fan of the American Boys Club Government, but I hadn't realized just how brainwashed I had become by the patriarchical society which has been rammed down our throats. I consider myself a feminist, and always have, even when it wasn't "politically correct" (Yuck, I hate that term!), but still sometimes, I seem to lapse into such dismally archaic thinking.
I had always wondered if and when a woman ran for president, if I would vote for her just because she was a woman. Fortunately, I do not have to worry about that now, because Hillary seems to be very well qualified and perfect for the job. But just the fact that I even had to wonder about it shows how American I am.
By the way, and I am sure Craig will appreciate this, Laura, Hillary is spelled with two L's, not one.

jess said...

You know, I never really thought about the fact that, as a single woman, i bought my condo on my own. I have several single friends/co-workers that also own their own place. It didn't even hit me when I first read the post. It was random, this evening. I know other single people who own their own place, but they're all men. Every one of them. In my super male dominated profession (software engineer), I think I just forget. I'm around mostly men all the time.
It's worse at school. 20% of engineering undergrads are women. But for grad students, it's only about 10%. I was in a class a couple weeks ago. I looked around to the 20 people in the room, and I was the only woman. It doesn't bother me in the general sense. I've gotten used to it so I generally don't notice. But there are those moments that I do. Sometimes it's random. I just look around and notice. Other times it's more explicit. For instance, a hooters is about to open up near work. The area used to just be retired folks. Now there are a bunch of tech companies in the area. Full of men.