Saturday, March 10, 2007

IWD + 3

"One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman."
—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (Volume II)
Thursday, March 8th, was International Women's Day and Blog Against Sexism Day. Since I was out of town for part of the week, I'm getting to this topic three days late. But I certainly don't want to overlook it.

The various forms of sexism have already been described, with his usual flair and insight, by our friend Ellis at Disambiguation. My focus will be on the ultimate goals of the women's movement, which from my perspective go far beyond such familiar issues as legal and economic equality and freedom from discrimination in employment, although those and similar goals remain vital and, far too often, unfulfilled.

International Women's Day (IWD) has been celebrated since 1909. Its organizers were deeply involved in the labor movement, and the women's suffrage movement would soon move back to the center of the national political debate (leading to final ratification of the 19th amendment in 1920). It's revealing that only two countries, Canada and Australia, formally recognize IWD (perhaps due to its early association with socialist women's movements).

More than two centuries after Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792), and more than forty years after "second wave" feminism emerged, many of the significant goals of feminism remain elusive. Major pieces of legislation have failed to gain enough political support in the U.S., including:
  • The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW): To date, 185 countries have adopted this international treaty. The U.S. remains the only country in the industrialized world that has not adopted the Convention, which is the first "to comprehensively address fundamental rights for women in politics, health care, education, economics, employment, law, property, and marriage and family relations." The Convention has been considered several times by the U.S. Senate since 1980, and was approved by a 12-7 vote in the Foreign Relations Committee as recently as 2002. But the full Senate has never voted on it. Action is long overdue (1).

  • The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which simply provides: "Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex." The ERA has a very long and complicated history that reveals much about the extent of sexism and recent conservative dominance in U.S. politics. By 1979, the ERA has fallen just three states short of ratification by the necessary 38 states. The current strategy is to seek passage in three additional states, though it's unclear whether such action would come too late to salvage the ERA.
As essential as these (and related) political and economic goals are, the women's movement will finally succeed when gender no longer makes any cultural difference. This goal includes not just legal and economic equality, but a deeper recognition that women are (in the words of Ellis) "fully autonomous agents." No a priori (2) expectations should be imposed on women unless they are based on actual physical differences, notably the biological fact that only women (barring major medical breakthroughs) can get pregnant and bear children. But the real implications of those physical differences are minimal, and the role of men in raising children also deserves legal recognition (in the form of paid parental leave).

One of the most common a priori expectations about women is that they are physically less able than men and must be protected from certain dangers. Conservatives opposed to the ERA argued, for example, that its passage would require women to register for the draft and be assigned to combat duties. With 76 American women killed in combat in Iraq and hundreds more wounded, this argument is even less persuasive than it was thirty years ago. One of every seven U.S. soldiers in Iraq is female and many of them have seen combat. Women can function very effectively in combat roles, as they have demonstrated for decades in the Israeli Defense Force and the Russian army during World War II.

Despite the widespread cultural assumption that women are weak, women are subjected to violence by men on an enormous scale across the planet. For example, consider the following:
  • "Globally, women between the age of fifteen and forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die as a result of male violence than through cancer, malaria, traffic accidents or war combined."

  • "At least one out of every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime. Usually, the abuser is a member of her own family or someone known to her. Domestic violence is the largest form of abuse of women worldwide, irrespective of region, culture, ethnicity, education, class and religion."
If women are weak, why must they be beaten or intimidated so often into submission?

One of the conservatives' favorite, and most frivolous, arguments against the ERA was that it would require unisex bathrooms that would violate the privacy of both men and women. However, case law has long recognized and allowed for certain gender distinctions, and a right to privacy, based on actual physical differences.

What about affirmative action
would it have to be abolished in a regime of strict equality? No, not until that regime becomes more of a reality. Affirmative action is a form of reparations for centuries of oppression of women, African Americans, Native Americans and others. Affirmative action is a transitional strategy to bring us to a more egalitarian society as quickly as possible.

But what happens to sexuality if, as suggested above,
"gender no longer makes any cultural difference"? The forms of sexuality that are so pervasive in our popular culture are degrading to both genders, but especially to women. Women are encouraged to exploit their status as sexual objects to find a mate, manipulate men, promote their careers and achieve other social goals. On television and in the movies, in magazine ads and thousands of other images, the message is that women are powerful in large part because they can confer or withhold sexual favors. In my work, I often meet teenagers who feel compelled to shoplift clothing (often including items like thong underpants), jewelry and cosmetics in pursuit of the "look" that would allow them to successfully compete in the sexual marketplace.

Despite the gains women have achieved in advancing their legal and economic standing, this cultural perception of female sexuality degrades and limits their options. Women's roles are still defined, in part, by their sexuality and their ability to conform to male definitions of conduct and sexual desirability.

Third-wave feminism, exemplified by the "girl power" movement, attacks some of these cultural stereotypes head on, often with heroic and intelligent cultural icons like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Bride (played by Uma Thurman) in the Kill Bill films of Quentin Tarrentino (3). Both characters, however, operate on mythic levels, and the actors who play them certainly conform to popular standards of youthful female beauty. Still, third-wave feminists recognize that the goals of the women's movement can be expressed in a language that is neither legalistic nor academic, and that its potential beneficiaries aren't limited to white, middle-class women. Third-wave feminism often confronts cultural stereotypes about the autonomy of women and their relationships to each other.

As the character Gale Weathers says in Scream 3, "popular culture is the politics of the 21st century." The radical feminism of the sixties and seventies led the way in deeply examining the role of popular culture in perpetuating women's oppression, including the role of language (4) and visual imagery, but mainstream feminism's focus was on ending legal (de jure) and de facto discrimination. Those objectives have still not been reached, but only a thorough confrontation with popular culture will allow feminists to achieve the deepest goals of the movement.

None of this is meant to suggest that sexuality should be banished from popular culture, or that the exploration of sexual themes automatically degrades women. If both men and women can be liberated from rigid stereotypes, a more enlightened sexuality
freed of exploitation and objectificationmight blossom. It hardly needs to be said that sexuality is a vital human activity that deserves the serious attention of artists, writers, poets, sociologists, psychologists and everyone else.

To take all this a step farther, our long-term goals as a political culture should include banishing
all distinctions based on physical characteristics over which we have no control, including:
  • Gender
  • Race (whatever that is), ethnicity, national origin or any related physical features
  • Age
  • Sexual orientation: Though it's unclear whether homosexuality is the result of genetic or environmental factors, the rights of gay men and women shouldn't depend on the final resolution of that scientific question. As Gore Vidal once said, "homosexuality" should only be used in its adverbial form to describe a kind of activity, not a state of being.
  • Physical limitations: Blind people, for example, may need to be treated differently, but to their advantage (as in special classes and guide dogs).
People need not be defined by the physical attributes that they possessed at birth. Those attributes don't have to be totally ignored, of course, but our essentialist culture tends to emphasize them and define people by them (5). In so doing, everyone loses.


Once again the U.S. distinguishes (and isolates) itself by dragging its feet on an important international treaty. It's a long tradition, involving administrations from both parties, that has recently shunned the Kyoto Protocols and treaties on land mines and the International Criminal Court. This revolutionary nation, founded on principles of human rights, has become the principal bastion of the global status quo.

Article I of CEDAW provides that:
"[A]ny distinction, exclusion or restriction made on the basis of sex which has the effect or purpose of impairing or nullifying the recognition, enjoyment or exercise by women, irrespective of their marital status, on a basis of equality of men and women, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural, civil or any other field."
(2) Here's a quick definition of the term: "A proposition is knowable a priori if it is knowable independently of experience." In other words, it's a rigid assumption or expectation.

(3) See, for example, the fine essay Scream, Popular Culture and Feminism's Third Wave: I'm Not My Mother, by Kathleen Rowe Karlyn. She notes that women, in the conservative era from which we may be emerging now, are often apologetic about having feminist views: "I'm not a feminist, but..." She writes:
"This resistance to thinking collectively... has serious political consequences at a time when collective action remains necessary not only to advance feminist goals in an age of globalization but to protect its still-vulnerable achievements in the areas of abortion rights, affirmative action, education and healthcare."
(4) It's distressing to see how often even self-identified feminists, not to mention nonfeminist men, still refer to women as "girls." And "chicks" has still not been relegated to the barnyard where it belongs.

(5) Or, to put it another way, sex is "socially constructed:" the culture has added meanings to gender that far transcend mere physical differences.

GRAPHICS: Taking Place and the United Nations


Anonymous said...

Although I agree with you in principle, I am wary of taking the idea of "equality" too far. First of all, there are differences between men and women in the medical realm that are sometimes dangerously overlooked. For instance, women experience heart attacks very differently than men and may not be diagnosed until it's too late.

When men talk about feminism, they often seem to take "equality" to mean that we should treat women the same way we treat men. As a woman that doesn't appeal to me. Men may have it easier than women, but they are also held to a ridiculous standard of masculinity, and expected to be strong and fearless in the face of every obstacle (including armed combat). I don't want women to get drafted into the army for the same reasons I don't want men to get drafted - nobody deserves to be forced into that situation. Feminism shouldn't be about holding women to the standards we set for men; it should be about throwing away unrealistic standards altogether. Feminism shouldn't mean expecting every woman to be physically strong, assertive, good at math, and career-minded. It should be about tossing out the idea that a woman can't be any of those things, along with the idea that men must be all of them.

But we shouldn't throw out the baby with the bathwater and forget about the positive aspects of femininity and masculinity. Any psychologist will tell you that men and women think and feel differently. It may be impossible to know if those traits are inate or learned, but it doesn't matter, because it will probably stay that way for the foreseeable future. The important thing to remember is that the traits that both sexes bring to the table are equally valuable, and equally necessary to the human experience as we know it.

That's the kind of equality I'm interested in.

M.J. O'Brien said...

Certainly I agree with Anon's major points, including the idea that men also suffer from the many expectations (and stereotypes) that are imposed on them. And I'd prefer that no one, male or female, ever get drafted. Maybe we'd have to reconsider in a genuine national emergency, when total mobilization is unavoidable.

Anon also sez: "Feminism shouldn't be about holding women to the standards we set for men; it should be about throwing away unrealistic standards altogether." And again I totally agree. That was a major point I was trying to make in my post.

As for the "positive aspects of femininity and masculinity," that's where I begin to struggle. I haven't heard a convincing case that women are born "feminine" and men "masculine," apart from their anatomical assignments. "It may be impossible to know if those traits are inate or learned," as Anon says, but I'm content to start with the assumption that they're learned. To concede that those qualities are innate is too limiting--for both women and men. As our culture becomes more enlightened and less sexist, maybe it can figure out how to preserve and promote the best of what we now consider to be "masculine" and "feminine" qualities.