Feminism, labels, and principles

An interesting discussion at Protein Wisdom about feminism and labels. Equity feminism, gender feminism, establishment feminism, liberal feminism, ifeminism… my head is spinning.

I don’t have time for a long post right now, but a few thoughts. Christina Hoff Sommers’ “equity feminism/gender feminism” distinction (originally made in the 1994 book Who Stole Feminism?), which I’ve sometimes used myself, is rather imprecise, and too open to being used as shorthand for “feminists I like/feminists I don’t like.” Sommers defines “gender feminists” as those who see women as oppressed by a “sex/gender system” ingrained in cultural gender roles, and “equity feminists” as those who want simply to establish legal equality and equality of opportunity. But one needn’t be a particularly radical feminist to believe that various aspects of traditional gender roles lead to unequal opportunity, and one can seek to transform those roles while seeking “equity” rather than female advantage. (Many of the early feminists Sommers praises, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were harshly critical not only of legal and institutional inequality but of traditional femininity.)

So, what terms would I use? Actually, “equity feminism” and “gender feminism” still make sense to me, but I would fine-tune the definitions somewhat. “Equity feminism” is focused on fairness and equal treatment for individuals regardless of gender; “gender feminism” — a form of identity politics — is focused on solidarity with women and seeking the betterment of women. However, as Jeff has found out, the term “gender feminism” is fairly useless in discussions with feminists to whom one would apply the term, since they regard it as a slur (much as I do “anti-feminist”). I wonder if “identity feminism” would be an acceptable term?

In any case: Here are a few basic principles of my kind of feminism, whatever one wants to call it.

1. Equal treatment regardless of gender. No excuses for unequal treatment such as “we need to make allowances for women’s lack of power/history of oppression,” “real equality means redistributing power from the oppressor to the oppressed,” etc. Feminism should be about equity, fairness and judging people as individuals, not “siding with women” (individually or collectively).

2. We should seek to achieve greater equity/equality by expanding choices for both men and women, not narrowing them — e.g., not make it less socially acceptable for women to stay home with their children, but to make this option more available to men. Equity does not necessarily mean full parity in every field; it means equal opportunity, including freedom from cultural barriers that can hold men or women back from excercising their options (e.g., the belief that it’s unmanly to be a child care worker, or that a woman should be interested in “people things” rather than scientific abstractions).

3. Western women today are not an oppressed or powerless group. While women have some gender-based problems, so do men. Gender-based disadvantages and prejudices should be addressed whether they affect men or women. In today’s society, “more for women” is not necessarily synonymous with justice.

4. Women as well as men can be sexist — toward men as well as women — and can have sexist expectations of and prejudices toward men. Female chauvinism (e.g., the belief that mothers have a special bond with their children inherently superior to that of fathers) should be taken as seriously as male chauvinism.

5. Not everything bad that happens to women (e.g., rape or domestic violence) is the result of sexism or “the patriarchy” (which, in my view, is a meaningless concept when talking about the West in the 21st Century). Women’s personal wrongs in relationships with men should not be considered a feminist issue unless some institutional or cultural bias against women is involved (for instance, a man’s belief that he is entitled to multiple sex partners but his wife or girlfriend is not).

6. Claims of sexism, sex discrimination, or male mistreatment of women should be taken seriously, but not given a presumption of truthfulness and objectivity. Giving a woman’s account greater credence than a man’s because of her gender is just as sexist as presuming a man to be more believable.

7. Finally, my kind of feminism takes a non-adversarial stance toward Western and American society. This was brought home to me by Jeff Goldstein’s exchange with Lauren, who sees a young Muslim immigrant’s decision to wear the hijab as possibly a positive and empowering one because it’s a protest against the majority culture. I don’t regard an adversarial stance vis-a-vis American culture as something valuable in itself. For all its flaws and its much-less-than-perfect history where women are concerned, the West today is the civilization that champions freedom and equal rights for women. For that alone, from a feminist point of view, it is worth defending.

45 Comments

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45 responses to “Feminism, labels, and principles

  1. Paul

    I have been a feminist for years and do not mind that some females are as well !

  2. EricP

    Just a quick note, it was Lauren, not Jill who made the hijab post.

  3. Anonymous

    Well-defined terms are essential to reasoned discourse and exceedingly rare in our label-mad culture.
    Next up – “liberal” and “conservative”?

  4. Lauren

    Cathy, I agree with much of what you’ve written here, but I still find the binary problematic because it is so very reductive.

    Additionally, my post in question has been misread multiple times, so I feel the need to reiterate that my primary point was to vent my thoughts on the multilayered cultural politics at play in my student’s non-conformist assignment, and secondly to reconsider cultural cues such as hijab in a non-oppressive Western environment. I’m still baffled as to why my public wonderment is so controversial.

  5. Lauren

    “For all its flaws and its much-less-than-perfect history where women are concerned, the West today is the civilization that champions freedom and equal rights for women. For that alone, from a feminist point of view, it is worth defending.”

    Agreed, and yet not. I realize you were pressed for time when you wrote this, but here goes:

    The idealist in me believes this to be true, though the real fight is for the hearts and minds of individuals to nix emphasis on arbitrary gender divisions that lead to more systematic divisions.

    The realist in me is nevertheless required to point out that Western feminism is not the only defender of women worldwide (though by virtue of the West we have considerable clout that must be considered) and women are using their varying abilities to improve their own conditions in their own environments on their own terms. Women who wear hijab are not delicate flowers under headscarves simply by virtue of being women in a patriarchal religion in a patriarchal society, &c. They do have agency and they are using it.

  6. Anonymous

    The only problem with this whole line of argument is that it’s wrong, and comes from a misunderstanding of how language works (and that is what the disagreement comes down to – language.) Words do not come from the dictionary. You cannot arbitrarily define what words mean. Case in point: Sommers invented the terms “equity feminism” and “gender feminism” eleven years ago but I find no evidence of these terms ever actually being used except in cases when they are being defined (or re-defined).

    Like it or not, “feminism” means “gender feminism” (or “identity feminism”) and always has. There never was a golden age when the term just referred to basic egalitarianism and individualism applied to gender (which is what “equity feminism” is supposed to mean.) True, there may have been a time where the main emphasis in feminism was on fighting inegalitarian policies and anti-individualism, but that was because those were the main (and most obvious) anti-feminist battles. (Incidentally, I think this still holds true. If a policy which blatantly discriminated on the base of gender against women were enacted, all feminists would oppose it, and you can bet the first arguments out of their mouths would be individualist arguments and appeals to equality under the law).

    Let’s consider a thought experiment. You take a sample of, say, 1000 people who are self-proclaimed feminists. You show them writings from some mainstream NOW member, from some university Woman’s Studies professor, from some radical Marxist feminist, from some MacKinnon/Dworkin radical feminist, from some Starhawk-Gaia goddess separatist type, etc. You also show them writings from Cathy Young, Wendy McElroy, maybe Camille Paglia. You ask them one question only: Is the person who wrote this a feminist? You are not asking them whether they agree with the person, or how close the person’s beliefs are to their own, only whether the person is a feminist or not.

    I think the answer would be clear. All of the people in the first group would be considered feminists by the great majority of the respondents. There wouldn’t be much variation. Andrea Dworkin would be considered just as much a feminist as Ellen Goodman or Gloria Steinem. People in the second group would, however, not be considered feminists by the majority. Your average NOW member, even though she may have more in common with Cathy Young than with Andrea Dworkin on most things, would still recognize Dworkin as a feminist, because they share in common the essential belief of feminism: that women are oppressed.

    So, Cathy Young, the answer is that you are anti-feminist. I mean this as a simple objective description. That is not to say that you are anti-female. They are two different things. What you are in favor of is applying egalitarianism and individualism to gender, not feminism. And that’s a good thing.

  7. Cathy Young

    Lauren, a pleasure to see you here, and I just corrected my post which mis-attributed your hijab post to Jill.

    I hope to be able to reply soon.

  8. Cathy Young

    anonymous (12pm post) — well, that’s an interesting viewpoint, but the problem is that just as the label “feminist” does not distinguish between Andrea Dworkin and Ellen Goodman, the label “anti-feminist” does not distinguish between Wendy McElroy and, say, F. Carolyn Graglia, whose anti-feminism is explicitly anti-egalitarian (or even outspoken misogynists such as the “Fathers’ Manifesto” group).

  9. William R. Barker

    While some of the jargon leaves my head spinning (*SMILE*) I agree with Cathy’s initial post.

    Yet…

    I also agree with the Anonymous post of Wed Dec 14, 12:00:00 PM EST.

    Hmm…

    I’m not quite sure if I’ve contradicted myself here, but… however you want to label those who believe in the general ideals of equality… put me in that camp!

  10. Pooh

    Anon, the irony of your post is that while claiming that “this is how language works” you end by saying something that doesn’t mean what you claim you intend.

    Anti-Feminist, to most, means anti-female. (Query, didn’t we talk about this, at length within the last two weeks?) You can claim you don’t mean it that way, but next thing you know, Cathy’s arguments get dismissed (*cough*Barry*cough*) as ‘anti-feminist’ and therefore anti-female and therefore not worthy of consideration.

    I also find it curious that the central tenet of feminism, as you define it, is that women are oppressed. That strikes me as an inherently self-defeating ideology.

  11. Eighty-Eight

    Hi Cathy,

    This is the poster formerly known as Anonymous88, and briefly Dancer88. In the future, I’ll just go by Eighty-Eight.

    Thank you for this post, which was very useful in helping to understand your positions. I have a question for further clarification. In your view, are there any circumstances in which a history of oppression is a relevant factor in the consideration of a group, if the oppression has been rectified in the law, but perhaps not yet in practice? I understand that you believe women in the west are no longer oppressed, but I was curious as to your position on other groups in which the legacy of the oppression is generally still agreed upon as having current-day effects. An example might be a marginalized minority within a developing country (just to take the discussion away from sensitive domestic issues.)

  12. Revenant

    Well said, Cathy.

    And Anon — words mean what people use them to mean, nothing more. You might not have heard the terms Cathy is using before, but plenty of other people have. Indeed, the dictionary definition of “feminism” is that of equity feminism, not gender feminism.

  13. Ampersand

    Cathy wrote: well, that’s an interesting viewpoint, but the problem is that just as the label “feminist” does not distinguish between Andrea Dworkin and Ellen Goodman, the label “anti-feminist” does not distinguish between Wendy McElroy and, say, F. Carolyn Graglia, whose anti-feminism is explicitly anti-egalitarian (or even outspoken misogynists such as the “Fathers’ Manifesto” group).

    I’ve already agreed that I won’t refer to you as an anti-feminist in the future. But nonetheless, I don’t follow your logic here.

    It’s agreed by all that the label “feminist” includes a wide variety of views, such as Andrea Dworkin’s and Ellen Goodman’s. The fact that Dworkin and Goodman (or, even more so, Dworkin and Susie Bright) are at complete loggerheads on many substantial issues doesn’t prevent them from both being feminists.

    So why is it a problem that the lablel “anti-feminist” should include a variety of views, some at complete loggerheads?

    Regarding this:

    This was brought home to me by Jeff Goldstein’s exchange with Lauren, who sees a young Muslim immigrant’s decision to wear the hijab as possibly a positive and empowering one because it’s a protest against the majority culture. I don’t regard an adversarial stance vis-a-vis American culture as something valuable in itself.

    I don’t think Lauren’s post can be accurately described as taking “an adversarial stance vis-a-vis American culture” in itself. As I read the post, the student was responding to the racist culture of the school around her, and to the hypersexualization of American teen culture.

    But surely a reaction against a particular racist school culture, or against a particular specific aspect of American culture, is not the same as taking a stance against American culture in and of itself.

  14. Richard Bennett

    The hijab thing illustrates what’s wrong with the strand of feminism that’s founded on the belief that women are oppressed by a patriarchal conspiracy. The need for identity that’s expressed in this group is so strong that it has to actually fight against equality. Equality, after all, undermines the basis of this form of feminist identity and threatens the whole enterprise.

    The woman who chooses to wear the hijab participates in her own oppression and reifies it. Thus, she strengthens the foundations of identity feminism and is therefore lauded by its membership.

    Identity feminists oppress women, in other words.

  15. Forbes

    “Western feminism is not the only defender of women worldwide…and women are using their varying abilities to improve their own conditions in their own environments on their own terms.”

    Wow! Now there’s a load of nonsense! What was western feminism doing for the women of Afghanistan? Or Iraq? Or, and I could go on and on…

    What western feminists have mostly done is stand back, doing little, and/or find common cause with oppressive regimes–but mostly to oppose US efforts to bring freedom, liberty, the voting franchise, and a modicum of equality to those parts of the world.

    (And since Cathy Young is called an anti-feminist, by these so-called feminists, Ms. Young, of course, is excluded from my preceeding generalization.)

    Lauren, you can ramble on all you want about your binary reductive problem with arbitrary gender assignments that trigger non-conformist cultural responses in a multilayered, non-oppressive Western environment, but until you straighten out the rhetorical pretzel you’ve twisted up, unintelligible–rather than controversial–is the only characterization such thoughts earn. (What, pray tell, is a non-oppresive western environment? Other than a women’s locker room?)

    Oh, and best of luck to all the third world muslim women using their agency to improve their liberty. Yup, powerful tool, that agency. You should be proud of your hard work on their behalf, Lauren!

    Cheers.

  16. Lauren

    Forbes, do a Google search on Muslim feminism and see what you come up with. You might be surprised.

  17. just another lurker

    Wow, great post Cathy. And I was surprised to hear you dare to use the term I personally prefer: “female chauvinism”. Chauvinism in the strict dictionary definition, i.e., “unreasoning devotion to one’s own race, sex, etc., with contempt for other races or the opposite sex”.

    When viewed from this angle I find that many instances of truly mindbending pretzel logic (from what you would call gender feminists) become immediately clear.

  18. reader_iam

    In my experience, the word “labels” is almost always at odds with the word “principles.”

    Those who most quickly rush to label, or more specifically, demand to be the arbiter of who is what, tend to get distracted and end up equating labels with principles. Which, of course, they really don’t. Not in any kind of practical,
    on-the-ground sense, in terms of actually improving the daily lives of real people living in the real world.

    The semantic stuff may be fun, but in the end that’s basically all it amounts to: a game.

    That’s how I see it, anyway.

    (And I do, very much, think that words matter very much. Words actually happen; labels stall. And to the degree they stall, they also put the skids on more important things.)

  19. mythago

    While women have some gender-based problems, so do men. Gender-based disadvantages and prejudices should be addressed whether they affect men or women.

    Cathy, what annoys me about your usually rather sensible discussions is the not-very-well-hidden assumption that sexism hurts men and women equally and that men and women get equal benefits from sexism. It’s one thing to recognize that sexism harms men (you’d have to be an idiot not to), but you don’t like to consider that sexism might have more benefits and less drawbacks for men.

  20. Glaivester

    Let me explain what anonymous was saying more simply.

    Feminism means that you support increasing women’s rights relative to men’s.

    Feminism has nothing to do with equality per se. Where men are favored, feminism happens to coincide with equality. Where women are favored, feminism is anti-equality.

    That is all.

  21. Pooh

    Mythago,

    WHAT? There has been no attempt at equivalance here. Unless arguing that in certain instances women have more rights than men means you are saying that that makes them equally oppressed. It’s called nuance.

  22. jw

    It is best to consider sexism and its harm in terms of insurance. We effectively demand all females have insurance against sexism and at the same time demand that no male has such insurance.

    If no serious things go wrong in one’s life, one is better off to be male. But, if something serious does go wrong, it is far far better to be female.

    That group of males seriously harmed by institutional sexism is far more harmed than that group of females seriously harmed by sexism.

    Therefore, we are not and cannot talk of sexism in terms of groups as it disproportionally harms most a subset of the male population.

  23. Pablo

    mythago says:

    It’s one thing to recognize that sexism harms men (you’d have to be an idiot not to), but you don’t like to consider that sexism might have more benefits and less drawbacks for men.

    I don’t mind considering the possibility, but I don’t believe it’s true.

    Between Family Courts and the Domestic Violence industry, our very society is systematically abusing men in very serious, damaging, life-changing ways. Oh, and the kids get some of the grief too!

    Day in, day out. Day after day after day after day… In what forums are women so systematically abused?

  24. beAzl

    With all due respect (and actually the respect is great enough that I suspect you will prove me wrong) I am afraid you are in danger of getting stuck in an intellectual cul-de-sac.

    In Thomas Sowell’s “Vision of the anointed”, he argues (I am sure it is not original – does it come from Kant maybe?) that every principle follows a law of diminishing returns. Saying the truth is a fine principle, that should be followed instinctively most of the time, until that madman wielding a knife comes to your door looking for your friend you are hiding in you basement. Ultimately, every principle should be subservient to a higher cause – promoting some sum total of happiness/prosperity/lack of fear, that kind of thing, with a special emphasis on your own, since only you know what will truly make you happy – basically utilitarianism, though I am sure utilitarianism has its own holes to contend with.

    As explained in the link Rooting Out Discrimination in Home Mortgage Lending there are three motivations for treating people unequally:

    Bigotry – not caring, or even cheering, when you see Rodney King being beaten, because he is black.

    Cultural Affinity – not knowing anyone in your country club who is Chinese, and you only hire people you trust, and you only trust people in your country club.

    Statistical Discrimination – charging young men more for car insurance (sorry for that obsession of mine), because they are statistically more likely to get in a car accident.

    As explained in the article, understanding what the motivation is is extremely important. How you combat it can be completely different. Whereas bigotry is weakened by competition, by education, by appeals to number one, statistical discrimination is strengthened by all these things.

    Someone in this post provided a link to a post that argues that women should be given priority in custody battles because statistically they are more dedicated parents. This is statistical discrimination (if backed up by accurate statistics). I think you need to either accept that argument, or give utilitarian arguments why it is bad to follow that policy. First of all, are the statistics wrong? Is the author prepared, for example, to accept similar arguments when applied in favor of men vs women (possibly for example when hiring for a job that requires long hours and long-term dedication to the job, which might put women at a disadvantage precisely because they are more dedicated parents, statistically)? Can we not trust ourselves to make these kinds of judgments, because it will too easily lapse into bigotry? Is it okay to trust private actors to make these kinds of judgments, but not government agencies, due to their monopoly on force? Or can we trust no one? What circumstances make it okay, and why?

    All I see coming from you (again with mucho respect) is “but that’s just wrong!” which I for one find unsatisfying.

    What am I missing?

  25. Mary

    I’ve been watching this unfold for some time, and have written a response here.

  26. mary

    Eh, this is the link I meant to give

  27. Pooh

    Mary, nice summary of what’s been going on, and interesting thoughts.

    How much of the schism between the groups you identify is a dispute about the ‘facts on the ground’ as to the ‘oppressedness’ (is that a word? it should be,) of women in America?

  28. Revenant

    you don’t like to consider that sexism might have more benefits and less drawbacks for men.

    Except that sexism doesn’t benefit men. If, for example, women are discriminated against as doctors, that provides a minor benefit to male doctors, but a significant penalty to everybody else (we receive lower-quality care at higher cost). The effect of widespread discrimination is similar to that of a high tariff on all goods — it is, on net, harmful to everyone. It makes everything more expensive and lower-quality than it otherwise would be.

    Plus, of course, there’s the fact that almost all men marry women at some point. Discrimination against your wife hurts you, too — it makes your family poorer and your home life unhappier. Plus, since half your kids will be women, and sexism hurts the victim more than it helps the beneficiary, on average sexism will be harmful to your progeny.

    No, there’s no upside to sexism. It is a remarkably bad idea, both from a moral and a pragmatic viewpoint.

  29. Darleen

    Cathy

    You don’t have trackbacks so I’m leaving this link in the comment section. I think your list is a good start, but IMHO it leaves a few things off. I’m in the process of developing a graph that I hope will clearly demonstrate the differences in contemporary feminism. Any input as I develope questions welcome!

  30. drumgurl

    Beazl: In short, statistical discrimination is harmful because of its attack on individualism.

    Statistical discrimination harms those who do not fit stereotypes. For example, the dad who is the more dedicated parent gets discriminated against because, statistically (supposedly!), women tend to be more dedicated parents. But what do the actions of OTHER men have to do with him? Nothing!

    But it doesn’t just hurt the dad. It hurts the children, too. And that can have all kinds of negative effects on society as a whole.

    Likewise, women who are unfairly “mommy-tracked” in the workforce are harmed when it is assumed they’ll be less dedicated to their work. But it also harms the company because they are missing out on what she has to offer. And that can indirectly factor into higher prices for the company’s customers.

    For a more articulate example of what I’m trying to say, see revenant’s first paragraph.

    By the way, great post, Cathy! I hope I didn’t appear to be speaking for you on the Protein Wisdom blog.

  31. Cathy Young

    ampersand:

    It’s agreed by all that the label “feminist” includes a wide variety of views, such as Andrea Dworkin’s and Ellen Goodman’s. The fact that Dworkin and Goodman (or, even more so, Dworkin and Susie Bright) are at complete loggerheads on many substantial issues doesn’t prevent them from both being feminists.

    So why is it a problem that the lablel “anti-feminist” should include a variety of views, some at complete loggerheads?

    Interesting question.

    I think Susie Bright and Andrea Dworkin certainly shared the basic belief that women should have freedom and equality with men, even though they defined these concepts quite differently. Certainly, both saw themselves as pursuing female empowerment (again, while understanding it very differently).

    I don’t see myself as having any common ground with, say, F. Carolyn Graglia, other than the fact that she and I are both critical of “established” feminism. However, I think that people should generally be defined by what they believe in, rather than what they’re against. Otherwise it’s a bit like lumping together atheists and religious Jews because both groups are non-Christian.

    mythago: Just to clarify, my comment about gender disadvantage being a two-day street applied solely to Western civilization in the last 20-25 years. That’s how things look to me, at least. What are some of the areas where you believe women in America or Europe today are more disadvantaged by gender-based biases or barriers than men?

    Lauren and Barry, on the hijab issue: having read Lauren’s post, I definitely did not get the impression that Muizza’s primary reason for wearing the hijab was to protest the racism in the school (and the added bit about her garb being a protest against the hypersexualization of teenage girls in America is simply speculation). Isn’t there a way to protest racism without endorsing a symbol of female submission? (I think it’s quite telling that in many Muslim immigrant communities, men are not expected to wear traditional religious garb or to have beards, but women are expected to dress traditionally.) I also think it’s a bit naive to refer to Muizza’s environment as “non-oppressive”; in many immigrant communities, the pressure on young girls to follow traditional rules of modest dress is very strong.

    No time to answer all the other posts right now, but Mary, very interesting post! Darleen, I’ll check out your link; good to see you back here. And drumgurl, welcome to the Y Files!

  32. beAzl

    According to Family Structure…:

    The few studies to compare
    child well-being in single-mother versus single-father families yield mixed results. Single-father families have more economic resources than single mother
    families, yet children from these two family forms perform similarly
    in school (Downey 1994). Economic factors are better predictors of school performance among children in single-father families, whereas interpersonal resources (e.g., parental involvement and supervision) play a larger role
    among children from single-mother families. There are few effects of gender
    of the single parent on children’s self-esteem, verbal and math abilities, and
    relationships with peers (Downey, Ainsworth-Darnell, and Dufur 1998).
    Furthermore, there is little evidence that children do better when they reside
    with a same-gender single parent (Powell and Downey 1997).
    To our knowledge, just one study of delinquency, specifically drug and
    alcohol use, has included a single-father family category (Hoffman and Johnson
    1998). Relative to adolescents in single-mother families, those in singlefather
    families are significantly more likely to have used marijuana, used
    other illicit drugs, been drunk three or more times, and have problem alcohol
    or drug use in the past year. Adolescents residing in single-father or fatherstepmother
    families appear to be most likely to exhibit these delinquent outcomes
    (net of controls for gender, age, race, family income, and residential
    mobility), although the authors did not explicitly test this contrast. Our study
    extends prior research on the significance of broken homes and adolescent delinquency by distinguishing between single-mother and single-father families
    to determine whether the family structure effect documented by prior
    research is predominantly a function of parental absence or the gender of the resident parent.

    Looks to me like the evidence is too weak to justify discrimination anyway, so the issue is probably moot.

  33. mythago

    Cathy, you’re arguing that a smaller gap means no gap.

    You seem to be arguing that 20-25 years ago, it was true that men had more advantages and fewer disadvantages, but that’s no longer the case. What do you believe the greater advantage was, and how has it changed in the last two decades?

  34. Revenant

    how has it changed in the last two decades?

    Well, one fairly obvious change is that the workforce shifted. In 1980 most of the workforce had grown up and worked much of their careers in workplaces where sexual and/or racial discrimination was normal. Over the past 25 years most of those people retired or died. Today only the oldest workers have any memory of such a time. There is no longer an expectation that women will have a second-class role in the workplace.

  35. Cathy Young

    eighty-eight:

    In your view, are there any circumstances in which a history of oppression is a relevant factor in the consideration of a group, if the oppression has been rectified in the law, but perhaps not yet in practice? I understand that you believe women in the west are no longer oppressed, but I was curious as to your position on other groups in which the legacy of the oppression is generally still agreed upon as having current-day effects. An example might be a marginalized minority within a developing country (just to take the discussion away from sensitive domestic issues.)

    Sorry I missed this before. A very interesting question, and one that I think may warrant a blogpost of its own.

    Obviously, I think culture matters, not only legal equality. I hope to elaborate on this later, but for now: I think the integration of women into public life and non-traditional roles, in a way, has been much easier than the integration of minority groups, because women don’t (IMO) have a separate culture. Quite a few white men in positions of power have actively promoted women in the workplace because they have career-oriented daughters they care about. That’s not a factor with regard to minorities.

    Mythago: do you mean the gap in earnings and high-level jobs? Because I don’t think that’s the only measure of societal advantage.

    In terms of “lifestyle choices,” I think women today clearly have more options than men do (i.e., to work part-time or stay home after having children). The flip side of those options is that women can get blamed much more easily for not being “good enough parents,” and the option to stay home or cut down on work can become an expectation. But this is where I think it’s debatable “who has it worse, men or women,” and a lot depends on the individual situation.

  36. mythago

    In terms of “lifestyle choices,” I think women today clearly have more options than men do (i.e., to work part-time or stay home after having children).

    This always strikes me as a bit like the argument that women have more freedom than men do because we can wear skirts OR pants. It ignores the fact that one of our ‘options’ is rather more heavily promoted than the other, and that we do not in fact have the same options as men. For example, “I am going to leave all the childcare to my spouse, and focus on my career” is not viewed the same when a woman does this as a man.

    And, of course, one of those options involves economic vulnerability and dependency.

    Of course it’s true that all men do not have an advantage over all women, or that sexism only harms men or benefits women. I’m referring to the overall picture, though, and I don’t see the point in pretending that everybody is benefited and harmed equally. I guess it’s a useful fiction if you’re trying to persuade men to work against sexism, and fear that they will be defensive and unhelpful if it’s suggested they are not equally “oppressed”.

  37. colagirl

    This always strikes me as a bit like the argument that women have more freedom than men do because we can wear skirts OR pants. It ignores the fact that one of our ‘options’ is rather more heavily promoted than the other

    All I can say is, where I work, the dress code for uniformed personell at least is pants, for both male and female. Among the non-uniformed personell where I worked, and at my last job, the women I saw wearing skirts seemed to be doing so as an expression of their individuality (i.e. one woman was kind of a “Tolkien freak” and really into flowing, fairy-tale type clothing–she also wore a lot of handmade pewter jewelry; another woman enjoyed sewing and would wear outfits that she made at home, including skirts–for added fun, try imagining a man coming into work, being asked where he got that nice pair of slacks, and saying, “Oh, I made these on my sewing machine.”) Most women routinely wore pants, including myself and my own immediate boss. So I don’t know if that analogy works for me….

  38. mythago

    for added fun, try imagining a man coming into work, being asked where he got that nice pair of slacks, and saying, “Oh, I made these on my sewing machine

    Imagine a woman coming in and saying “Hell, I don’t know where these pants came from. My husband bought them for me.”

  39. Cathy Young

    Imagine a woman coming in and saying “Hell, I don’t know where these pants came from. My husband bought them for me.”

    The response would probably be “how nice, he bought you a present.”

    If it was clear that the husband was buying the woman’s clothes on a regular basis, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people suspected that she was in an abusive relationship. In fact, some years ago I attended a workshop on abuse in which one of the presenters mentioned, as one likely symptom of an abusive relationship, the man shopping for his wife’s clothes.

    By the way, I’m a bit confused; are you saying that women are still culturally discouraged from wearing pants?

  40. Lori Heine

    Although I have long considered myself a feminist, I don’t particularly like the word “feminism” in any context. It implies that I must be “for”
    women and “against” men — as if the rights of one sex are somehow automatically at odds with those of the other. The very word itself, in my opinion, is threatening to many men because of this implication.

    Let’s be honest. When a man calls himself a “masculinist” (if he dares do such a thing), what do most people think? They assume he must be a woman-hating jerk. Why choose a name for ourselves that unnecessarily provokes hostility?

    I favor equal rights for every human being — male or female, Black or White, gay or straight. Why don’t we find a new name for women who seek to promote womens’ rights — one that fosters solidarity with men instead of dissent?

    Just don’t ask me what that wondrous new name might be, because I’ve been pondering the question for years and still don’t have a clue.

  41. mythago

    The response would probably be “how nice, he bought you a present.”

    Speaking from experience, it’s more along the lines of a confused “Oh…” And I live in California.

    Really, what I was getting at is not about pants, homemade or otherwise, but the notion that because women have some entry into the better-paid, prestigious ‘man’s world’, that they are not only equal to men, but have more options–with the implication that women are, really, better off than men. It’s true that legally both men and women have equal options, but the culture–and the de facto working world–have a lot of catch-up to do.

    If we’re going back to the clothes example, I’d note that men in my profession can simply pick a plain gray suit and be done with it. Women have more “choices” as far as clothes go (wow, we can wear colors!), but we also have to worry about hem length, pantyhouse, shoes, blouses, and so on in a way that men don’t, and aren’t judged by.

  42. Anonymous

    Mythago, this sounds dangerously close to “oppression through options.” I hope that is not what you meant.

  43. Anonymous

    I was enheartened by your balanced comments on this issue.

    When I was in my mid-30’s, I had reached the ceiling at my job and wanted to expand my horizons; so, I went to law school at night. I was excited about moving from engineering to law; I felt like the sky was the limit.

    New lawyers really need to spend some time with established attorneys as mentors before launching out on their own; and that’s what I tried to do. I was slam-dunked and run off from almost every job I ever got — by the female support staff.

    I had been warned in law school about this; but I hadn’t worried about it because I have always been a fair-minded, cooperative individual, careful not to tread on toes or invade others’ space, and showing deference to everyone. Nevertheless, as the person responsible for the outcome of the cases, I was forced to make decisions, some large but mostly small, about how things were to be done. As I saw it, the job of the support staff was to help me help the client.

    Boy, was I wrong.

    I no longer practice law. I have been effectively been driven out of the profession because women who I thought were supposed to help me pushed me out.

    I have struggled to understand what happened. My wife has suggested that the women resent me because they think I act like I’m supposed to be in charge because I’m the man, when in reality I act like I’m supposed to be in charge because I’m the one responsible for the work being done. It has nothing to do with gender; it’s about who’s accountable to the client and the profession.

    I’ve tried being self-deprecating, even, giving way to everything until an issue comes up that I must deal with authoritatively; and even that doesn’t work. I actually had a paralegal read me the riot act one day because I didn’t defer to her redaction of the grammar I used in one of my letters (and she was wrong). To her, this was evidence that I was too big for my britches.

    I gave up. I now work at a job far below my qualifications. I was making more in engineering almost 20 years ago than I am making now, and that’s in unadjusted dollars. I have read some about the feminization of the American office, and it seems other people have had experiences similar to mine. It seems as if these days, in order to succeed in the office environment, you have to apologize not only for being in charge, but also for being male.

    I also read that our young boys are being punished in elementary school for acting like boys.

    I will be glad when the pendulum swings back toward the center again.

    Thank you for letting me post.

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