By Amber Pramann, WLMP Peer Mentor
I would consider myself a staunch feminist. That said, I often find myself shying away from the F word. I am not ashamed or fearful of what others think. Rather, I often find that the F word shuts other people down before they get deep into conversation. For example, some friends are quick to say that feminism is outdated and little more than a buzzword or an excuse for certain types of behavior. Even worse, 22 percent of respondents to a 2009 CBS poll felt “feminism” was an insult (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 19). What matters most is not the word we use but rather the awakening of the public to the sexism that is still prevalent in American culture today.
It is true that in the past few decades many strides have been made towards women’s rights and equality. This is clear in Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richard’s article “A Day Without Feminism” where the authors discuss the many advances that have been made for women since the 1970s. In particular, girls can now take physics and math and get into previously men’s only institutions like Columbia or Harvard. No longer are women relegated to the shadow of traditionally female roles like secretary, elementary school teacher, or childcare provider. Also, birth control and abortions are widely available and affordable.
Some might say, “We’ve made it. Equality has been reached”—a decidedly postfeminist view; however, this is not how I see the world. For example, Baumgardner and Richard note several places where problematic practices still exist. Specifically, women still cannot be priests in the Catholic church, girls can still lose membership in the National Honor Society if they “get [themselves] pregnant,” and in custody battles dads get the children 60 to 80 percent of the time (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 35-36). From my own experience I have seen the difficulties faced by women in the male-dominated STEM fields and corporate world. Candidates may have all the talent in the world, but in the end some companies’ higher ranks function as an old boy’s club. Their board is supposedly “diverse” with two elderly white males for every exception to the rule.
Feminism is not just about legal equality. In bell hook’s article “Feminist Politics: Where We Stand,” she comments that the main issue facing feminism is that “people do not understand sexism, or if they do, they think it is not a problem” (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 37). From here she discusses the challenges that feminism has faced overtime, namely the white supremacist, capitalist, and patriarchal power structures which threaten the potential for true sisterhood and which muddy feminism’s message. As bell hooks said, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression” (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 37). In a society rampant with all three of these behaviors, it is foolhardy to assume feminism has met its goal or is unnecessary.
Sexism (and racism) in the American higher education system is apparent to Adrienne Rich in her talk “Claiming an Education.” In her talk, Rich challenges women to actively claim their educations and to take “responsibility towards your selves,” noting that the weakness of higher education is the apparent exclusion of females and minority groups (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 28). To combat this, Rich moves that women respect their brain and instincts, demand respect from others, refuse to sell themselves short, and have the courage to stand out. With regard to education, she states women should expect to be taken seriously. Women should seek to think actively and engage with their professors such that “women’s minds will no longer by wasted, raveled-away, paralyzed, or denied” (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 30).
Focusing in on the issue of sexist exploitation, I would like to direct focus to the “No More Miss America” manifesto by the New York Radical Women. In this 1968 manifesto, the Miss America Pageant is examined with a critical eye. The New York Radical Women hold that pageant contestants are like livestock at a county fair “where the nervous animals are judged for teeth, fleece, etc., and where the best ‘Specimen’ gets the blue ribbon” (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 33). In a “win-or-you’re worthless” disaster, there is “only one winner to be ‘used’ and forty-nine losers who are ‘useless’” (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 33). These women, according to the New York Radical Women, are used to flaunt pageant sponsors and represent the “unstained patriotic American womanhood our boys are fighting for” when the Miss America winner tours the troops (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 33).
By and large, I agree with the New York Radical Women. It is not just the pageants that favor a particular female archetype but the media in general. Most of the stars of today could easily fit into the category of “sexy and wholesome, delicate but able to cope, [and] demure yet titillatingly bitchy” that the New York Radical Women described (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 33). When women do not match that mold, they often get discarded as trashy or boring. Much like Miss America, the mass media also loves to cash in on the “win-or-you’re-worthless” mentality by constantly pitting starlets and musicians against each other. The media often acts as though there can only be a one successful female artist at a time and loves to turn any hint of drama into a feud (e.g., Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj).
Examples of oppression are everywhere in our culture. Anna Quidlen makes this clear in her article “Still Needing the F Word.” From women at Duke who are pressured to exhibit “effortless perfection” and eschew displays of intelligence to fit in with their male colleagues to faculty women in the sciences at Princeton who reported lower job satisfaction and less of a sense of belonging compared to their male comrades, it is clear true equality is yet to be grasped. As Quidlen puts it, “Women have won the right to do just as much as men do. They just haven’t won the right to do as little as men do” (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 46). I have seen this in my own life where female STEM students often push themselves to do more through exams and extracurricular activities so they can be as respected as their male compatriots.
In her article, bell hooks commented that “feminist politics is losing momentum because feminist movement has lost clear definitions” (Shaw & Lee, 2015, p. 39). While the dearth of a clear definition is a stumbling block for third wave feminism, I do believe that so far 2015 has been a big year for awareness. Does awareness alone fix anything? Sadly, no. Awareness itself only makes us painfully conscious of the sexist culture we live in; however, awareness paired with action helps keep the conversation going. As feminists inspire more women (and men) to think actively about these issues and the sexism behind them, there is hope for change.
Shaw, S. & Lee, J. (2015). Women’s voices, feminist visions: Classic and contemporary readings. New York: McGraw Hill.