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what does feminism have to do with it?

May 8, 2014

One of the things I enjoyed the most about yesterday’s panel hosted by KBOO was Johanna Brenner’s topic of, “What does feminism have to do with it?” Unfortunately, I think a few people misunderstood where she was coming from, and didn’t really understand what feminism is, but I thought it was one of the more important and interesting topics of the evening.

Why is it so important? One of the main reasons, in my opinion, is how easily obscured the existence of patriarchy is. It’s hidden in plain sight, as is its considerable influence, despite the fact that evidence of it is literally everywhere. Most people don’t seem to understand patriarchy, how it works, where it comes from, and why it’s worth struggling against. In Western society and culture, for example, patriarchy can be traced back to the earliest parts of recorded history; and even today, it pervades huge swaths of our culture, religion, politics, and economic relations.

The role of women in public life in ancient Greece and Rome, from where Western society can arguably trace its roots, was practically nonexistent. Their primary roles were as child-bearers and homebodies. Women (at least aristocratic women, i.e., non-slaves and prostitutes) in Greece were hardly even seen in public, and then usually only when accompanying a man. Being single wasn’t acceptable. Education was primarily something men received. Gender roles were strictly defined. Men dominated all spheres of life. In Romes, things were slightly better and less restrictive for women, but not by much.

(As a side note, one of the more radical and impressive aspects of Plato’s Republic was his argument that women should share in the education and tasks of their male counterparts. This includes arguing for female guardians (soldiers) and rulers at a time when women were ‘kept at home’ and mostly restricted from public life, which really surprised me.)

Another point of entry for patriarchy in Western society was Christianity. While some aspects can be seen as radical and egalitarian in nature, there are aspects that, when Christianity was adopted by the roman world, reinforced patriarchy and women’s submissive role in society. A few examples are: “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord” (Eph 5:22); “Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says” (1 Cor 14:34); and “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Tim 2:12).

Fast forward through centuries of male dominated society and you have the birth of America, in which initially only white, male property owners could vote, with women only winning the right vote in 1920, 50 years after blacks and 144 years after the country’s founding. And if you think winning the right to vote was the end of gender discrimination, you’re sorely mistaken. Women are still battling against rigid gender roles, prejudices, and hierarchies that we’ve been conditioned over time to subconsciously (and even consciously) adopt and maintain.

These material and ideological pressures, albeit weakened, continue to exert their influence on our society and its structure, informing our perceptions of the world and our conceptions of gender norms. Women are still widely seen as and/or expected to be child-bearers and homebodies, providing the free/uncompensated labour of literally reproducing the labour force and supporting the reproduction of labour power via nurturing husbands and children emotionally and materially (e.g., cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.). They’re still expected to provide a certain kind of emotional labour, even in the workforce. They still make up the majority of ‘nurturing’ professions like nursing and teaching. They still tend to make less than their male counterparts (roughly $.80 to the dollar according to one study). They’re often seen and portrayed as ‘bitchy,’ ‘cold,’ etc. if they’re assertive and not nurturing/emotionally receptive and giving. The list goes on.

But this doesn’t just affect women, it affects all of us. Due to the gender roles imposed upon men and women within our society, neither are free to fully be and express themselves (to say nothing of those who fall outside of this historically accepted gender binary). Men, for example, aren’t given as much space as women to be ‘caring,’ ‘nurturing,’ etc., it not being ‘manly’ to show too much affection or emotion. And an argument can be made that the prevalence of male privilege embedded in our predominately patriarchal society and the negative aspects of socially-constructed, male gender norms (what some call ‘toxic masculinity’) are at least partially responsible for the prevalence of male violence, particularly gun violence.

In addition, a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science found that “both men and women see images of sexy women’s bodies as objects, while they see sexy-looking men as people,” which I think demonstrates that such a gender bias exists in the perception of both men and women; and the study’s conclusion further reinforces my belief that sexism and the objectification of women is a broader symptom of a society that’s practiced patriarchy for centuries, as well as corroborating evidence that patriarchal ideology has become so ingrained into our collective psyche that even women are conditioned to objectify women in the same way as men.

Feminism, then, isn’t about declaring men to be wholly bad or inferior, nor women to be wholly good or superior. It’s about confronting the reality that patriarchy exists and permeates our culture and society and challenging that reality in order to create a more free and egalitarian world. I was once ignorant of what feminism was and why it’s such an important movement, but not anymore, and I’m proud to call myself a feminist.

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