Share, Listen, Think

Feminism – Part Three

In Life in Society on August 7, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Photo Courtesy Teen Missions International

By Bekah McNeel

Feminism is still the F-word because it threatens our sense of worth.

Before she gave his hunting trophies the premier position in our living room, my mother would say, “Your poor father has lived in a pink and floral house his whole adult life.” She was correct. My mother was an interior decorator of the 80’s and 90’s and got really into mauve, Laura Ashley®, and Waverly. My dad didn’t decorate anything. He was a football player, turned boxer, turned tile-importer. He’s color-blind too, so mauve wasn’t exactly a concern to him.

Meanwhile, we were becoming teenagers with a love of movie posters. After a year of looking at my “collage” of handsome men, my mom’s solution was to customize our bedrooms so that the only place to hang an obnoxious oversized George Clooney was in the closet. Regardless of the level of permanence, no one made an aesthetic decision in our home without consulting the mom. She once made the tile setter redo the tile three times because he got the design wrong.

The house was my mother’s domain exclusively. Not that she was a fainting violet. She did her own fair share of the “hard hat” work, serving as general contractor for our rustic reconstruction of a demolished 19th century Texas Hill Country home. She did a lot of the labor herself. This was the point at which she decided to display my dad’s hunting trophies. And then she began making statements like, “You know what would really look great in here? A ram.” So my dad went to Colorado and shot a ram. He’s an ethical hunter, which meant that we ate ram that year…all winter. The next year we ate black buck antelope. And so forth until the wall was full of memorials to dinners gone by. That was my parents’ most collaborative decorating effort.

So imagine my surprise when, upon marrying an architect with a reputation as an ascetic, I found that even a simple trip to IKEA was an event worthy of its own C-SPAN channel. I knew from the look on his face when I pulled out my box of picture frames and colorful world-textiles that decorating the house was not going to be left to my discretion. In our house, instead of Laura Ashley® and mauve, it’s stainless steel and white. The nacho-cheese-colored cabinets and the winterfresh-chewing-gum blue wall in the bathroom are my hunting trophies.

[Before anyone pities me, let me run that by again: nacho-cheese and winterfresh-chewing-gum. Yes, left up to me our home would look like Frida Khalo’s house. I’m not the designer; he is. I don’t read the directions; he does. I don’t straighten up before we have guests; he does.]

It took me a while to embrace this, because all my life aesthetics and home were within the woman’s domain. Men were the more pragmatic, proud, tough sex. Women made things beautiful. When my husband put together a home worthy of a newspaper write-up, a little part of me questioned my femininity. If this desert-wandering, cargo-shorts-wearing, unshaven, creature could put together a dining room, what was I going to do?

My anxiety reflected a very complex worldview that is more common than it is rare. That there are certain things that make women “feminine” and things that make men “manly.” And without those things, we would have nothing to give each other. If I lack feminine charms, then I’ll have men as colleagues, friends, and brothers…but never as a romantic partner. In short, it’s my sexually-defined uniqueness that makes me attractive. And I believe that we are terrified to lose it.

For many people feminism is still the “f-word” because “it makes women act like men.” And I think a lot of would-be feminists shrink from the label because they’re afraid of being labeled “bitchy” or “butch.” They don’t want to be undesirable, because that would decrease their worth in a world where we are all competing to justify our existence.

Many women have bought the lie that their worth lies in how much men desire them. Not just for their physical appearance, though that is most obvious in places like Hollywood, but also for the distinct feminine qualities that they will bring to a man’s life.

But what does that even mean? Is it acting like a man to get a paycheck, enjoy exercise (not just to keep a slim waist!), and stand up to bullies? What does that mean for being a woman, I wonder? We’re supposed to work for free, diet ourselves to death, and cry to get our way? And what about asking men to help around the house? Is it asking a man to act like a woman to do the dishes? To talk to his children? To be a warm and welcoming host?

Inherent to the argument are that women are to be passive and preoccupied with beauty while men are to be aggressive and preoccupied with function. So what to do with the masculine beauty of my living room? Or the seven-page spreadsheet prepared by one of our female friends as evidence in a court case? We have plenty of evidence around us to prove that the world is not gender-specific. Katherine Hepburn became a women’s fashion icon in men’s trousers. Jon Bon Jovi became a male heartthrob with long, flowing blonde hair.

Femininity is more than lipstick and giggling. Masculinity is more than red meat and grunting.  They are qualities from within the man or the woman themselves; they are instincts, ideas, and inclinations as well as a set of biological necessities. Outside the biologically obvious, we could argue all day about what exactly defines femininity and masculinity. Is it feminine to be collaborative and masculine to be hierarchical? Maybe. But more importantly, do both men and women have the ability to work collaboratively or function in a hierarchy? I think they do.

That’s not to say that some women (and men) don’t try to purposely defy their sex. But trying to transgress my own womanhood is different than trying to transgress its limits. It is a very different thing to say, “I want to be a man,” than to say, “I want to build race cars.” Can a woman build race cars as a woman? Is there something inherently unfeminine about machines?

For years I’ve relished men and women who defy gender roles in ways that do not compromise their sexuality. My hairdresser is a handsome, well-dressed, floppy-haired guy with a wife and two kids. He hunts and kayaks too. Katherine Hepburn in her famous men’s trousers is one of my heroes, but not nearly as much as Ruby Bridges, the African-American little girl who stood up to the bullies of segregated New Orleans to attend an all-white elementary school. That’s bravery. That’s politics and confrontation. What’s more, is that Ruby Bridges did it with grace and poise. She went into battle her way, and her example is all the more poignant because against the screaming crowds, in front of the dominating stone building stands a little girl, in a little school dress with all the power to inspire generations. Ruby Bridges redefines power by contrasting the big bold action with the humble, delicate actor.

In the words of Charles Wright, “It’s not how you look when you’re doin’ what you’re doin’. It’s what you’re doin’ when you’re doin’ what you look like you’re doin’.”

There are lots of examples from the world of politics, arts, and culture of individual men and women refusing to acknowledge the false boundaries of what their gender “can” and “cannot” do. But perhaps the main way I see this difference played out is in the workplace. While we are getting past the stigma that once made made high-earning women undateable (http://ideas.time.com/2012/03/15/why-men-are-attracted-to-high-earning-women/), we have a long way to go in considering that being not just a woman or a man in the workplace, but a person is a battle for one’s identity. I think feminism goes off the rails when it touts that getting into the workplace will solve a woman’s problems. Even that getting to the “head of the table” will solve her problems.  Even for the traditional “liberated” woman who has made peace with living in “a man’s world” and even succeeded beyond what our mothers thought possible another snare looms, threatening her worth. This is the same snare that men are beginning to question as well: does my financial contribution/compensation tell me what I’m worth?

For decades in the United States, women have faced the false dilemma of being a mother or a worker. Women have been made to feel that they are somehow deficient in one arena if they pursue the other with any seriousness. However, in other countries men and women are expected to play roles as mother and father as well as workers. When Save the Children recently put out it’s State of the World’s Mothers report (http://www.savethechildren.org/site/c.8rKLIXMGIpI4E/b.8047221/k.71F5/Chronic_Malnutrition_and_Child_Survival__Index.htm?msource=weolpstw0512), the U.S. ranked embarrassingly low on the roster of places that made it possible to work as a mother. For a nation with the world’s largest economy to rank 25th on places where it is good to be a mother is a disparity worth noting. Have we drawn the dichotomy between mothers and workers because it’s what’s best for the kids? I don’t know. Is it best for the kids to have fathers who do not know how to interact with them because they are at work before the child wakes and home after they are asleep? I’m not making a statement about what’s best for kids. I’m just questioning who is getting to decide. It’s a hard sell to say that our commitment to family leads us to make the workplace difficult for mothers. I think it’s our commitment to Profit. And Profit is a King whose demands know no limits. We tend to treat the workplace like it is a predetermined set of standards, practices, and norms. Like we have no control over the market and what it demands of us.  We do what we have to do to make more money, and biology, family, and personhood will have to accommodate.

Feminism is still the “F-word” because it is an enemy to the bottom line. In 1969 when Carol Hanisch wrote, “The Personal is Political” (http://www.carolhanisch.org/” http://www.carolhanisch.org/ CHwritings/PIP.html), I think the market let out a huge groan. They knew that this was going to muck up the works. After all, people are messy, and if they brought that mess with them to work then “work” was going to change. It was going to have to slow down and take some things into consideration. Humanity is bad for the bottom line…or at least we’ve been trained to think so. But in a changing world, people (men and women alike!) are starting to realize the high value of a balanced life, which is really part of the feminist argument.

When Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook addressed Harvard Business School before this years commencement, she said this,

“We need to start talking openly about the flexibility all of us need to have both a job and a life.  A couple of weeks ago in an interview I said that I leave the office at 5:30 p.m. to have dinner with my children.  I was shocked at the press coverage.  One of my friends said I couldn’t get more headlines if I had murdered someone with an ax.  This showed me this is an unresolved issue for all of us, men and women alike.  Otherwise, everyone would not write so much about it.” (http://poetsandquants.com/2012/05/24/sheryl-sandbergs-class-day-speech-at-harvard-business-school/)

In other parts of the world, countries have made steps to encourage personhood in the workplace.  Paternity leave makes maternity leave look less like a luxury and more like a basic necessity. Women are encouraged to nurture and breastfeed their children, and workplaces make that possible. Because women are part of their workforce. Think about it: if an office building goes to all the trouble of putting urinals on the wall in one set of bathrooms, doesn’t it make sense that they would accommodate women’s biological needs as well. Working doesn’t mean that a woman is trying to be a man. She can work as a woman, if the culture will let her, rather than penalize her for it with lower wages and inflexibility to accommodate her biological role as a mammalian mother. Maybe the classic picture of the disengaged dad wouldn’t be so sadly common if paternity leave were more available and men assumed that their role in their children’s lives was as vital to their manliness as their paycheck.

The brittle social fabric of an overly gendered world has benefited no one. Talent has been wasted, children have been ignored, marriages have suffered. If we had a more supple fabric, one that could twist and stretch to accommodate the various changes in a human’s life –maturity, education, family– we might be better equipped to lead the world, not with force and coercion but with innovation, prosperity and equity.

So, who shapes the workplace? Who decides the length of a workday, the number of vacation days, the length of medical leave and company insurance plans? We have the ability to change these things, but it will not be without a fight.

Here’s a quote from another “go get ‘em” speech delivered at the Barnard College commencement ceremony by President Obama:

“Those who oppose change, those who benefit from an unjust status quo, have always bet on the public’s cynicism or the public’s complacency. Throughout American history, though, they have lost that bet, and I believe they will this time as well.  But ultimately, Class of 2012, that will depend on you. Don’t wait for the person next to you to be the first to speak up for what’s right. Because maybe, just maybe, they’re waiting on you.” (http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2012/05/14/transcript-of-obamas-barnard-college-commencement-address/)

Part Two

Part One

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