Something my wonderful prof Letitia said this week in class struck me. She asked whether something (OK, I admit, I can’t remember exactly what she was referring to) was a failure of feminism. And I wrote down in my class notes, Has Feminism Failed?
I had a flashback: A couple of months ago in another class, I was doing a presentation and we asked the class how many there would call themselves a feminist. Know how many raised their hands? 4. Including me, and including the professor. The other two students were white women. So we talked about it, why the ones who raised their hands did consider themselves feminist, why the ones who didn’t, didn’t. One girl who did said that it was how she was raised, and that she could see in the world around her that women are still oppressed. I said I was committed to raising women’s status in society and that feminism has provided me with a framework and a vocabulary to defend women’s rights and poke holes in patriarchy.
One woman who didn’t raise her hand said that she didn’t feel, as a woman of colour, that feminism represents her experience, but that she was pro-woman, and in particular, pro-black-woman. Another black woman said she felt better represented as a woman of colour by the “womanist” movement. One (white) woman said she felt that feminism was over, because women had achieved political and formal equality. (This was in a gender and women’s studies class, where we had been studying all the ways in which women all over the world were still subjected to gendered stereotypes that restricted their freedom in various ways!!!!!!!!!) One (white) woman said that she felt like “feminism” was too extreme, that it is too “radical” for her tastes, and she thought feminists spent too much time “man-bashing.” Another white woman said that she associated feminism with lesbianism, and she didn’t want to present herself as a lesbian because she’s straight. (SERIOUSLY!) None of the men in the class even bothered to contribute to the discussion, like feminism is only for the ladies.
I was shocked that, in an upper year gender and women’s studies class, so many misconceptions still pervaded a discussion about feminism. I was disappointed that so few people in a class of more than 30 would consider themselves feminists. I was especially disappointed to hear that so many women of colour felt unrepresented by feminism (not just the two I mentioned, another 4 or 5 also agreed). I was surpised and saddened at the western-centric view of gender equality as formal equality – and especially at the idea that feminism’s job was done!
So, in a world where gender equality is formalized, on the books, in the statutes and in the rules, why has the situation of women on the ground not improved to the point of equality/equity?
Why are reproductive rights still in jeopardy? Why are women still the majority of the world’s poor? Why are women still making unequal pay for equal work? Why are women still largely responsible for unpaid domestic work in their own homes? Why are women still in the majority of underpaid and unskilled jobs? Why does birth control and pregnancy avoidance still rest largely on women’s shoulders? Why are women the number one growth demographic for HIV/AIDS? Why are women still being raped? Why are women still being beaten in their homes? Why is violence so gendered? Why are women still objectified as the recepticles/vehicles of male sexual pleasure? Why are lesbians discriminated against? Why are women starving themselves to be “beautiful”? Why are women so under-represented in business, in science and math careers, in politics, in high-level academic positions? Why are women’s bodies so medicalized? Why are women’s bodies considered public property?
Why are women still so oppressed, after more than 100 years of feminism, and after more than 30 years of second-wave and third-wave feminism?
Has feminism become too academic? Has misogyny become more insidious, squirmier, harder to pin down? Has feminism not changed enough to accomodate its critiques, particularly by women of colour? Is feminism too fractured, too unfocussed – do we need a new definition, a set of common claims about feminism? Has feminism been too radical? Not radical enough?
These are questions I have. I have no answers. I put it out to you, dear readers, for some brainstorming. How can we move forward and actually achieve the aims of feminism – if we can even agree what those are?
*Note: I hesitate to make this a thread only open to certain kinds of commenters, but at the same time, I don’t want this to devolve into a feminism-bashing party. Constructive comments only, no MRAs please.