One of my modules this year is Jurisprudence and one of its topics is Feminism. As a woman myself, this topic of course attracted my attention. It is not too long ago in history that women have little to no rights compared to men. We have come a long way since the days where all women are seen as property or a subset of men.
Although ‘equality’ in its current form does not reach everyone in the world (for example the Middle East), a large part of the world has, at least on the surface, bowed to social pressure and given ‘equal’ rights to women.
Until now, there are many who says that feminism is no longer necessary – women’s rights are already as strong as, if not stronger than, men’s rights. These people sees feminism as bringing a danger of causing inequality to swing the other way, being unequal to men for once. Among the examples they brought forth to prove this point is that during divorce, it is the general rule that the wife will receive alimony and maintenance for the children while the husband gets nothing even if he takes care of the children after the divorce.
They feel this is unfair to men and there are now groups that is fighting for men’s rights. It is the view of these people that feminism has done its job and it is time for it to leave the world’s stage. Any further requests by feminists is unfair to men and will drive inequality between sexes wider – adversely for men.
Yet is this true? What are the aims of feminism? Are they merely to get rights for women? It is my opinion that getting rights, formal rights, are not the only aims of feminism. As Bell Hooks said, “Feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression.” Has these aims been reached? Arguably not. Not yet anyways.
Any student of feminism will tell you that yes, the early history of feminism is occupied with getting formal rights for women. This is because the fastest way to change society’s attitude and morality is through the enactment of legislation. The proof can be seen through the effects on society after UK and US enacted anti racial discrimination laws and decriminalization of homosexuality.
Although the enactment of laws can never change the minds of diehard extremists, it can help to sway those who are neutral or not overly invested. It also extends formal protection to those who are oppressed before the enactment of those laws. As such, before even thinking of changing society’s attitude, feminists have to get formal equality. It is a form of state protection and approval, which is a great help when trying to get further concessions from society itself.
But clearly equality between sexes cannot only rely on state’s legislation. While state interference is a good thing at the beginning, if a misogynist wins in the election (a current risk in the US), then there is a very real potential risk of him overturning or at the very least refusing further protection given to women. Therefore, it is important that feminists use the edge given to them by the legislation to further educate and influence society. Only when society itself accepts that equality is a good thing will women’s rights be safe from state interference.
The Suffragists asked for the right to vote and was called peevish. The Editorial of the Academy in the June of 1908 implied that the Suffragists’ discontent with society lies in their small prospects of marriage and that an unmarried woman’s life in incomplete and ‘pitiful’. It states that ‘politics, like prize-fighting, is a man’s job’. This, of course, sounds ridiculous in the modern era: Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, Hilary Clinton, Sonia Gandhi to name a few. Yet that is the attitude of society towards women at that point of time – women are only supposed to stay at home and take care of the children.
It is only during the first world war that women, specifically white women, for the first time, turned out to work in masses. It is at this point when the inequality reared its ugly head and blatantly charged into public viewpoint. Lower wages, loss of promotion, limitations of jobs, insecurity of jobs. All these becomes the reason that women are forced to fight for their rights more. While voting rights are something abstract and something that most women may not care about, no one wants to work the same amount as another and yet receive lesser pay. No one wants to be ignored when promotions came. Yet those are what happened to working women when they started working in the early 1900s.
While these have been largely resolved in this current era, gender equality is still something that is far from being achieved. Society’s impression of women is too deeply embedded into our subconscious and the existence of the ‘glass ceiling’ in the workplace is the best proof of this.
While formal equality is by now a fact, society’s impression of women being the weaker sex is still prevalent. For example, when people speak of a boy or man being ‘girly’, it is often with contempt. When a woman becomes the boss or a superior, she is often said to be a witch, more so if she is unmarried. Of course, this is not only by the men, but also by quite a number of women. But why? People admires successful people, but successful men are not asked whether they have ignored their family. They are also not presumed to be difficult to please. They are considered to be complete. Why is it that society continues to question the completeness of a woman while celebrating her success in the workplace?
From this it can be seen that for feminism to completely eradicate sexism is a very difficult task. Not only do feminists have to fight against prejudices against themselves (eg. ‘Feminazis’) but also have to fight against those they are fighting for.
Attitude of a society does not only comes from men, but also women. As long as society see feminine characteristics as shameful or something undesirable, women will continue to receive unequal treatment. We have been trying to reach the standards of men for so long that we have forgotten to ask: why not standards of women? Is there something shameful about being feminine? The answer is NO. Yet society continues to avoid feminine characteristics as being a desirable part of humanity.
I myself had been guilty of the same misconception. When I was younger I used to dislike wearing skirts because it is, here’s the word, girly. I am a girl and I have this thought. How then can we expect men to respect feminine characteristics when we ourselves dislike them?
In the modern era, formal equality is almost complete. Changing social attitude towards women and feminine characteristics are more important than ever. Gender equality will only become a reality when people are able to give equal respect and concern for both sexes. This, in my opinion, includes the characteristics of both sexes.
“Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of sexes. -Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie