If we accept Wikipedia’s definition:
Feminism refers to political, cultural, and economic movements aimed at establishing greater rights and legal protections for women. Feminism includes some of the sociological theories and philosophies concerned with issues of gender difference. It is also a movement that campaigns for women’s rights and interests. Nancy Cott defines feminism as the belief in the importance of gender equality, invalidating the idea of gender hierarchy as a socially constructed concept.
Over several centuries, feminism has evolved and adapted to suit cultural and social changes. Writers, poets, singers, artists, politicians and businessmen have tried their hand at redefining and reshaping its course. Many have been successful – there are now several threads of feminist thinking.
Where we once burned bras, women are now more content with a more subtle display of power. Many women choose to ignore chauvinism and misogyny as their act of defiance against their male-driven worlds.
The sounds of protests and riots has been replaced with the echo of glass ceiling shattering. Arguments which used to lead to brawls and fights now pave the way for new legislation and socio-political change.
There are those who believe, simply, that men and women are polar opposites and as such, should not have to compete with each other for control or prominence – Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus by John Gray follows such thinking. We should embrace our differences and stop trying to outdo one another because we are simply built differently, Gray would argue.
So what is feminism today? What is its relevance, if any, to men and women?
There is a fantastic clip from Season 3 of ‘The West Wing’ where White House Counsel Ainsley Hayes suggests that the idea of feminism need not be a confrontational one; it is rather, a very personal and private matter.
Working women have a myriad different ways of approaching feminism and chauvinism – sometimes, this behaviour manifests in a style of dress. Other times, it’s the way in which women interact and work which shows their colleagues how they view their place in the social heirarchy of the office.
The point Ainsley makes about camaraderie in the office is so true – many women appreciate flirtatious remarks about their appearance from male coworkers because it’s a sign that these men are comfortable enough around them to joke around and make comments without being made to feel like they’re being rude.
Certainly, there’s a line which can be crossed and Ainsley refers to it. There certainly is a point when compliments on a woman’s appearance become rude or demeaning. But by highlighting that statements such as Sam’s are rude, unnecessary attention is drawn to the issue when there was no intention of being offensive.
Just as there is a point at which a man’s remarks on a female coworker’s appearance becomes harrassing, there’s a point where a woman’s sensitivity to such remarks becomes an over-reaction.
By letting some flirtatious talk slip by the wayside, a woman acknowledges that her appearance has caught others’ attention; but more importantly, she shows that it’s taken in the right spirit and that she accepts it. That way, when a truly offensive remark is made, her reaction to it isn’t seen as that of an overly sensitive feminist but rather that of a realistic and sensible woman who can make the distinction between harmless banter and sexual harassment.
Back to the issue of feminism; here’s another clip of Ainsley Hayes from ‘The West Wing’. Here, the Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution is being discussed. It’s an amendment which gives women and men equal rights under the law.
Ainsley’s opinion on this once again echoes that of many feminists. More and more, the feminists today refer to themselves as ‘equalists’ – women who have always seen men and women as being equal in the workplace and socially. For them, the very idea of feminism conflicts with their fundamental belief that we are all born equal.
I was reminded of this fine little piece of television writing when I recently witnessed a YouTube catfight over Feminism. What started as a discussion over pay equity quickly degenerated into how women present themselves physically, and whether women should “cover up” if they want respect.
In the end it all boils down to choice.
Some women like to present themselves in traditional female dress. Sugar and spice and all things nice. Frills and makeup and perfume. That is their choice.
Some women prefer to blend in with their male colleagues. Wear a shirt and tie. Loose fitting slacks and flat shoes. That is their choice.
It should not alter the way others treat them. Maybe that’s idealism?
Will you be taken seriously if you wear a low cut top? Many women find that if they dress in a way that reveals cleavage others are distracted. Some choose not to do it. Others embrace the distraction as a tactic.
I don’t think one is right and one is wrong. There is no dress code for Feminism. What you wear is irrelevant. It’s about respecting the choices of others, even if it is not what you would do.
And it’s about having a system where if you are offended by the sexual remarks of a colleague, you have avenues through which to resolve your complaint.
Some interesting comments were made about Morgan’s piece – namely from Journeywoman on 4 August 2009:
Disregarding Ainsley Hayes… I feel that although it shouldn’t matter what a woman wears, in reality it still does. In the gender studies classroom we can rant on about how ‘it’s 2009, we can wear whatever we like without people judging us!’ and that’s great in theory, but it just doesn’t work in practice. Visual cues are the strongest cause of prejudice and stereotyping…. and if you wear a low-cut top, you will not be respected for your intellect or opinions because ultimately, all the men are seeing is boobs. Educated women wouldn’t care so much, other women might be threatened or, as you say, see it as a cheap tactic.
One day, it won’t be idealistic to say that we can wear what we like, regardless of how revealing or sexy it is… but in 2009, yep, it’s still idealism. Social change is a very, very gradual process, and this change has not happened yet.
Michaelie also writes, on 6 August:
Journeywoman – that was the first thing I noticed, very interesting in terms of the discussion.
Morgan – nice post, I believe in the ‘ideal’, though it blossoms into reality much less than I would LIKE to expect. Maybe we’ll get there one day, in the mean time, we just keep on making our choices within the current social framework – at least we can do that.
Morgan responded to these posts on 6 August:
Hi Journeywoman, I do suffer from a bit of idealism when I theorise about Feminism, however in practice when I worked as an engineer in road construction I personally felt it was more appropriate for me to blend . . . I was usually the only female in the room so I actively tried to wear unisex (androgynous/genderless etc) clothing . . . in that kind of role it was a practical thing too for sun protection and OH&S
Hi Michaelie, I think it’s a shame some industries are still considered boys-clubs, but I can see women are making progress in many areas . . . slowly but surely . . . I would like to see an even playing field achieved in my lifetime.
Highlighting the differences between the genders only serves to alienate them from each other. To equalists, the only real traits that separate and make one person superior to another are skill and capability. One person may be suited to a task better than another; but this doesn’t necessarily follow that a woman is better suited than a man, or vice versa.
Of course, as the terms ‘feminism’, ‘chauvinism’ and ‘gender inequality’ change and adapt – over time and in different cultures – there are many different ways of perceiving the differences between men and women. Starting from the obvious difference – biology, it’s clear that there are distinctions to be made. Some would follow on from that saying that men’s brains operate in a different way to women’s. This leads still others to believe that there are some tasks which suit a man more readily than a woman.
Such points are made redundant, of course, by the simple argument that exposure and training in certain skills will always make one person better at it than another. A man may not know how to change a tyre but could be an accomplished pastry chef; his wife could be the best mechanic in the neighbourhood and not be able to cook pasta.