Questioning Feminism

Posted on October 17, 2011


The first time I heard the words “Gender and Women’s Studies” I was browsing the course catalog freshman year of college. Within the psychology department there was this ‘Gender and Women’s Studies’ (or GWS) course, as well as a GWS major. I cringed.  Women going to college to learn about gender disparities had to study them within a major whose title was so paradoxically sexist. I looked for the complementary course, “Gender and Males’ Studies”. There wasn’t one. It seemed that in my college only women were interested in teaching and learning about gender. Surprise surprise. But so then, why not call it simply “Gender Studies”?

Well, why call feminism feminism? Why not de-genderism? Equalism? Human-dignity-recognitionism? Because political feminism hasn’t really been about these things. Feminist theories that have a political dimension (not all of them do) have trumpeted women’s empowerment, women’s participation in the public sphere, women’s rights. It’s been about elevating women to the perceived higher stature of men, not about blurring difference or bridging the gender divide.

Since the male gender was mostly the one responsible for the construction of our modern society, it created a patriarchal system where masculinity = universality. Male roles were  given more value because they were seen as universal, and when women demanded recognition and participation, women’s rights emerged as a sub-category of larger, global (yet fundamentally male) rights. Political feminism erred because it never challenged the notion that male values and roles are the norm. As long as women could vote, work outside the household and earn wages (as disparate as those may be) political women were ok with the concept of “mankind” and they saw themselves represented in the phrase “all men are created equal.” In fact, some American feminists even used the US Declaration of Independence as a basis for demanding equality. In short, political feminism, has succeeded in opening up a path for women into the public sphere, but it has acquiesced to the fact that this sphere will remain male.

Furthermore, when feminists advocate “women’s rights” they emphasize our particularity when they should be trying to erase it. We don’t need special rights. The rights that are owed to us should be given on the basis of our humanity, not because of our gender. We deserve to be free of objectification and oppression, of violence and harassment, of condescension and minimization but we should have all those rights simply because we’re people and we deserve dignified treatment like everyone else, not because we’re women.

And men deserve that too. They also lack rights given on the basis of their humanity.  The rights they have are rights that are attached to their gender and a very particular notion of masculinity, to which not all men ascribe to. Yes, comparatively men have more power, but as individuals are they really free to be what they want to be? This sounds nuts, I know, I’m talking about giving men more rights than the ones they already have, how dare I? What with rape and FGM and verbal and physical abuse. But I think that by freeing both sexes from the constrictions of gender that society imposed on them, most of these problems would be solved to an extent.

I will relent my criticism of the feminist movement here to admit that the one of the most important culprits behind the hardening of gender constrictions is actually capitalism. Capitalism is responsible for our equating wage earning with intrinsic value. And since housework doesn’t pay unless you’re doing it for someone else, and it pays much less than the work you do in an office, society has come to view it as demeaning. Therefore, traditionally feminine tasks are viewed with derision because they’re unfit for the so called “superior sex” and because they have no wages attached to them. However, given the option of staying home and taking care of the household– if the household were an area of equal value to the office– how many men wouldn’t prefer it? To what extent  is the male rejection of feminine tasks psychological as opposed to simply a matter of economics? I know my dad and some of my uncles would agree with me here. At the time my mother was about my age, women got married and became mothers and housewives. Men went out and got paid jobs to sustain the family. My mom always complained that her lack of a salary made her entirely dependent on my dad; she wasn’t free. My dad complained that he had the burden of a family to sustain and became a slave to his job; he wasn’t free either. My mother complained that she never got an education; she was ignorant and unemployable. My dad complained that  his family saw him as a cash machine; he felt isolated and used.

But even though both men and women feel trapped by this situation, it has only been women who have tried to free themselves from the constraints of their traditional gender role. Men haven’t budged because they have internalized the fact that having a job is much better than being at home; it’s the manly thing to do. That’s why there’s a demand for equal opportunity employment but not for equal opportunity parenting. See rights are implied, they don’t become explicit until someone realizes they don’t have them. And another reason males haven’t come to the realization they’re being deprived of a fundamental part of their identity, has to do with the fact that instead of opening up the private sphere of the household to men and lobbying companies for dual parental leave (like in Sweden), in most countries the femenine private sphere is  becoming increasingly public. Now that the home is no longer a place for empowered women, the cleaning lady takes care of it. The working woman doesn’t have time to pick up her kids from school, there are school buses that do that. The baby needs feeding, the nanny or the day care center are there. Where are the men? The gender divide isn’t disappearing, it’s only becoming distorted. Women can now work in the public sphere but it remains a masculine domain, and meanwhile the feminine sphere is employing third persons (still mostly females) to take care of the job mothers used to do.

So I see the gender issue as being a value problem rather than an access problem. Women of my generation have more options available, but the work our mothers used to do  is still considered sub-par, and not just by men, but by us too. We’re eager to enter the work force, to prove ourselves and to take advantage of the opportunities created by women who fought hard for equality. But equality shouldn’t only be about showing men that we’re competent and can do what they do, it should also be about giving value to feminine tasks and having men accept that these are important and equally viable options for them. In short, I dislike feminism because it hasn’t done much too blur the line that divides genders or to create options for individuals of both sexes; it has changed the  power distribution to a certain extent but it has failed to change social structures. And in my opinion, we need male participation in the equality movement to make this a reality. We need cooperation to push state intervention in work practices and labor legislation, we can’t change mentalities one-sidedly. We need more men to realize the gender barrier is a confine for them as well and perhaps that way we can earn their full respect— putting an end to abuse, violence, and discrimination.

Of course essentialists will say bridging the gender gap is impossible. They will say that the reason gender roles exist is because of how we’re made, because biology makes us different. Penises and vaginas aren’t social constructs. Women get pregnant, women breastfeed. Period. There’s no way around that, nature made you that way. And that’s why women are better suited to stay at home and take care of children while men go out and work.

Well, people who think biology is determinist don’t really know that much about biology. Male seahorses get pregnant, fish can change sex if there is an imbalance in the population and they can’t find mates, male emperor penguins take care of the egg while females hunt for food, many species have homosexual tendencies, necrophilia and pedophilia have also been documented in the natural world– my point is, in nature anything goes. So what’s so weird about a father getting pregnancy leave to help his wife around the house and become more involved in the pregnancy period? Why not call it parental leave instead of pregnancy or maternity leave and make it available to both? And why do we still hear arguments about breastfeeding? Yes, we have breasts, yes we produce milk but does that mean that nature only meant for the woman to raise children? Nature is what you do with it, it’s not an absolute thing with rules. We cut down trees and build houses, we farm, we turn petrol into plastic, we kill cows and make them into burgers. Why not use formula and baby bottles? Men weren’t born with condoms on their penises but does anybody (aside from the Pope) still think that we were meant to have all the children that could possibly come out of sex?

My point is, difference isn’t intrinsic. The way we are now has nothing to do with nature. Gender constructs and the values, roles, and tasks they assign to men and women aren’t fixed. They are as mutable as everything else is. The only obstacle in the way of breaching the gender gap is our own steadfast denial that things can be changed. I cringed at the GWS major but I didn’t take up the issue with the administration; I studied political science instead. These days I’m enrolled in a feminist theory class, which helps me vent my frustrations with feminism in general and with a society of difference too. But I’m still passive in the sense that I let comments like “Oh feminist theory, your joining the bunch of angry females” pass as a joke. I guess my last criticism of feminism would be that it’s a theory, it’s still not something that we integrate into our daily lives. And don’t even get me started on our own complicity in maintaining the gender divide. But that’s– well, I’ll talk about our love of makeup and heels some other time.