Despite feminism being perceived as a dirty word, Helen Sweeney argues it’s time to look past the connotations of militant female activism to a more relevant theory.
The image of the feminist movement leaves a bitter taste. Indeed, it seems that the biggest issue facing gender equality advocacy today is that the cause itself is plagued by perceived stodginess and hostility. Even the word ‘feminism’ can have negative connotations.
For many people, it brings to mind a radical movement, perpetuated by morally superior she-wolves.
It is this unfortunate misconception that has bred unpopularity of the movement. It has caused its message to become muddled. At the crux of the feminist ideal is an egalitarian aspiration. Equal rights. Equal opportunities. Respect, for the benefit of all.
Why wouldn’t something like that be relevant in the 21st century? It’s time for feminism to get a facelift.
So let’s push aside the bad press, and look at the Irish reality. Today, the full-time working woman only brings home 40 per cent of the family’s income. The woman’s earnings are certainly not pin-money, nor has the man remained the ‘male breadwinner’. But it’s still not equal, is it?
It can be argued that this gender pay gap is nothing but a consequence of the natural differences between the sexes. The fact of the matter is that any such financial disparity suggests that women are not as worthy as their male counterparts. Society values them less.
Moreover, the shiny, gleaming glass ceiling has yet to be smashed. Men still hold the lion’s share of professional management positions. Is that a choice by women of the workplace? Or do the male upper echelons have a ‘jobs for the boys’ attitude?
Whatever the answer, you need look no further than Belfield to see it in action. The proportion of women decreases substantially at each academic grade, from lecturer to senior lecturer to professor. At university level, for the most part, our education is directed by a male-dominated body. One has to wonder what subliminal messages this sends to female students and whether female-role models are underrepresented.
The ‘male gaze’ too, plays an essential role in the gender equality debate. TV and film often depict a male mindset. The media, never an innocent bystander, feeds us stories of the guy who gets the girl, the guy who scores the victory-seizing shot in the game… The ‘fat guy, skinny wife’ motif is always a treat.
It is so unusual for a sober female character to find a part central to the structure. She tends to be either a bewitching, unattainable Amazon, or a girl in need of saving. Almost certainly a ‘looker’. Does this make her dialogue more palatable for the audience?
It’s time for feminism to get a facelift
One view might be that such programming is completely acceptable, but that the addition of the female perspective could compliment and enrich the field in what is an undoubtedly influential instrument.
Closer to home is the physical expectation on girls here in UCD, versus that on boys.
How many products do we buy in order to feel presentable? This pressure is, arguably, fuelled by magazines and such, whose headlines range from ‘we love her curves’ to that ring of shame, ‘look who’s got a pouch’. It has been referred to as alienation of women from their own body image, and it reinforces the notion that women lack the substance championed by men.
There is no disputing the fact that women help to perpetuate this, but who ever said that women weren’t a part of the problem? Feminism’s relevance to us today is in the idea of justice for all, without regard to sex. The essence of feminism is that we ought to check ourselves and our attitudes toward the role of women in our society.
Career statistics, body issues… Perhaps these differences in income and the image projected onto women by the media seem benign enough?
For those who think that society has taken to heart the feminist ideals as much as is required, we must recognise that the goals of the movement have not been achieved on a worldwide scale.
So before we pack up the even-handed ideals and go home, complacent in the thought that feminism has exhausted its uses, we must look to the East. In countries like Afghanistan, up to 80 per cent of marriages are considered to be forced. Until the Taliban was dislodged in 2001, female citizens were not allowed to work or speak loudly in public. In 1996, one woman had the tip of her thumb cut off for wearing nail varnish.
Saudi Arabia is a notoriously patriarchal country in which the ‘gender apartheid’ dictates that women cannot vote, drive, or leave the house without a male relative. This is a country which didn’t send a female delegation to the 2008 Olympic Games.
The reality is that we are a globalised world. A world that is too small for us not to be affected by the denial of such fundamental rights in another country. We are never that far away from these places; they are never ‘independent of the main’.
Thus, feminism has an unequivocal place in the 21st century, both here in Ireland, and abroad. It was never female domination. It need not echo of extremism, but rather is a vibrant theory of gender equality.
Anna Quindlen put it best when she remarked, “It’s important to remember that feminism is no longer a group of organisations or leaders. It’s the expectations parents have for their daughters, and their sons, too. It’s the way we talk about and treat one another. It’s who makes the money and who makes the compromises and who makes the dinner. It’s a state of mind. It’s the way we live now.”
Isn’t that something worth valuing?