I attended a workshop today entitled Women’s Poverty Through the Lens of Social Documentary Photographer Milton Rogovin. His photographs were beautiful, taken of women at work throughout the US, Chile, Spain and Mexico during the last 50 years. It was intended to be women at work and looking at women working throughout the years. I was excited to look closely at images of women of color working and discussing disparities. But the discussion was based on assumptions about women and femininity.
One photograph picturing two women in tight jean shorts and cut off tops was confirmed to be a photograph of two sex workers. A woman in the audience rejected this title because “they were not wearing high heels,” therefore they could not possibly be sex workers. … The sole reason why they couldn’t possibly be sex workers is becuase they didn’t have the stereotypical ‘stripper’ heels you see in movies. And the whole room agreeed… Is this where feminism is? AT the US social forum, where leftists, radicals, and people generally working to be outside teh norm and predetermined structures, this is what feminism was. Maybe feminism is only useful to movements when it is angry and in your face. Maybe we, as feminists, have failed in further education of our peers about how we talk about women and femininity.
Another comment was made about a photo of a woman working in a factory with work gloves on — “she’s doing hard work for a woman.” … For a woman. Somehow in that one phrase, he managed to degrade the possibility that the woman could do the same job as a man and expressed concern over her ‘decreasing’ femininity. As if by including that clause, he can recapture the type of femininity that belongs in a home.
In another set of pictures, a young Black woman was pictured working making twine in a factory setting. She was dressed in a revealing black tank top, that hugged her slender torso. The next picture was of three older Scottish women in sweaters and old button down shirts (possibly men’s shirts). The first woman was received in a much different way than the three women. Comments were made about the stylishness of the first woman and how she didn’t belong in the factory. Someone commented that she had clearly bought the shirt (although it would have been easy to make). All of these things were used to make the point that this woman wanted a better life, deserved a better life. The other three women were talked about as depressed, or more steady in their lifestyles.
This is a direct response to femininity. The young woman who was perceived as still looking ‘good’ and still in touch with her feminine side was labeled as not giving up, and not belonging among the poor. The other three were labeled as having given up because they were not displaying feminine qualities. Someone femininity has been tied to this idea of giving up. When some women get married, they talk about giving up looking ‘good,’ meaning that they give up doing their makeup or wearing stylish clothes, which is equated with being unfeminine. Why is femininity tied to this? Why is maintaining femininity a sign of wanting to move forward in life, and why is it femininity? Why is my performance of gender a sign of what I want out of life?
Finally, is a comment about women maintaining femininity in the workforce a way to maintain the idea that women should be paid less? If we say that women must maintain some aspect of ‘femininity’ in the fields, or in the factory, or in the office, then we are saying that they must maintain that they are different from men, which then creates a platform where it can be justified (however wrongly) that women can be paid differently. By maintaing this way of thinking we are only serving to strengthen our opposition.
As a final note, I am not saying that women shouldn’t enjoy being feminine if they want to (key words being, if they want to. I’m not trying to force anyone to be what they are not). I personally enjoy dressing up and being ‘feminine.’ But femininity should not limit me, it should not define me, and it should not restrict my ability to do a job. I should not be judged based on my level of femininity.
So what is the truth about feminism? The truth is that it has been pushed aside by the social justice movement — at least the social justice movement in attendance at the US Social Forum. Maybe we are not current enough, or not vocal enough anymore. Whatever it is, it is clear that there is still work to be done, and it can’t be done soon enough.