The Truth about Feminism

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.

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5 Responses to The Truth about Feminism

  1. Steph says:

    This is REALLY interesting. I think part of the problem might be intersectionality. Because I'm thinking…well if the conversation and photos were about feminism, would there be anything about social class and how that affects women's lives? I'm not sure – I mean, obviously I HOPE, at this point in the movement, social class is right up there. But many feminists and even women speakers at events for women fall easily (its frightening actually) into talking about "WOMAN" as white, middle/upper class, and straight. Like I'm always surprised/disturbed when talking about work/life balance and women say "well just get a nanny". UM HELLO.So anyway, my whole point is that its hard to blame the social justice movement for not incorporating feminist ideas when the feminist movement – or the dominant feminist movement anyway – often ignores the social justice movement by ignoring the class issue.Which sucks because the two movements first of all are linked and second of all could learn A LOT from one another. So my ultimate point is: both movements could benefit from some intersectionality. BUT also..their comments are bullshit AND really depressing.

  2. cjbanning says:

    I really can't make any statements about "the social justice movement," but I feel like I've seen a lot more movement on race and LGTBQ issues lately (although not enough, of course; any wait for justice is too long) while gender issues do seem almost completely stalled? I put most of the blame on "post-feminist" nonsense, the erroneous notion that most of the relevant battles have been won already–but gender roles are not only alive and well, they are often still treated as natural and unquestioned.Maybe liberal feminism has reaped the consequences of its own successes, and the type of "separate but equal" egaliatarianism it represents has become obsolete . . . but if that's so, it only underscore the need for more radical reforms. Because exactly this: 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 allowing issues of unequal pay to be assimilated into the liberal paradigm of "discrimination," we've sidestepped facing head-on the issues of gender difference by allowing gender essentialism to continue unquestioned even as we push through specific liberal reforms. Which has been tremendously successful as an apologetic stratagem. But as you note, that underlying platform still exists, and the thing is, the only way to truly heal the symptom is to cure the disease.

  3. Lisa says:

    @Steph: I absolutely agree that the links between feminism and class are missing from so much of feminism. It's a shame that we are not talking more to each other, especially because feminism fits right in with the social justice movement. It should be a part of it, and, from what I'm getting here at the social forum, feminism is a small piece of it, almost like an accessory to the radical social justice ideas presented here, like an aluminum water bottle or a bike. It's assumed that to be a part of the movement, you support feminism. But that's as far as it goes. @Cole: This is one of the core problems with feminism – people think it's done. Both men and women are raised in a world today that incorporates the work on gender equality that has already been done, making it seem like men and women are equal. All of this means that most people refuse to go any further, or push equality anymore. I think you said it right, "…we've sidestepped facing head-on the issues of gender difference by allowing gender essentialism to continue unquestioned even as we push through specific liberal reforms."Looking at gender essentialism in all its intersections with race and class is the way to move this forward, and maybe push it back into the forefront of social justice.

  4. Steph says:

    I absolutely agree with what Cole said and with your last comment Lisa – feminism is not seen as social justice because people think its done. And because the failure to think about intersectionality in any meaningful way means that "feminism" is synonymous with "white/middle class/straight" – a group that doesn't seem to need a social justice movement. It's like women should just stop whining – because we've been essentialised so fully into being just women that there is no way we could have any other identities or even different experiences as women. Like all women have the SAME experience and we should just be quiet about gender now! Sorry this is just my random last thoughts about this spewing out! 🙂

  5. Steph says:

    In this video, Samhita and Rose from talk about gender at the Social Forum:

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