Julia Maloof, JHU:
The premise of feminist efforts is the struggle for women to be treated as equals to men in society. Severe economic imbalances arose from society rewarding the male sphere (outside the home) but not the female sphere (inside the home and community). This biased dynamic led to the continual mistreatment and economic servitude of women in society, and further oppression in other spheres of society. But the ways in which we can improve the status of women in society while creating partnerships between men and women instead of a patriarchal hierarchy, continues to be debated within feminist discourse.
Most people understand that in order for women to gain social power, they must gain more economic power. If one is completely reliant on her husband for money, she is essentially enslaved in a world where money is central to survival. In order to gain that power in our patriarchal and capitalist system, women would need to enter into the competitive male sphere.
This prognosis essentially encourages women to “be like men”. The idea is that women can and should do everything that a man has typically done to gain power: go to college and graduate school, play sports, work outside the home, make their own money, and compete to move up the economic scale. This can effectively sum up the legal gains of the feminist movement in the last 50 years, including the Civil Rights Act, Title IX, the Equal Pay Act, establishing the National Organization for Women (which functioned as a lobbying group), and the mass production of birth control & legalization of abortion (Roe vs. Wade) so that women could choose when they wanted to start families.
Within the economic sphere, this has been moderately successful. While many women are working and making their own incomes, it has been found that even 35 years after the first wave of female lawyers, doctors, politicians, etc entered the economy not only is it difficult for them to move up to the top of the business structure (due to the “glass ceiling” caused by typical familial responsibilities), they are often paid unequally and discriminated against because of the probability of having to take time off for childbirth, aging parents, etc. regardless of the laws in place.
This is where the real issue comes in. After childbirth, there are no laws guaranteeing paternity leave, or paid maternity leave in the US. Taking care of children and maintaining the household continues to fall into a women’s domain causing what is today named the “second shift”, where not only do women work the same amount of hours as their husbands for lower pay, they are still held responsible for the family and household. Our society continues to be an economic hierarchy in which men dominate women both socially and economically- not a partnership in which the man helps in the feminine sphere (housework, childcare etc.) and the women is equal in the economic [male] and social sphere.
These set of gender roles exist for two main reasons. First, since women continue to be economically less valuable (as they will most likely leave the workforce once they get married and/or have children) and therefore paid less and promoted less often, it is less valuable for them to be working than their husbands, who typically make more money. Essentially, a woman working shorter hours is less damaging to her family’s finances than a man working shorter hours, leading to the obvious choice for her to take on more home responsibilities, which gives her less economic power and therefore less freedom.
The second reason, and more important reason, is that second wave feminism (which pushed women out into the corporate world), though encouraging women to be more masculine and compete in a male-dominated working society, never put an emphasis on men being more feminine, or valuing femininity in society. Men are valued because they are economically powerful. But women should be valued because they are intrinsically and infinitely valuable to a society. Not only through childbirth, in which women risk their lives to create a new generation, but also through typically female spheres of work: housework, childrearing, food and nourishment, education, community, communications, emotional health, etc are necessary for a healthy, humane, and well functioning society.
Instead of valuing the feminine and these feminine spheres, both women and men are now pushed to value and portray the masculine. This can be tied to the continual disrespect of nature and our environmental crisis (as eco-feminism has studied), the problems within the food industry and obesity epidemic (no value in preparing food or nourishing your family healthily) and many other major issues that our society is grappling with today.
Anything that is intrinsically valuable to society, such as nature, has been devalued and ignored in the great rush for economic power. The feminist movement, instead of bringing value back to the intrinsic and feminine, has instead simply put even more value into the masculine sphere. While there is a great push for women to be like men, there is little to no movement asking men to be more like women, such as to publically wear dresses, show more emotion and open communication, or to work within the home. Indeed many feminine things are viewed as ridiculous or embarrassing for a man to contemplate doing.
I would argue that socially, along with the destruction of nature and our food industries, this has changed the dating world of the millennial generation (us). As emotion is viewed as “feminine”, and casual sex without feelings is “masculine”, and since both women and men value masculinity, the hookup culture emerged. The emotional piece of love, community, and communication are feared and shied away from. Girls don’t want to be labeled “a girl”, and men don’t want to be labeled feminine, and so our generation is stuck in a weird seesaw of guessing games and miscommunication. This is never more apparent than when one visits other parts of the world and realizes how strange our dating culture has become in comparison to places that have long histories of valuing the feminine.
Instead of empowering women and women’s spaces, which would bring respect to femininity, the mainstream feminist movement continues to work within the patriarchal system in revering the masculine. The only difference is, now both women and men need to be competitive, cutthroat, and work jobs outside the home in order to be respected in society. There continues to be little to no movement to respect the feminine sphere. I would argue that this is why instead of having relationships that are partnerships, in which equal economic and social power is given to both men and women, men continue to dominate, while women continue to work the “second shift”, with little thanks or societal recognition for doing so.
If the feminist movement is to succeed in the empowerment of femininity, they need to begin to focus on housework, childbirth, education, community, emotions, sensitivity, compassion, and the importance and benefits of these things in our society and in our population. The competition between men and women in the working world is futile, as it is inevitable that men will win. Biologically, men are more aggressive, more competitive, and more likely to dominate. They are viewed as economically more valuable to companies since they don’t give birth. Women being more competitive or masculine cannot change these facts. Only a shift by society as a whole can bring equality, when men begin to value the feminine sphere enough to step into it. This is the difference between women conforming to the patriarchal system that is already in place, or breaking out of it and moving towards a more matriarchal society in which women & the feminine (and subsequently the environment, food industry, community, etc) are intrinsically valued for their biological and social benefits, not for what they bring commercially.
Instead of putting so much effort into competing in a masculine sphere, feminists should focus on increased social recognition of the feminine sphere and all that it entails. Until that happens, feminine traits and subsequently women will be viewed as “lesser than”, and feared. Only with an increased respect to the importance of the feminine will partnerships, not domination, become the norm; men and women working together to create a better society, not competing with one another. Women can finally be viewed as equal to men- not the same as men, not able to do all the same things, but valued and treated as just as important, if not more so, to create a strong, progressive, and humane society in America.