Much of my work on The Women of Letters has focused on bringing a cross-cultural/international perspective to American culture and institutions. It is time to turn our attention to American feminism and to see why, despite the United States being the most powerful country in the world and a leading developed nation, certain markers of progress for women still lag behind other developed nations.
Mine was the first American generation that was equal by law in terms of race and gender. I grew up feeling strong and capable of anything, unhindered by gender. However, at Stanford, I found that the definition of “feminist” was something entirely foreign to my own conception of feminism. I felt very alienated by the women who called themselves feminists, found their conception of feminism and women’s rights extremely militant and divisive. Once I entered the “real world,” I indeed encountered sexism on a concrete level that was often subtle and not easy to prove. I also saw how difficult it was for working women, especially married mothers, to balance career and family, to be able to afford childcare and to take time off from their jobs. I saw how this affected women across class and race, and how the law and health care system did not address women’s needs adequately. A woman’s co-pay to see a gynecologist, who is wrongly considered a “specialist,” costs more than a visit to a primary care physician.
The feminists of the 60’s and 70’s who laid the groundwork for my generation focused on the wrong perspectives or took the wrong approaches. Some academic feminists have contributed to the problem as well, focusing on esoterica and frivolity. Here are some reasons why I believe American feminism has not achieved enough:
-American feminism has focused on sexuality rather than economics. The Nordic countries have the lowest rates of economic inequality and the best policies for maternity leave, and rank highest on various global indices for “best countries for women.” American women can read about the best sex positions in Cosmo, enjoy the antics of “Sex and the City,” debate the use of the word “history” instead of “herstory” (which is ridiculous, as it reveals an ignorance of Latin etymology), sign petitions about being proud to have an abortion (is it really a source of pride, when it shows the failure of effective birth control for women?), go to endless performances of “The Vagina Monologues,” but in the end, a woman will have to put her baby in daycare at six weeks, if she can even afford it, because women are not paid as much as men. How is this progress?
If we use our rather short-sighted American criteria as for what is “progressive” for women (which usually means sexual freedom), then popular opinion has it that Nordic women are very open in their sexuality and sexually fulfilled (one study cited in “The Economist” showed that Finnish women are the most “promiscuous” in the world, having had the most number of sexual partners). Based on this simplistic American criterion, we would find that the country that is rated best for women on numerous indices, Iceland, had a lesbian prime minister. But this is overlooking the key point–if we attend to a woman’s economic needs, then she will be free to be whoever she is sexually. We have focused too much on sex, and now a woman can be sexually equal to a man. The problem is, he still won’t call you the next morning, and your insurance might not cover your birth control.
-American feminism has focused too much on individualism. We see individual women who have followed their paths and found success–the Hillary Clintons, Sheryl Sandbergs, Alice Walkers, Meryl Streeps of America have all been extraordinary women in their respective fields. Women like Gloria Steinem have been idolized for decades. While I certainly admire Ms. Steinem’s accomplishments, I feel that she and her 1970’s ilk have focused too much on their own positions, which are unlike that of the majority of American women who are concerned with getting good schooling for their kids, getting vacation time, and negotiating with their spouse about who is doing the vacuuming.
The problem comes because it raises the issue of marriage as the norm for society. Feminists who have opposed marriage have cited that it is oppressive as an institution, and that individual freedom is the antidote. We are in an era where women are free to make their choices as to their lifestyle and lovers, which is a healthy thing. But again, we have to look at the majority of American women who are wives and mothers, even lesbian couples, or single or married but childless women who help care for children or child relatives. American feminism has refused to see family as the normative unit, all under the name of “oppression.” How is it oppressive to a non-married woman, who is now free to live as she likes, and her society is able to care for her as well as families? The late Betty Friedan was aware of these things, and NOW was originally founded to help the ordinary woman. Unfortunately, things took a different turn and feminism lost its focus on helping the majority of women. This is not to say that a woman must be married or partnered in order to be whole and fulfilled, that she is any less than a married woman. It is simply saying we need to address the issues that will help as many women as possible.
-American feminism has not included men enough. This relates to the above point–even even women who have no intention of getting married or having children lament the irresponsibility of the modern American male who can’t even commit to a romantic relationship. This is the result of the lack of focus on feminism and its relation to human relationships, be it marriage or motherhood. Men have not been held responsible since women are free to be whomever they want as an individual. Many women say that men are not as “evolved” as they are, while men say that they do not feel like they can “be a man” anymore. We have not reevaluated male gender roles, nor taken their needs into account.
And yet, there still is a lot of deeply-ingrained sexism towards women: out-of-touch male politicians make decisions about women’s reproductive rights, rape and sexual assault are too prevalent on college campuses, and paid maternity leave is very inadequate. We still have a long way to go for institutional change.
-The LGBT community still suffers. While we see sensationalized girl-on-girl action in movies or an openly gay show host on TV, our LGBT friends are dealing with a host of issues: domestic violence among lesbian couples, transgender youth being beaten up, discrimination in the workplace, and hate crimes. If our society focused on collective welfare that began with taking care of women, I believe that people would be able to accept people who were not heterosexual. Certainly, women who are not straight would certainly accuse society of being “heteronormative.” This is a legitimate criticism. However, once again I cite the Nordic example of having the best cultures for women as well as gays, and also the fact that one of the key psychological issues many LGBT people suffer is being shunned by their families.
It is time that we look at American society as a bit aberrant compared to most other places in the world. It is time we reevaluate our definitions of feminism, our individualism that is both our greatest asset as well as, perhaps, our curse. It is time we truly, deeply respect women.