In Belated Honor of International Women’s Day

This is to honor all the women in the world – the nearly 4 billion of us. Simone de Beauvoir’s moniker of “the second sex” still sadly holds true today. Women suffer from poverty, gender discrimination, lack of access to appropriate healthcare, lack of resources for their children, domestic violence – the list goes on. And one must simply ask, Why? Why are women the recipients of so much negativity when they do so much? Women in developing countries especially face a heavy burden, being assigned tasks such as fetching water from miles away, being married off too young before they can finish their education, cruel stigmas such as being “impure” during menstruation, not to mention female genital mutilation and other horrors. We have seen the example of the unspeakable violence committed against the teenaged Malala Yousafzai – but also how she rose up against it, fought for her life and the lives of other girls and young women, and won a Nobel Peace Prize along the way.

In developed and moderately developed countries, we still see problems such as salary discrepancies, lack of maternity leave, a glass ceiling for women in the higher echelons of the work world, and unrealistic body images. Across the world, we see a common denominator of sexual harassment and women not being treated as equals, period.

We live in turbulent times when it comes to being a woman. The #MeToo movement, the president of the most powerful country in the world a serious misogynist and cheater, pay inequality, the ill-treatment of women in Silicon Valley, school kidnappings in Nigeria – the list goes on. But it is also exciting, because the discussion and changes that are coming out of these turbulent issues with women and gender are leading us toward progress. Serena Williams fighting back about her post-pregnancy seeding in the tennis world, women trying to gain more elected positions, Hollywood becoming more inclusive (thanks, Frances McDormand) are just some examples of how women are fighting back and trying to take their power. We have borne the consequences of the American feminist movement from the 60s and 70s, which focused too heavily on the body and the physical (which are important, but it became the main goal) rather than collective needs of women as a whole and actual policies that benefit women. I feel we are finally coming back to an inclusive feminist movement that addresses the basic needs of every woman, regardless of her age, class, or orientation.

In this process, as I have always advocated, we need male allies. Feminism cannot be feminism without men, and men cannot have any sort of movement without women; a gender studies perspective is a better way of framing the discussion rather than just feminism. Men are not all the enemy, and sometimes some women contribute to the problem as well. Equality, of course, may not take the same shape in every culture. Men and women are not the same, despite what many feminists believe, but this does not advocate putting women in a subordinate position to men. We need to ask ourselves what women’s’ needs are, financially, biologically, emotionally, and build our society and policies around that.

There seems to be a big gap or leap from how girls are raised to be strong and independent in childhood, but then suffer once they hit adulthood. Disney and all the image makers have been very conscientious as of late as to what messages they are sending to girls and young women; however, the images of women in positive role models seem to decline once they hit their 20s. We have to ask what structural factors are working against women. In earlier waves of feminism, such as that from the 60s and 70s, there seems to have been a bias against motherhood and women’s reproductive cycles, a denial of biology as Camille Paglia might say. This forced women to fit into a very male-oriented social paradigm. But we see now this does not work. We need to take into account women’s biology, and women need to take ownership of their reproductive power whether or not they have children. We need to encourage women to feel there is nothing wrong with getting married or being a mother, that a lifetime romantic relationship is indeed valuable and something that needs work.

As we are making structural changes in society, we also need to make our own efforts on an individual level. Too many women – even educated, independent women – do not empower themselves. This can be as simple as calling out bad behavior on a man’s part, or not enabling it. It can also be as simple as taking ownership of one’s femininity, something that is often taboo to say in educated circles. We are not men, so why shouldn’t we enjoy not being men?!

At the bottom of it all, it is still very hard to be an intelligent woman. A woman with a brain is alternately mocked, put down, lauded, a source of puzzlement, and more. Too many women of letters have struggled to make themselves heard and to be respected for what they know, or they have struggled with their womanhood while trying to develop a career in a man’s world. While it is not always possible for a woman to “have it all,” it is possible for a woman to “be it all”: she can embrace all aspects of herself and not see them in opposition to each other. This multi-faceted complexity we possess is the most precious thing about being a woman, and who would want it any other way?

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