Faces Of Feminism: An Activist's Reflections On The Women's Movement / Edition 1 available in Paperback
About the Author
Sheila Tobias has been an academic and an activist for over twenty-five years. She has participated in many feminist gatherings, from the Congress to Unite Women in 1970 to the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians in 1993, and is a former board member of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund. The author of the best-seller Overcoming Math Anxiety as well as Women, Militarism, and War (with Jean Bethke Elshtain), Tobias now works as a consultant to universities on math and science education, equity issues, and women's studies.
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Gender and Politics Redefined
The women's movement has changed the way we think about both gender and politics in this country. In feminist theory, gender, unlike sex, is defined as a socially constructed role, which means that it is the result of political arrangements and is amenable to social and political analysis. To understand this idea, we have to think about roles the way social scientists do--not as God or nature determined, but as how and with what rationale a particular culture distributes certain tasks, certain privileges, and certain responsibilities.
We owe the original formulation of this radical idea to anthropologist Margaret Mead, who in a study of three primitive societies in New Guinea noticed that, even though in every culture certain tasks, responsibilities, and privileges were assigned by gender, those assignments were not identical. In one, the military task of protecting the village was assigned to males, but in another both sexes had to go to war if the village was threatened. In still another tribe, food production by agriculture was assigned to women, and the men who had to do hunting and gathering had much more free time. Hence, when the males were not away, they were home unemployed and able--indeed, expected--to sit around and indulge in what we Americans would call gossip. In that society, gossiping was considered a male privilege, whereas in our society such conversation is thought to be a frivolous female pleasure.(1)
Mead's analysis demonstrated that, although every society defined certain activities as either male or female, the gender designation of those activities varied from culture to culture. No universal role was either male or female. The societies Mead studied were interesting and important to her analysis because there was little contact among them; each had invented its own gender arrangements independently. Nevertheless, there was always gender definition, and one pattern everywhere held true: Whatever men did was more highly valued by the village than whatever women did. In modern terminology, males were assigned tasks that, by themselves, conferred higher status.(2) Thus, as we move into a discussion of sexual politics in America, we have to face the challenge of the universality of gender differences and the fact that, despite myths about matriarchies, almost everywhere males enjoy a socially constructed superiority over women.(3)
Why? That is the question ethnologists, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists have been asking for the past several decades. Some analysts believe it is because males are physically stronger. Can we infer that in all societies males have threatened women physically to maintain a superior status? Or is there something about the childbearing and childrearing functions that so debilitates women that they are unwilling or unable to compete with men for positions of leadership and power? Remember that in a world without contraception, a healthy female will be pregnant constantly during her adult life. The only natural contraceptive is mother's malnutrition.
Despite the difficulty of answering these questions definitively, the reason for women's inferior status has to be addressed. If biology is not women's destiny, then some other explanation of how women's destiny came to be defined this way, in culture after culture, must be provided by feminists.
Just as gender has been reconceptualized, "politics," too, has been expanded by feminists. In its narrowest definition, politics has to do with participation in government, party politics, and elective or appointed office. More broadly, however, politics has to do with power: getting people to do what you want them to do. This definition is still being challenged by academics, but feminists have refused to limit a political analysis to that of formal roles. Politics, feminists believe, includes relations in the world of work: for example, who is hired, who is fired, who is always boss, who is never boss. In Sexual Politics, Kate Millett's definition of sexual politics goes even further: Sexual politics, she writes, is the power relationship between men and women in formal groups and in the family.(4)
Thus, sexual politics must include the politics of motherhood. Although from one perspective, contraception and abortion pertain only to a woman and her pregnancy, the question of whether a woman is legally obligated to carry her fetus to term is, in most countries today, determined by society. In some, it is never appropriate to end a pregnancy, even if it is medically possible. In others, it is the decision of the husband and father because the fetus is considered to be his property. In the United States since 1973, the decision may be made only by the person who is pregnant, in consultation with her medical adviser--not the father of the child and not the state. But these are political issues, not issues determined by nature.
To take another example based on this broader definition of politics, child care today is considered a political issue, but in a different society or at another time, it might have been considered a family or a private matter. Politics impinges on the right to work, marriage and divorce, participation in the military, pornography, and even advertising, which, as feminists see it, affects people's view of women and women's view of themselves.
Feminists did not always define politics this way. In the nineteenth century at the beginning of the women's rights movement, women activists concentrated on bringing balance to the civil and political (in the narrow sense) rights of men and women, and in time their work focused on a complex, protracted struggle for the right to vote. To win this battle, our foremothers had to form strong organizations that could work across the nation concurrently for a common goal. This was hardly an accident of history, so we must ask ourselves, What led to the mobilization of so many women activists in this concentrated, all-out suffrage effort? Under what conditions, and through what small struggles, did the first wave of feminism emerge?
It is by asking these sorts of questions about the women's movement--about political expediency, the quirks of fate and circumstance, and individual leadership as well as theory--that we gain a useful understanding of how these fundamental changes in our thinking occurred. The new feminism (sometimes called the second wave of feminism) burst upon the American scene somewhere between 1967 and 1968 with, as far as the general newspaper-reading public was aware, no antecedents. Suddenly, as if planted by an extraterrestrial being, the words sexism, male chauvinism, and patriarchy were on everybody's tongue. In fact, the movement drew on the civil rights struggle of African Americans and was deeply embedded in our own 1960s counterculturalism. Nevertheless, the theory of patriarchy, first sketched out in Millett's riveting book Sexual Politics, is where the story of the new feminism has to begin.(5)
Patriarchy and Politics
Patriarchy has been defined as a state whose ethos reflects the characteristics of masculine gender. As Kate Millett used the term, it was meant to characterize a society dominated not just by masculinity but also by men whose primary purpose is to construct and maintain a certain power relationship over women. In such a society, much of what is taken to be traditional or even "true" is really an extended political maneuver to maintain the unequal power relationship between males and females. This does not necessarily imply a conspiracy in which every man colludes with every other man to keep women out of power. That would imply malevolent intention. It is rather the case, feminists believe, that in the enjoyment of privilege and individual advantage, all (or most) men accede to the system that is in place and have no particular interest in making change.(6)
This theory was first outlined by Kate Millett, who began with the observation that males and females are traditionally differentiated on three dimensions, dimensions she called temperament, role, and status.(7) Everyone in our society, from the man on the street to the professional psychologist, harbors certain cherished beliefs about sex differences. Women, they will tell you, are more passive; men are more active. Women are dependent; men are independent. Women are emotional; men are rational. So as an outgrowth of these temperamental differences, women are less comfortable with and less likely to seek a life of their own and more likely to rely on their feelings for truth, whereas men will concentrate on what is demonstrably true. Obviously, these sex differences--real or perceived--will have a significant impact on women trying to succeed in a world whose values are dictated by men.(8)
After temperament, Millett examined the prevailing views of adult roles. Patriarchs, she explained, want people to believe that adult role differentiation is natural and in fact grows out of temperamental differences. The desire to marry, to mother, and to make a home is as natural for females as is the male's need to make his mark in the outside world. Woman is a private entity, man a public one. And as a consequence of role differentiation, observed Millett, men enjoy higher status than women because what men like and do are given more social value than what women like and do.
Virginia Woolf, an early-twentieth-century British novelist and one of our inspirers, once wrote that Leo Tolstoy was considered a greater writer than Jane Austen because he wrote about war and peace, whereas Austen limited herself to the drama of interpersonal relationships. But who decides, Woolf asked provocatively in her book Three Guineas, that war is more important than interpersonal relationships?(9) Society, of course, she replied, the particular society in which the novelists write and are read. Since men derive status from what they do, the argument soon becomes cyclic: What men do is more important because men do it.
In the popular view, the causal chain of temperament-role-status begins with temperament and ends with status. Temperamental differences are supposedly present at birth and lead inevitably (no one plans or needs to enforce this pattern) to role and status differentiations. And since the key years of professional advancement in an industrial society are between the ages of twenty-five and forty, the years when "normal" women are fulfilling their home and motherhood yearnings, without conspiring to, men end up in higher status positions than women.
In Millett's view, that causal chain is reversed. Status really comes first in patriarchy, Millett argued, for patriarchy's most important goal is to maintain the superiority of males over females. Then in a direct effort to reduce competition from women, patriarchy assigns women roles that isolate them from other adults and busy them in caretaking.
How are these roles assigned? And what causes women to accept them without rebellion? In her most brilliant insight, Millett saw that the people professionals--social and behavioral scientists, therapists, and educators--directly contribute to patriarchy by defining what is normal and what is not. Let a woman declare the mother role to be constricting or want the kind of economic power usually enjoyed by men, and she is judged in need of "professional help." And that, Millett helped a whole generation of feminists to see, is the way women in our society are made to accept their social roles.(10)
Millett's analysis was unsettling both because it shed new light on so many previously accepted traditions and because it made women angry. Like the Copernican revolution that took the earth from the center of the solar system, where the ancients had thought it was, and put it in an orbit around the sun, Millett turned conventional assumptions about women's temperament, roles, and status upside down. Reading Millett or hearing her theories secondhand, women in the early 1970s began to look at the arrangements they had made in their lives, particularly in their relationships with men, and had what they called the "click!" experience, a sudden awareness of how political those relationships were.(11)
Sexual politics, as Millet defined it, bears heavily on women in our culture. It is clear that the temperament required for dedicated, original work--the staying-up-all-night kind of dedication, the I-can't-think-about-anything-else-darling-not-even-you-tonight-because-I've-got-those-things-growing-in-the-petri-dish kind of intensity--is, of course, antithetical to what is considered normal behavior for a female. So the American female finds herself in a double bind. Insofar as she experiences the ambitions of a careerist, she is not feminine, and insofar as she accedes to the needs of her feminine nature, she will not be taken seriously as a professional. As mentioned, those childbearing years, when a woman is healthiest and has the most energy for childrearing, coincide with the peak opportunity years in any profession. And to the extent that she is tempted to take a break, the cost to a woman's career, given the dominance of the male model, is high. Indeed, many of the reasons women give for leaving their careers and the reasons men give for not encouraging them to stay involve this double bind.
In the Millett model, only three roles have traditionally been appropriate for women in our society: the mother role, the wifelike role, the decorative role (only possible, incidentally, for women when they are young). Whoever does not naturally fit into any of those is dumped into the one remaining category: the witch-bitch trough. Careers that are considered most appropriate for women are precisely those that appear to be natural extensions of women's three approved roles. Working with children or the handicapped or the old in some nurturing capacity is an obvious extension of the mother role. Women who function as research associates, secretaries, lab technicians, or assistants all their lives are playing out a wifelike role for the men they serve. And women whose femininity is their strongest selling point are decorative objects.
Within the ideology of patriarchy, another bias inhibits women seeking work in the intellectual professions and the arts. This is the powerful idea that any really good work has to begin in youth. If a woman returns to university training to do science, for example, at thirty-five, even if she intends to spend the next thirty years in full-time research, her colleagues believe she is not likely to make a major contribution. Science and many other intellectual and artistic professions are considered to be young people's fields. The myth about science, the arts, and the professions comes from data culled from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when young men did not live as long. Most likely, another variable is at work besides the number of brain cells in youth: newness to the field.(12)
In the end, of course, knowledge is power, and so it is not surprising that any dominant group will try hard to keep subordinate groups away from knowledge. During slavery and beyond, African Americans were not allowed to learn to read, the first tool of knowledge; women in earlier centuries were forbidden formally to study art--the presence of nude models was thought to compromise women's purity.(13) In the same spirit, every colonial power has limited the education of its colony's native born. Increased knowledge brings with it not only increased status but also increased power, exactly what the entire patriarchal structure is designed to prevent.
Can a political movement change ideology? As with differences of opinion over religion, it is difficult to argue people out of a set of beliefs from which they have derived status and power. But theory can provide the glue that holds a movement together and can give it direction. First, theory offers a sense of shared identity. Second, by revising history, theory can give a group the knowledge of its past together with the possibility of a future that will be different from that past. Lastly, theory provides the group with a political agenda by which to get from here to there.
A feminist strategy, then, begins by taking back control over the meaning and interpretation of events. Millett offered one new way of thinking about the present and the past. So long as feminists shared that view, they rapidly achieved their first set of political goals. But even in feminist politics, gender is not the only influence on human behavior, and in time differences among women had to be dealt with both in feminist theory and feminist practice.
Race, Gender, and Class
Women are not just female. Like men, they are situated in certain economic and social classes. In America, with its history of slavery, its conquest of indigenous and border peoples, and its persistent racism, there is a caste-based set of issues and stigmas affecting women as well. Feminist scholars disagree as to whether race, class, or gender (sometimes called sex class) is the most fundamental of the oppressions women suffer. Socialist feminists see economic change (including the overthrow or substantial modification of capitalism) as a first step toward women's liberation. Even when women of color share white feminists' overall views, as numerous people have observed, the term women usually implies white women, and the terms blacks, Native Americans, and Hispanics generally mean men.(14) Thus, female members of groups already stigmatized may suffer hardship as well as isolation because of race, gender, and class.(15)
Women of color, immigrant women, and women whose families needed their financial support have always worked outside the home, many in low-paid service or manual labor, and so have different levels of experience of sexual harassment and gender discrimination on the job and different views of the relative value of marriage and work. Such experiences cause them to question whether employment outside the home is inherently meaningful, as so many white middle-class feminists assert, and whether it is innately liberating--issues that illustrate the intersection of class and race. As regards image, there are differences, too. African-American women, according to writer bell hooks (who spells her name with lowercase letters), are most negatively stereotyped. Speaking specifically for women of color, bell hooks argues that such stereotypes dehumanize black women--even more than black men, even more than white women.(16)
Nevertheless, most analysts agree that white women and women of color share many of the same degrading experiences in a sexist society--prejudice in the workplace (in terms of access and wages), sexual harassment, imposition of the "feminine mystique" (see Chapter 5), exclusive domestic responsibilities, and battering and the inability to protect themselves and their children from battering--but that women of color face different and greater limitations imposed by a racist and classist society as well. Hooks believes that women of color are deeply feminist but are reluctant to join the "white" women's movement because it is deeply racist.(17) As we see in a brief review of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century struggle for women's rights, many white women activists promoted gender equality while tolerating, and in some instances exploiting, racism as well.
The class issue also divides women differently than men. When is a woman working class? Is it when she holds a working-class job, or is it when she is married to a husband who does? The question is not just academic. As women divorce, they discover all too late that their class membership was tied to their husband's income and place in a community. As Wilma Scott Heide put it dramatically in a 1972 speech as president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), quoting Johnnie Tilmon, "Every middle-class married woman is one man away from welfare."(18) Friedrich Engels, coauthor with Karl Marx of The Communist Manifesto, claimed that in terms of "economic class," married women were not even operating in the same economic system as their spouses.(19) They were mired, Engels wrote, in a "preproperty" phase of economic development. Insofar as they exchanged their service for protection, they functioned in the marriage much as serfs did, farming the lord's land in exchange for his army's defense.
Differences in class account in part for differences in politics. During the nineteenth century, even though all women were deprived of certain civil and political rights, not all women felt the pangs of gender disadvantage in the same measure. In the 1970s, antifeminism on the political Right was fueled by fear among economically dependent women of loss of privilege. Class issues also contribute to the distrust some working-class women feel for women of privilege, even when that privilege is earned. Women today acknowledge what was only dimly perceived twenty years ago: that there are profound and unalterable differences among women. It has not been easy--indeed, it may not be possible--to forge a common agenda among women who work in low-paying, low-status fields; women who are in the higher reaches of personal career attainment; women who are disadvantaged by race or immigrant status; and women who do not want to give up dependency on men to compete in an economic race they feel they cannot win.
The Politics of Difference
Whether women can claim equal civil rights with men while retaining their different aspects is an issue that was born in the suffrage movement and remains unresolved even today. In a thoughtful history of the women's suffrage movement, 1890-1920, historian Aileen Kraditor points out that the arguments for suffrage oscillated between two views of women: one, that women are equal, virtually indistinguishable from men in their political capacity--the "natural rights" argument; the other, that women, being morally and socially more upright than men, would, when enfranchised, bring peace to the world and uncompromising rectitude to the task of governing.(20) Kraditor names the first of these assertions the "argument from justice" and the second the "argument from expediency. She notes that, whereas the earliest pioneers in the women's rights movement held a radical position on women's moral and political sameness with men, as the movement widened in its appeal, the argument that women's differences would introduce new and higher standards of civic behavior weakened the case for women's suffrage.
We can date the beginning of the reappearance of the "differences argument" to the publication in 1982 of Carol Gilligan's influential book In a Different Voice.(21) In this work, based on interviews and a fresh interpretation of gender differences in children's moral development, Gilligan found young women's sense of morality to be different in interesting ways from that of young men. In place of an almost impersonal, mechanistic view of justice and fairness, Gilligan located women's moral values in a more personal, contextual view of life. Women, she asserted, seek wholeness and connectedness to others, and when faced with conflict, they want to change the rules to avoid conflict, if at all possible, rather than manage it (as men would do). Many women readers of In a Different Voice, finding themselves mirrored in the comments made by Gilligan's subjects, agreed. Not long after, a team of women educators carried the moral development argument further. In Women's Ways of Knowing, Mary Belenky and her colleagues suggested that women learn in different ways from men.(22)
Kraditor found, in the writings of suffragists, inherently irreconcilable points of view. Gilligan, Belenky, and their followers may be said to have created the argument anew, and much of feminist scholarship and feminist debate over strategy since the early 1980s has hinged on the equality/difference issue. The political implications of either side of the debate are just as divisive now as they were at the turn of the century. If women are fundamentally different--and not just as a result of their socialization--they may never be interchangeable with men. And if women have to become too much like men to compete for the power, positions, and resources that men have heretofore reserved for themselves, in the end women's "victory" may be without meaning. As Betty Friedan put it more than once, "Women don't want to be equal to unfree men." What is the point of equality if women's specialness is to be compromised?
Issues of race, class, and women's specialness weave in and out of feminist politics, especially after 1975. The possibilities afforded by military service, surrogate motherhood, the Mommy Track, and electoral office are simply not of equal value to all women. In the decade that witnessed the rebirth of feminism, however--in the period 1967 to 1977--these divisions were not yet so obvious, and the problems women faced were far more pressing. Today, however, disagreements among feminists are not just theoretical but also present a challenge to the future of feminism itself.