The ‘F’ Word

Why is it that I feel the need to preface my thoughts on feminism with an apology? I feel compelled to justify even mentioning the topic, to add some sort of asterisk to it.  I want to start this with “I’m strongly feminist, but…” as if I need to make an excuse for believing I should be equal to my male counterparts in respect, pay, and rights. Feminist has been hijacked as a dirty word, an adjective for ugly, androgynous women with butch haircuts and a hate-on for men. So often, feminism is dismissed, even by women, with a wave of a hand. Pshaw, they say. Women may have needed feminism in the 60’s, but this is now. We are equal. Feminism is a relic of the past.

It's quite passe, really. That handkerchief is so three decades ago.

The reality is that we are not done fighting that fight.  Sexism may not be overt – federal law prevents that – but what has replaced it is something that I will term “rational sexism.” It’s the sort of principle that is all the more harmful because even the individual that holds the views can justify them as fair. It’s sexism masquerading as reason. How else could you explain that women – even educated, intelligent and skilled women – consistently make less than their male counterparts, are promoted less, are elected to political office less frequently? Why, when discussing the rights of a fetus, do the rights of the mother become irrelevant? There is something subconscious, something which influences our decisions and opinions that we can rationalize away.

Some of the most repugnant rationalizations for sexism are religious ones. I have dealt with these first-hand as I have several devout family members who are prone to literal Biblical interpretations. I was once given a well-meaning relationship advice talk on the basis of the following passages:

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.” (Col 3:18)

“Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (I Timothy 2:11-14)

Though that discussion was possibly the most horrifying conversation I have ever found myself in at a Wendy’s, the manifestation of such philosophies is far from abstract philosophizing about a woman’s role in society.  A woman’s reproductive health, and essentially her freedom and independence, are under constant religious pressure.  Planned Parenthood is at risk of losing all federal funding in the U.S. because it also happens to provide non-federally funded abortions. Numerous states presently have pro-life legislation on the table, including one bill in Florida that would force women to view an ultrasound before being given access to an abortion. These are not just concerned citizens who have an ethical concern with abortion for logical reasons. In a telling example of rationalization, Idaho has approved a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks, even in cases of rape and incest. Why? Well, because the “hand of the Almighty” was at work.

“His ways are higher than our ways,” State Representative Brent Crane said. “He has the ability to take difficult, tragic, horrific circumstances and then turn them into wonderful examples.”

Yep, so don’t worry ladies – if you get raped by your uncle, it’s because God wanted it that way. You’re meant to suffer horribly to serve as an example to others. The women’s opinion is irrelevant because we know what God wants. We’re not being misogynistic, we’re just doing God’s Will.

Of course, we can always hope that these people are the extremists in their own right. A vocal minority, but a minority nonetheless. However, the nuances of our subconscious mind reveal themselves in many other ways. One of the postulated reasons for the gender gap in salaries is that women take more time off work to have babies. Why promote a woman who will likely take time off to pop out kids? Why train a woman who won’t be here for an entire year? Why pay more for maternity leave? Why deal with the hassle of finding a temporary hire? At first glance, these may seem like legitimate questions. However, never do you hear the question raised of 40-55 year old men up for promotion:  why would you promote him if the odds of him dropping dead of a heart attack at any moment are so high? A woman of the same age would work much longer and is far less likely to bleed the company dry on disability insurance. The lack of logic seems obvious here. We cannot discriminate against someone based on statistical probabilities. In fact, women are at an advantage over the (vastly predominant) 40-55 year old men, in that not only are the much less likely to be ill for any reason up to ten years post-partum, but also they have the power to choose to have children or not. Very few people choose to suffer a debilitating disease, and even fewer can choose to keep working rather than go on being ill.

True story - around the lab this guy gets used so much in Powerpoint presentations that he is just known as "Heart Attack Guy." Want to talk about heart attacks? Bring out Heart Attack Guy.

So, I will not apologize for being feminist. I will continue questioning the assumptions that society makes about me, about my fellow women, and about my fellow human beings. As a skeptic, it is the very least I can do.


7 responses

  1. Pingback: “Feminism” is a Dirty Word « The Winnipeg Skeptics

  2. I have a question I would like to pose. Please do not take this the wrong way, and please know that I am not advocating this position, I am only asking your response.

    Yesterday (?) on Reddit there was a very long response thread to a humourous cartoon regarding sexism. One person posted (and cited something I didn’t read) that one postulated reason for the wage gap is that, in general, men are more aggressive in negotiating salaries. That is, if an employer offered a job at, say, $50k, women were more likely to accept it, while men were more likely to play hardball and counter at, say $55k. If this is the case, then I do not feel comfortable blaming an employer for this wage gap. No employer would voluntarily give a raise if no raise was expected or asked for.

    What is your response to this position? Do you believe that it’s believable, or does the evidence not support it? If it was the case, what would you advocate to alleviate this problem?

    • I’ve heard this argument before. First of all, I don’t think it can account for all of the disparity (voting in female representatives, for example). My second point that I agree, in theory, with the idea that women might be asking for less money, undervaluing themselves, etc.

      However, a women’s lack of negotiating skills could have multiple causes. The lovely Dr. Isis of ScienceBlogs talked about this as a common issue and I won’t repeat what she said here. However, my personal feeling is that not only do we encourage our girls (and subsequently, women) to be meek and mild, but we actually find it unattractive and actively discourage it when they do play hardball. During the mayoral race last fall, I had my mother-in-law tell me that she would not vote for a woman as mayor because women do not make good leaders. I asked her why not, and she replied that they are either ineffective, or bitches. However, when we dissected it, it came down to the fact that the same traits in the man (aggressive, fiscally-minded, hard-nosed) were admirable in a man, but off-putting, controlling, and “bitchy” in a woman. I do think we need to teach women (and men) how to negotiate effectively so that they can be in a position to not be taken advantage of, but at the same time, we have to watch for these tricky little dualities which put women in those damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situations.

  3. I have had many discussions with my significant other about this very topic. Being a devils advocate, I have always stated several tried and true arguments to explain why women are treated as subordinates, receive lesser pay, and are overlooked for positions etc. (Mat leave, lack of strength, attitude, etc.) I don’t subscribe to the arguments, most of the time I think they are either ignorant or arrogant. However, I am a realist, and I see what goes on behind the backs of women.

    While bra burning and protests are hardly the solution, vigilance on this very topic is required by women. There is a large force of males who would like nothing better than to have females back in the kitchen so they can rule once more. And for the sake over generalization or stereotypical, they seem to be religious in nature.

    Keep up the fight Flora. This is one male who will not let the man get you down!

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