I read a lot of feminist blogs and comment occasionally; often there are differing opinions as to what feminism means and what sorts of positions feminists should take. So, as a result I have been feeling the need to define for myself, if for no one else, what being a feminist means to me.
To be a feminist means never to forget that I live in a patriarchal society. To live in a patriarchal society is to live in a society which assigns value based on gender, using the male sex as the standard. In patriarchal societies, men and men’s work are viewed as vastly more valuable than women and women’s work (think of the difference between the incomes of a hedge-fund manager and a stay-at-home mom).
This assignment of value is a result of cultural beliefs rather than a reflection of “real” social value. Unfortunately, less conscious members of patriarchal societies (both men and women) do not recognize the arbitrary nature of patriarchal values, but take it as a given — as the natural order of things — that men and men’s work are more valuable than women and women’s work (i.e., that hedge fund managers deserve to be paid billions, while stay-at-home moms deserve to be paid nothing). Members of patriarchal societies unquestioningly accept patriarchal values as “real” values because they have been programmed to believe that patriarchy itself is “reality.”
Note: When I use the terms “men’s work” and “women’s work,” I mean work traditionally associated with men or women – not work which should be done by men or women.
As a feminist, I no longer view patriarchy as “reality”. I take the post-modern position that cultures create their own realities ; therefore, I recognize patriarchy as a construct of culture rather than a fact of nature – and a very unjust one at that, especially as it pertains to women. Consequently, I do not feel that I must accept patriarchy’s value system as representative of a reality which, like it or not, I must put up with.
If we created patriarchy, we can uncreate it and construct a more just society. Recognizing that patriarchy systematically and arbitrarily devalues women while systematically overvaluing men, feminism’s primary task, as I see it, is to make more people conscious of the injustice of the patriarchal value system in order to right the wrongs which patriarchy systematically inflicts on women.
But patriarchal programming is so powerful and so insidious that even women who call themselves feminists have a difficult time fighting clear of it. For the feminist movement appears to have unconsciously bought into the idea that men’s work is more valuable than women’s. Working from this mistaken assumption, feminists believe that the only way women can achieve full social value is to be accepted as an equal in the male world, which means denying that there are any differences between men and women, totally ignoring the demands of domestic life which the majority of women have to deal with.
Instead of working to create a workplace which can accommodate the needs of most women who are attempting to juggle the roles of wife, mother, and breadwinner, the feminist movement has more or less joined the patriarchal bandwagon that requires women to become ersatz males – regardless of the realities of their lives as women. Feminists have bought into the patriarchal line which says, “Ladies, if you want to play in our world, you have to play by our rules. This is a feminist movement which has sought not to overthrow patriarchy but to join it. There is no feminist questioning of the overvaluing of work traditionally done by males. They just want to jump on the bandwagon so they, too, can reap the rewards from an unjust system.
In addition, there is no questioning of the devaluation of women’s work. Nowhere have I encountered in mainstream feminist rhetoric any serious argument for a boost in wages for day-care workers, or waitresses, or cooks, or cleaners. Most of these jobs today do not even pay a living wage. And a woman who chooses to stay at home with her chidren is frequently looked on as a traitor. In fact, I can find no group more contemptuous of women’s work in general and motherhood in particular than feminists themselves. The end result is that feminists are reinforcing the patriarchal value system.
I believe that feminists want to achieve a more just society, but I think they are going about it the wrong way. A feminism seeking a more just society would question the ridiculous amounts money in the form of salaries and bonuses men (and some women) receive for doing work the social value of which is extremely questionable. A feminism seeking a more just society would also question the ridiculously low pay – in many cases no pay – women receive for doing work which has enormous social value – such as childcare, eldercare and care of the sick.
Instead of trying to sell the idea that there are no differences between men and women (as if we were all disembodied genderless minds floating in space), feminists need to recognize that, regardless of whether or not there are innate differences in male and female brains, there are actual differences in male and female bodies and, consequently, the way men and women experience life – especially reproductive life. And in spite of the few far-out feminists who have such contempt for childbearing they envision a perfect world where women eschew motherhood altogether, most women are going to continue to have children, for the simple reason that motherhood is one of the greatest joys available to a human being – and it is an experience which is uniquely available to the female of the species – no matter how difficult patriarchy (and the feminist movement) tries to make it.
To really help women, feminists should stop trying to pressure women into becoming men; they should stop promulgating the myth that there are no differences between men and women, when it is clear to any fool that there are. Instead, they should recognize the differences and point out the inequities in the values assigned these differences. They should put their energies toward creating a work environment that accommodates itself to the exigencies of women’s lives, rather than joining forces with the male world in requiring that women accommodate the very real demands of their lives to the arbitrary demands of the workplace. They should work toward a more equitable society where work traditionally associated with women is paid at the very least a living wage – regardless of where it is done. They should work to better women’s lives, no matter whether a woman chooses the business/professional world or the domestic sphere. Bottom line, feminists should stop trying to turn women into men.