Today it is International Women’s Day. A day when we should all consider where we’ve come from, and how far we’ve still got to go. I have been thinking about this a lot, as one of my nieces ventures into the real world, post-university. In the 1980s, when I was in my 20s, feminism was not about burning our bras. It was about opportunity, about being treated as equals in life and the workplace. Feminism was new enough that we didn’t expect everything to be perfect instantly. We knew feminism was a work in progress. I was on the wrong end of discrimination of number of times. As much as it disappointed me, it reassured me that I was on the right path, and that i needed to continue to fight. We just wanted to see a growing awareness of the issues, and to see change – in legislation, and behaviour. And we did, but slowly.
So now, young women like my niece take it for granted that they can go to university, gain entry into any course they like, take on any career they choose. Feminism is I think much less mainstream, even at universities, than it used to be. After all, there are not the day-to-day issues to fight over. A recent Slate article commented: “Let’s face it: feminists today are pretending to fight wars that were won long ago” and went on to cite equal rights legislation. Here in NZ, women have held all the highest offices in the land, Governor-General (head of State), Prime Minister, Chief Justice, and CEO of the country’s largest company. The evidence is there – women can achieve at the highest levels.
The thing is, many people do believe that feminism is a cause of the past, that there is no longer any glass ceiling. And increasingly, I think this is the case of the younger generation. We see it in those who have managed – despite the odds – to achieve at the highest levels. Marissa Mayer, the controversial CEO of Yahoo, declared she wasn’t a feminist, but then outlined her beliefs, all of which match those of feminism – equal rights, women are just as capable as men, if not more so, in a variety of dimensions. I also heard a woman, the former CEO of a major company, comment that there was no glass ceiling in New Zealand anymore. (I was so incensed that I emailed into the public radio programme where this statement was made, and said that clearly she had never worked anywhere I had worked, pointing out that whilst I was the Chair of a small company, it had still taken years for my fellow directors to accept that maybe I had something to say. That here in the second decade of the 21st century, I had frequently been subject to the “that’s a good idea, but we’ll wait till one of the men suggest it” syndrome around the board table. My email got a “bravo” from the female panellists in the discussion!)
I know that that glass ceiling is still there. It has a few holes where the occasional woman sneaks through, but it’s there nonetheless. Whilst it may have been opaque in the 80s, and you only have to watch Mad Men to remember that it was made of brick in the 1960s, now that glass ceiling is relatively clear. Except there are a few streaks from the occasional rainy day that make it obvious for those who look closely. But youngsters who have never had to clean the glass, or who have not yet hit their heads on it, don’t even realise it is there.
And so I worry that complacency has set in. Complacency that women can now do or be anything they want, and therefore don’t need to protect their rights. (And as I write this, I hear a report that 30% of businesses have no women in senior management, an increase from the last time this was measured.)
This complacency is most obvious with regard to our sexuality. Decades ago, women were not allowed to be sexual beings, or if they were they were labelled “sluts” and ostracised and abused. Of course, we know this still happens, both in western cultures and much more repressive cultures. But outwardly, we see that female sexuality has been celebrated, and whilst this is not a bad thing, the openness and freedom to be an equal sexual being has turned into a circle and has headed right back to where women were only important because of their bodies. A disturbing (to me) trend has been reported that in US high schools young women and girls are increasingly pressured into performing oral sex. They may think this is freedom. But it seems to be to be the worst type of exploitation, when performed out of peer pressure or to gain popularity. In the 80s and 90s, judging women on their bodies was considered to be old school, a throwback to the days when women were men’s to do with what they wanted, to the days (in the then recent past) when it was still legal for a husband to rape his wife. It was obvious throughout society; beauty pageants were popular, advertising campaigns with women in bikinis draped over the bonnets of new cars were ubiquitous, etc etc. Women were little more than their bodies, and we were judged by how you looked, not by the way your brain worked. Jokes and put-downs were commonplace. And yet, when you look around society today, there is an incredible level of judgement about women’s bodies, not to mention the increasingly unreasonable standards of thinness, as women waste away in front of us, deform themselves with plastic surgery, trying desperately to adhere to society’s idea of “female beauty.” Anyone see the Oscars, with Seth McFarlane’s joke about women giving themselves the flu to lose weight? “Looking good, ladies” he laughed. Chauvinism is alive and well and as public as ever.
And increasingly now there seems to be ever more celebration and promotion of women as mothers, as the bodies that gave birth to the next generation. There are still nasty comments about women who don’t have children –Julia Gillard has been the subject of these in Australia – when men are never subject to such judgements. The pervasive myth that you’re not a “real woman” unless you’ve given birth. And then there is the hysteria that surrounds talented women who become mothers (eg Angelina Jolie). It’s as if there is now a cult of motherhood, of perfect motherhood, which brings incredible pressure on women to live up to.
And when in doubt, people attack feminists. Marissa Mayer seemed to think that feminism and feminist was a dirty word. “…the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder …I do think feminism has become, in many ways, a more negative word.” Clearly, young women don’t relate to the concept or the name. And sadly, the attacks against feminists have changed little – comments made about them being bitter lesbians, or fat and ugly. Oh yes, we’ve come a long way in the last 30 years.
The complacency that discrimination just doesn’t exist, the complacency in the belief that as women we can act any way we want without negative consequences, has brought us to back to this. The feminism I knew was to ensure that women had choices in how they would live their lives, and that the consequence would mean that men too would have the same choices. But I look at western societies today, the societies where my nieces and the daughters of friends are growing up, and I fear for them:
Will they feel free?
Will they feel they have a choice about how they live?
Will they feel forced to conform to their societies’ norms, simply because they are women?
Will they feel they have a right to control their own bodies?
Will body images distort even further?
Will they realise when they are being pressured into doing something they don’t want to do?
And last, but not least,
Will they even recognise discrimination when it occurs?
* With acknowledgement of Loribeth who inspired the use of this title, and the song.