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Archive for the ‘Feminism’ Category

(Spoiler Alert)

Everyone is talking about The Handmaid’s Tale. When I knew that the TV series had been made and that my online streaming service was going to run it, I decided I needed to read the book first, and so immediately put a hold on it at the Library. I ended up reading it in Norway, fascinated and appalled in equal measure, wondering why I hadn’t read it before. Then, on my return home, I watched the whole series in about three or four sessions.

Because I read the book so close to watching the TV series, I was a little discombobulated at first by the variations in the story, but soon embraced them as it was so well told by both the writers and actors. It was stimulating, but I also found it deeply disturbing. You’d think that, as a woman who wasn’t able to have children, the fertility issues in the book and TV series might have bothered me. But I felt for both the fertile women forced into slavery, and for the infertile women who were either enslaved in domestic service, enslaved as Wives to powerful Commanders, or enslaved as Non-Women (though I’ll admit that this name delivered a painful pinch) in “the colonies.” All women were defined solely on the basis of their fertility. They weren’t seen as individuals in their own right, they weren’t allowed to choose their path in life. To me, The Handmaid’s Tale is much less about fertility, and much more about feminism, about how the world sees and behaves towards women.

As a feminist, I recognised a lot of the slights against women, the obvious and the more subtle, and cringed at the fact that they are still so familiar. So much of what was normal and accepted by men in this dystopian world is, in fact, also seen as normal and accepted unquestionably by men today. The Gilead world in the TV series may look very different, with the red uniforms for the Handmaids and the required green for the Wives, but the similarities were at the same time shocking and not shocking; the small and not-so-small slights, insults, and denial of women’s rights that are either not recognised as such, or are deemed acceptable in both worlds – the dystopian world and our own.

The dismissing of Serena Joy, despite the important part she played in the birth of the new regime of Gilead, is not that far from the dismissals we see of women’s views in workplaces and boardrooms and TV studios today. The scene where she was kept out of the room to discuss the very policies she had developed was not so different to my own experiences as the only female director of a company, when my comments and suggestions at the board table were dismissed by the male directors, only to be blatantly proposed again shortly afterwards by one of the men, to the acclaim and acceptance of his fellow male directors. This situation is such a cliché that there was a cartoon about it in Punch in the 1980s. Sadly, 30 years on this hasn’t changed.

The forced relinquishment of the babies, when Janine, for example, has to give up her baby and move on, reminded me of the not-too-distant past in some of our own countries, when forced adoptions occurred, frequently sanctioned by the church and state. Our own government in NZ has recently refused to open an inquiry into this situation, and that infuriates me.

The differences in control over women’s bodies and lives in fictional Gilead and NZ (and much of the world) today is merely a matter of degree. Abortion in NZ is rarely a political issue, simply because neither major party has the political will (ie courage) to discuss it; scared of the debate, they shut it down and refuse to engage. Whilst abortions are available in NZ, they are not available on demand, and women have to go through the process of getting two doctors’ to sign off on the procedure, treated as if they are not responsible enough to control their own bodies. (Though at least birth control is publicly funded and readily available).

I have to say, too, that the dehumanisation of the Handmaids’ name changes, defining them only in terms of their relationship with the man who was intended to father children on them, wasn’t so very different from how I felt (and still feel) about the pressure women face to take our husband’s names at marriage.

Back to Serena Joy. There is a scene where she is embroidering (or knitting?), sitting before the fire on her own. This is virtually the only leisure activity she is permitted. Reading is now prohibited. Did she really want that, when she wrote these laws and this policy? Did she foresee how far the men could take these policies when she was involved? Did she deserve this? Maybe, but I still felt real empathy for her and all the other women in Gilead, sitting in front of the fire on their own, stripped of all power and respect, not even allowed to read or write. They had lost power, recognition, and respect in this new world.

But seriously, how much power, recognition and respect do we have now? Patriarchies still rule most/all of the world. The rooms full of men making decisions about and for women don’t occur only in Gilead, or in regimes ruled by fundamentalists or dictators. We see them here today, in our own countries and in similar cultures, most pointedly and disturbingly at the moment, in the US. It is a demonstration of how quickly things can turn against us. Within six months, women have been forced to take a back seat in policy-making. The US Vice-President would welcome a Gilead-like environment. He (along with others in the administration) doesn’t see women as equals in business and wants to control women’s reproductive rights based on religious principles. I’ve seen changes occur here too, though to a much lesser extent. The heady days when we had a female Governor-General, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, and CEO of our largest company have passed. Sure, we once again have a female Governor-General, the Chief Justice is still in her position, and both major political parties have women as deputies. But women in the executive branch of government are still in the minority, and we have made little progress in increasing the numbers of women in boardrooms and as CEOs over the last ten or twenty years. Sadly, the change of just a few key people at the top can suddenly remind over 50% of the population that we are still yet to take a rightful fair share of control in the world.

And yet it seems that we let this happen. I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Whilst I’ve tried to lead by example in the past as the Chair of a company, I’m currently not employed, fighting against sexism and ageism in trying to find new employment, and I’ve never been politically active. There’s a scene in The Handmaid’s Tale when the new regime is just taking power, where Moira and June are discussing the changes, and say incredulously, “but they can’t do that, can they?” That’s our problem, I think. It is too easy to sit here and say this. From NZ, we look at the US and say, “but they can’t do that, can they?” And it seems they can, and will. I see my friends talking about calling and pressuring their representatives, and wish I could help them. Though the situation is far less urgent, and I hope we will continue to go the opposite direction, I am painfully aware that things could change in an instant, or an election.

Finally, and perhaps most troubling to me, was the scene in The Handmaid’s Tale where the women are sent home from work and their bank accounts frozen. June’s husband, thinking he is being supportive, says, “I’ll take care of you.” That scene screamed out to me. He was trying to mollify the women who were upset. Yes, he was trying to calm them, trying to help. But in doing so, he seemed to be accepting the new normal (even if he didn’t agree with it) because it hadn’t yet really affected him. Even the good guys don’t really get it. Neither do many women (like Serena Joy). They certainly don’t feel the fear or outrage to the same extent, or won’t until it is too late. And that’s what scares me more than anything.

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As many have already written, Mary Tyler Moore died last week. I remember watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show as a teenager (I think that’s when it was on NZ TV), when I too was looking forward to the prospect of leaving home and moving to a big city, full of opportunities. I probably didn’t realise how ground-breaking it was at the time, perhaps because I always felt more than a little frustrated because Mary was by far the most sensible and capable person in the newsroom, and she did most of the work, she had to fix the messes from their scrapes, but still she was junior to the men, and was pushed about by them.

Some things have changed since the programme – I read, for example, that the character Mary was only allowed to wear trousers/pants once an episode because they were not yet readily accepted attire for a woman. But society didn’t change that much that quickly, as I distinctly remember having to dash home from the Embassy in Bangkok in the early 1990s to change my pants to a skirt when I was asked to accompany the Ambassador later that day to call on the Prime Minister, and even in 2016, you hear that a woman was sent home because she didn’t wear high heels.

And in the last decade, I have seen female friends spending years of their working lives supporting men who were promoted over them and preventing them from making mistakes, just as I remember Mary covering for Lou Grant and Murray, rather than receiving those promotions themselves. Double standards still exist between the genders in all spheres of life, and the recent women’s marches all around the world were a genuine response to that. Sadly, although I like to think that we, as women, are “gonna make it after all,” I’m not hopeful that it will be soon.

Sadly, although I like to think that we, as women, are “gonna make it after all,” I’m not convinced that it will be very soon.

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I regularly feel as if my head will explode as I observe how women are still being treated and judged, and today – after watching the latest Bridgett Jones’ movie with a friend this morning, seeing the predictable and “happy” ending where she has no job, but has the man and the baby so obviously, what more could/should a woman want? – feel motivated to write something that I’ve written before, and no doubt will write again.

I am fed up that leaders of nations and those who aspire to be leaders of nations can only see women as sexual beings, or in the context of their relationships with men (as wives, daughters or mothers), rather than as real, conscious, responsible, intelligent, contributing and equal human beings

I am furious that so many men only feel personally feel offended by poor treatment or attitudes towards women if they think that their “wives and daughters” might be treated badly, but didn’t feel any concerns or were not motivated to do anything about it previously when their wives and daughters or all the other women around the world were and are still denied the right to make decisions about education, or family building, or their own bodies.

I am overwhelmed with frustration at the fact that women are still criticised for sounding strident or aggressive when a man will be called strong, that their ideas, thoughts, and voices are dismissed until a man comes up with the same idea, that their diplomacy or tact is seen as a weakness, and that these are all injustices that I have endured, and that I have seen my female family and friends endure.

I want all girls and young women (including but not only my nieces and daughters of my friends) to grow up and inhabit a world in which they are seen as individuals, not as extensions of men as wives and daughters and sisters and mothers, and not as women whose value is determined by their size and shape, their looks, or their behaviour that has to conform to a different standard than that of the men around them.

I want all girls and young women (including but not only my nieces and daughters of my friends), to have outstanding role models of both genders who are respected and fairly treated and free of judgement and harassment and stereotypes, and to grow up knowing that they are free to choose their own paths in the world, in their everyday lives, and private lives.

And I want all boys and young men (including but not only my nephews and sons of my friends) to see women as individuals in their own right, to respect and treat them fairly, never to judge and harass and impose their will or ignore their voices, to be confident enough in their own skin to never put a woman or girl down because of their gender, to see their friends and colleagues and family and community members who are women as equal as their friends and colleagues and family and community members who happen to be men.

Thirty years ago, I was a new graduate, a young feminist who was full of hope that all this would and must become a thing of the past, and now I am a jaded, tired and disappointed woman, but still, and always, a feminist.

 

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Yesterday was International Women’s Day. Yesterday, before I remembered it was International Women’s Day, I was reading an article about rape culture posted on FB by a blogging friend (one of the reasons I love the internet). I read it and was sad.

I complained to my husband, “I could have read this exact same article in the 1980s. Word for word.”

I sighed. “It makes me so angry.”

“That suggests that you actually thought things would change?” said my oh-so-comforting husband.

Sadly, I did.

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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.

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Recently I read a book set in China at the end of the 19th century/beginning of the 20th.  It followed much of the life of a young girl, through her foot-binding and the inevitable higher marriage. It was designed of course for the reader to cringe, as they described the pain of the binding, the attempts to walk on breaking bones, and the resultant hobbling of so many women. A modern woman, with the soles of her feet firmly (and flatly) on the ground, I of course find it almost impossible to imagine. I cannot understand why someone would get the idea in the first place that this might be a good idea, and do it to the first woman, let alone how it could grow to be such a widespread practice.

But as I both rail against the idea that women were so crippled and controlled through this barbaric custom, and shake my head at the fact that this practice was perpetuated by women, I can understand why. I can understand that the cultural acceptance of foot-biding had become so prevalent that the mothers felt that it was better to force their daughters through this excruciating pain rather than leave them to live the life of poverty and servitude (beyond even that of a typical woman and wife in China at the time) that was inevitable for those with big (ie natural, unbound) feet.

But it got me thinking. Have we really come so far?  I wear high heels occasionally. I like the way they lengthen my legs in proportion to my body, and that my legs and ankles look slimmer in high heels. But I don’t like them that much. For a start, I don’t like towering over my friends, although I don’t mind towering over male colleagues. I don’t like the fact that high heels in effect hobble me; that I have to be careful walking across the street, or going down stairs. I don’t like that they take away the power I feel in being fit and nimble and ready for anything.  I want to walk easily on this earth, as well as lightly.  I don’t want to feel like the weak female.  And yet, high heels make me feel exactly that.  I mean, look at this example of women being unable to walk (or even stand) without assistance, and this (not that I have any idea who this woman is).   I think modern women like high heel shoes because they give us a degree of power (sexual power, that is).  But if we were honest, they take away so much more.

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I’m angry

I haven’t felt this for a long time. But I remember noting a while ago that Afghan men can starve their wives, and noted it down as a potential blog topic. I was stunned, but didn’t feel able to put my emotions into words. But more recently I’ve learned of the Canadian police officer who said that women should avoid dressing like “sluts” to avoid being raped or victimised, and the world-wide protests that are being planned by women in response. And today I shed tears as I watched the 60 Minutes interview of Lara Logan, who was attacked and raped by a mob in Cairo.

And now I hear that a Hasidic newspaper edits two women – including Hilary Clinton, the US Secretary of State – out of a photograph of the White House Situation Room. I’m listening to a radio interview as I write this, and a male commentator said “what’s the point of getting upset about this?” He sees the absurdity of it. But he can’t understand what it feels like to be one of the erased. To know that there are people in this word who consider I count for nothing, simply because I am a woman. I hear men saying “but there is no glass ceiling” or that “feminism has achieved its goals.” I guess when you’re not exposed to something personally, you don’t feel it.

I am shaking my head in wonder. I feel as if I’m back in the 1970s, when these things were more prevalent – when it was common to hear people say “she asked for it” if a woman was raped, when it was legal for a husband to rape his wife. I remember the debate. Men claiming that it wasn’t rape, that it was their wife’s duty, or simply the sanitised language used, describing it as “forcing themselves on their wives.” It’s rape. I heard someone say Lara Logan wasn’t raped, they “just used their fingers.” That’s rape. She felt raped. I see women still being blamed for being the victims: it is apparently their fault that they are sexually attacked if they are so presumptuous as to want to work in foreign environments, or want to wear particular clothes. Seriously? Poor men, their willpower is so weak that they can’t be blamed if they rip the clothes off a blonde reporter, or rape or victimise a women showing legs and cleavage. Poor men, who are so threatened by women in power that they have to pretend they don’t exist. Misogyny seems alive and well, wherever we are. Is this really 2011? Yes, some of these things happen in, how shall I describe them, less enlightened societies, or amongst fundamentalist religious groups. But some of these things are happening in western societies, and here in New Zealand, men don’t always get it.

I know that I can’t make sweeping judgements about men, or about women’s positions in societies based on these incidents. I know that most of the men I know are staunch supporters of women. But still. I see these things and I battle against being treated in my business environment simply because I’m a woman, and I can’t help wonder if every man sees us this way, deep down. It makes me feel unsafe, insecure, and just plain damn angry.

As a teenager I became aware of feminism and why it was so important. It’s been some time since I felt that I could be seen as nothing but an object for men’s pleasure, or as a servant to a man under the guise of the word “wife,” or as, simply … well … nothing. Lara Logan said she felt like nothing more than dirt, just dirt, after her attack. And I wonder at the young women today who don’t think feminism is important.

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