Equality in Feminism

I have been quite uncomfortable recently with the discussion equating “equality” with “feminism”. Mostly, it appears, this is to placate comfortable young women who do not wish to feel that their reasonably wide range of choices in life might be upset if they rock the boat. They might turn out like unattractive, hairy, man hating “blue stockings”, as they see us feminists from the past.

However I have been uncharacteristically quiet, thinking that as an elderly “second wave?” feminist, perhaps even tail end of “first wave”, because I espoused feminist principles as a teenager at the end of the 50s, I may be out of date and out of line. But, honestly, I really value men and admire a lot of them. And I have never, ever worn a stocking that was blue! (Mind you I have worn slacks when they were forbidden, even rolled up under an academic gown if necessary.)

But feminism is selling itself short if all it wants is equality in the existing world.

This is for two reasons. Firstly it is unattainable. Men and women are different. Most men are physically stronger than most women. For example in elite sports men are likely to out perform women when each are in competition with the another. Women, at this stage in our biology, are going to be the ones to give birth to, and then, in the short term, supply food for babies . (But both genders, apart from initial food supply, can look after children equally.) There have to be acknowledged and mutually accepted adaptations around these type of basic, everlasting inequalities.

But more importantly, equality as applied to our existing world is not nearly good enough for feminism. Our western world, let alone developing countries, has been structured for many generations around male ideology and still retains much of this structure. Until the aims, ambitions and conceptualisation of the world as a whole are arrived at with mutuality between men and women, we continue to need positive action from feminists (both men and women).

When we have arrived at an agreed upon notion of world aims and structures only then we can settle for an (adjusted) equality in living.

For the young women who do not believe we are living in a society which still reflects some patriarchal power let me list a few dates at which here, in NSW Australia, laws fully enforcing some patriarchal views, were still in place.

Seventy years ago parents could agree to the marriage of 12 year old girls. Boys had to be older. The age of consent did not become equal as between genders at 16 until 1991, but it was the push of the gay community for equality which helped this along, not women’s protection issues. It was only determined by the courts in 1996 that it was illegal for a man to rape his wife. Women’s basic wage was raised and set at 75% of the male wage in 1971.

For a significant part of last century women could no longer continue to be teachers if they married. When they did teach or worked in some other professions, they had to wear skirts, not trousers, and that continued into the eighties. When I was a child girls had to wear white gloves to school and our tunics had to be a set length. As a young solicitor I had to wear a hat in court.

While much of this, as we can see, has now been altered, it remains strongly in the memory of those of us who lived through it, and therefore reflects how we view some other issues. Here, while I continue to concentrate on clothing, sexuality and, intrinsic to these, image, this merely provides a simple perspective to the other issues, some of which are still very tenuous and could be easily lost by behaviour which assumes a freedom and wide community support.

It seems to me that women are still prone to objectification. Nowhere is this more apparent today than in clothes, toys and stories for little girls and boys. Body image is an escalating problem, and is now a problem for both genders. But just because it has become worse for boys as well, does not make it right. Women and girls, and now to some extent young males, have become victims to rampant commercialism. Do we want to sit in this world that has been structured around us and say, “It is OK now the boys are starting to feel bad about themselves too. We are equal”?

Possibly partly as a response to this commercialism, some women continue to focus closely on appearance. Many seem to demand, by their scathing criticisms, that fashionable physical presentation should again be lauded as a positive, even bordering on a necessity of being a woman, rather than as a choice. Having one’s style of dress as merely an optional part of being a female (even a sexual one) was a very hard fought past battle for us and one which still rages in some cultures. Yet while exercising this freedom, some women try to deny that appearance will always give rise to impressions, assumptions and definitions, and even more so when we have choice (just look at the ties of politicians). And lo, they still refer to “blue stockings”.

We women need to be able to be active, equal participants in the sexual game and make sexual decisions for ourselves, not merely be passive. Some of us dress to accentuate sexuality and this is a complete right. But many of the women who choose to do that, object to use of the word “slut” instead of embracing it, whilst we all enthusiastically watch programs on screen about a “rake” without quibbling. Women, no more than men, can “have their cake and eat it”, in a society based on mutuality. As we discard the garbs of submission, we must take on our own responsibility, not only for the presentation we chose to make, but for its contribution to the structure of a mutual society.

I must now prepare to put on the blue stockings.

I, for one, think “feminism” means something a little more than “equality”. Yes, it encompasses the need for equal respect. It encompasses the need for equal opportunities for both genders. But it also stands for a hope for different ideals for the world. And I would always be happy to debate this complex issue with any young woman. But I cannot fit it on a little poster.


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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