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A Right to Bare Arms: The State of Feminism Today

abstract:It is becoming increasingly hard to convince young women that feminism is relevant today. What short memories we have. Only 2 generations ago, women couldn’t vote (for women of color and native women, that right came much later) and had few rights even within the home , expected to “cater to [their] husband’s personal comfort,” “never complain” and “know [their] place.” (See Goodhousekeeping, May 19955) Our mothers’ generation was the first to “have it all” meaning they were “allowed” to have careers and families, but I’m sure any one of them will tell you being a “supermom” wasn’t a walk in the park, nor were they perceived or paid as equals for the most part. It was only a few weeks ago, after all, that Barack Obama signed the Equal Pay bill. That means that 4 months ago it was legally OK to pay a woman less based solely on her gender. We still get called—and worse, call each other—sluts and whores. We still think certain women deserve respect, and others (prostitutes, transgender women) do not. Shockingly, 1 in 7 think it’s acceptable to hit a woman if she is “nagging or constantly annoying,” and is responsible for inviting sexual harassment if wearing provocative clothing. A disturbing majority of teenage girls thought pop-singer Rhianna must have “made [boyfriend Chris Brown] really mad” for him to have beat her unconscious. Clearly, we have a ways to go.


June 05, 2009
The main problem seems to be that the term “feminism” conjures the “antiquated” (40 years hardly seems anachronistic) idea of suffrage and right to work. True, feminism has evolved past these basic rights (in the west), but do we really think there is no societal resonance of this very recent change? The birth control pill became legal in Canada in 1969. Fifty years ago. That means that before that, if you got pregnant, you had a baby or exposed yourself to the potentially fatal risks of illegal abortion. Either way, you had to deal with the fact that your life might be over, meaning both your freedom or your life, period. Fifty years ago. Our Right to Chose is constantly under debate, and BCPs aren’t covered by health care (but Viagra, on the other hand, may be). My intention is not to list dates and facts but only to stress how recent our acquisition of equality was, and how important it is to be mindful of this. While Second wave feminism describes the career equality above, third wave feminism is about choice. A good friend put it well

Feminism to me involves staking a claim on choice. In today’s world, I feel empowered to: Eschew or embrace a high-powered corporate career versus a domestic role; opt for push-up bras and botox or denounce cosmetics and contrived femininity, as I chose; define the role men play in my life (as equals, inferiors, or superiors, depending on context); and set goals for myself based on my interests, skills, and desires without adjustment for societal constraints.
This friend is a female manager of nine men at a hedge fund.

This quote was solicited as part of a newsletter my work is publishing on Feminism. I was rather disappointed by the reaction of some of my friends and colleagues to the subject. It was emphasized that the issue was to be positive, not a whole lotta man-bashing and soap-boxing. Some of the opinions of the younger girls saddened me, “feminism is overdone and pisses me off,” one girl said. There is a perception that now that things are “fair” we should shut up and be grateful, or worse, that remembering the struggle and the lingering inequities perpetuates misogyny—another way of saying “asking for it.” Patriarchy, pure and simple!

I can’t help but think that patriarchy has something to do with the fact that a lot of my brilliant female schoolmates are assistants or secretaries, and a lot of the men have assistants and secretaries. In perusing the craigslist for an administrative position, it is startling how much secretary/administrative assistant positions resemble that of a 1950’s wife. Calendar management. Answer phones. Get me lunch. Get my dry-cleaning. Remember the kids birthdays and social engagements. Make sure I have dinner. According to Sylvia Ann Hewlett, most high-powered male executives don’t have high powered wives; they want supportive homemakers. The vast majority of corporate men who want kids have them and the almost half of corporate women who want children do not.

So the real challenge for third wave feminists is balance. We might have access to “it all” but are still a ways from being able to juggle career, family, and so on, and all in a society where women are still undermined harassed, belittled or underestimated.

“During the campaign, there was talk in the Obama ranks that Michelle should stop wearing sleeveless dresses, because her muscles, combined with her potent personality, made her daunting,” Maureen Dowd stated in her NY Times column. The First Lady’s “right to bare arms” has since become a hot topic; according to the New Yorker, they “imply vanity and power: two things that make many women uncomfortable and yet are fundamental to self-confidence… They are evidence of a forty-five –year-old woman’s refusal to give up every free moment in service to husband, kids, and all the nagging distractions that could have filled her days…”

So I ask you to bear in mind the history of feminism and bare those buff arms, cuz it’s not over yet!

Lest She Forget: Some watershed Feminist tomes

  • Mary Woolstencraft A Vindication of the Rights of Women
  • Simone de Beauvoir The Second Sex
  • Betty Freidman The Feminine Mystique
  • Kate Millet Sexual Politics
  • Gloria Steiem Ms. Magazine
  • Margaret Atwood Handmaid’s Tale
  • Erica Jong Fear of Flying
  • Inga Muscio Cunt: A Declaration of Independence
  • Creating a Life: Professional Women and the Quest for Children
  • Everything You Wanted to Know About Feminism But Were Afraid To Ask:
  • “This is What a Feminist Looks Like” Barack Obama Ms. Magazine Cover
  • Michelle Obama Arms



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