Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How Far We've Come

In light of reflection on my experiences in this class and what I have taken away from it, I thought it would be interesting to compare the concepts, theories, and ideas that we have discussed this semester to past conventional notions in sex and gender studies. To do this I skimmed through a few chapters from an introductory sociology textbook that my father used in college in 1979. I thought it would be interesting to see how far the feminist movement has come in the past thirty years, to see what we have accomplished. My findings, while not surprising, were slightly disheartening. See for yourself:

Negative Aspects of Womanhood:

“The situation of American women today is ambiguous, and that ambiguity is reflected in the law: for example, legislation that removes barriers to women’s equality exists side by side with other laws or court decisions that seek to protect women as though they were still the ‘weaker sex’” (154).

This is still true today, and the issue is far from being resolved. We can see evidence of this in the ongoing debate about abortion and a woman’s right to choose. See Leah’s blog post “Oh Noklahoma” for an example.

“A capacity for sympathy, caring, love, and compassion . . . is central to the female role in America. Women are associated with nurturant and life-preserving activities, such as bearing children and taking care of the helpless and the ailing. Stroking—building up another person’s ego by downplaying one’s own talents—is one of woman’s chief functions” (154).

The book maintains this stance despite its extensive coverage of the differences between sex and gender and the nature/nurture debate. Today’s version of the “caregiver” versus “justice” models (and the association of women with the former and men with the latter) is simply a recapitulation of these same ideas. That our current literature leaves out the “stroking” aspect testifies to some degree of progress, in that it seems that we now accept that women do not have to minimize their own positive qualities so as to reinforce the man’s conception of himself as dominant.

“Benefits” of the Female Role:

“Although increasingly large numbers of women are entering the work force all the time, many women are not obliged to work thirty-five or forty hours a week to provide for others. Furthermore, they have the legal right to claim support from their husbands . . . Of course, women do work, but employment, though perhaps an economic necessity, is not yet a moral duty for most women” (156).

This statement could be contested on the grounds that it appears to only consider the experiences of middle to upper class women; however, so could many of the selections we’ve read this semester. With that said, this implies that, as women, we do not have to feel morally obligated to get a job to support the family. Yet, two further assumptions can be made: men are morally obligated to work outside the home, and women are morally obligated to do the opposite, that is, perform domestic duties. This reinforces women’s vulnerability in marriage; in a way it encourages that vulnerability. Unfortunately, I do not see a significant change in this attitude in the past three decades either.

“The sphere of intimacy and close human contact is more accessible to women; the expression of nurturance, warmth, and sympathy, which is to some extent denied men in our society, can be its own reward” (156).

Here we are plagued by an understanding of the caregiver role as inherently feminine and thus fulfilling to women. The risk we run by making a statement like this is the implication that care giving should be its own reward, and should be delegated to women because it is rewarding to us. Theorists today I think would argue against this, saying that society as a whole needs to be involved in care giving.

Projections for the Future:

“The traditional roles of wife/homemaker/mother and husband/breadwinner/father are no longer givens. Although more and more people today accept that women have a right to pursue a career, we have not, as a society, resolved the question of who is going to take care of the children . . . So to a large extent today, the absence of clear models forces couples to define their roles as husband and wife on their own” (133).

“Although women are entering the work force in larger numbers, they are still over-represented in low-paying jobs, and they still aren’t earning equal pay for equal work . . . in 1976 [women] earned only 60 percent [of a man’s income]” (159).

These two statements, to me, are somewhat depressing. The first, written over thirty years ago, could just as well appear in an article on family roles today. The “absence of clear models” is even more apparent today as we see even more incarnations of the family becoming accepted and normalized, yet still we cling to the idealized model of the two parent-three child nuclear family. The sooner our society lets go of the need to have a clear “model” of what the family should be, the more open the road to progress will become. The second statement shows that, in over thirty years of fighting for equal pay/equal work, we have only gained about 10 cents on the dollar compared to men’s salaries. While this does show progress, it is denigrating that we still hover around that 2/3 mark.

“The traditional stereotypes of women as mothers and wives first, and of men as worker-breadwinners, persist. For many women, this means they must graft new responsibilities onto the old, becoming not more equal, only more tired” (168).

The entrance of women into the workforce, at a rate of compensation inferior to that of men, and the unrelenting expectations of women to fulfill domestic duties are issues that are just as problematic now as they were three decades ago. This shows stagnation in the fight for full equality. Why are we still fighting the same battles that our mothers’ generation supposedly won? Have women become more equal to men? Or have our small “victories,” which for many women have resulted in an endless string of household duties compounded instead of alleviated by career aspirations, caused us to lose sight of our ultimate goals of self-definition, autonomy, and freedom from the oppression of patriarchy?

Source: Light, Jr., Donald, and Suzanne Keller. 1979. Sociology, 2nd ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

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