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In Defense Of Femininities — All Of Them

Happy Women’s, Womyn’s, Womanist Herstory Month!  Yep, it is March already.  A time the US has set aside for obligatory celebration of girls and women and their contributions to the world.  Sadly, there is a sense of obligation, with the whisperings of “do we still need this?”

Comprehensive Gender Equality

Yes, we do still need these 31 days — barely 10 percent of the entire year — to reflect on girls, women, feminism, sexism and patriarchy, and gender.  By no means have we achieved gender equality.  And, we are overdue for broadening our vision of gender and equality.

Some time ago, I blogged about the narrow definition of “gender equality.”  In this limited, traditional sense, we are referring to the the equal status and treatment of women and men, still recognized by their gender and presumed sex.  This is certainly the dominant vision of mainstream feminism, or was at least in the days of second wave feminism.

There are at least three aspects of gender inequality that remain in this limited view of gender and gender equality.  First, this vision reinforces the treatment of “woman” as a singular status and “women” as a monolithic group.  The unique experiences and needs of women who are also of color, poor, disabled, lesbian, bisexual, queer, older, immigrant, and so on are overlooked.  Second, this focus fails to address the marginalization of transwomen, and transgender and gender non-conforming people in general.  Finally, while aiming to free women from oppression, certain gender identities and expressions — namely femininities — remain stigmatized and invisible.

Gender Diversity

There is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often overlooked within our society that continues to treat sex and gender as binaries: females and males, women and men.

Women, as a group, come from diverse backgrounds: race, ethnicity, social class, sexual identity, nativity, body size and shape, religion, region, and ability.  It is unsurprising, then, that various branches of feminism — or, more accurately, various feminisms — emerged to counter the exclusive focus of mainstream (second wave) feminism to the lives of US-born white middle-class heterosexual cisgender women.  Some of the prominent feminisms in both activism and academia include Black feminism, Womanism, Chicana feminism, multiracial feminism, Third World feminism, lesbian feminism, and working-class feminism.  Today, feminist advocacy and organizations are now more inclusive, but there is still a strong tendency to slip into “single issue” politics.

Related to this diversity among women is the variation within the category of “woman.”  Just as thinking of gender in binary terms, women and men, a singular view of women misses the existence of trans* and gender non-conforming people, particularly transwomen.  Unfortunately, feminist advocacy and organizations have even excluded transwomen in the past, and many wrestle today with deciding how far their inclusivity should extend (e.g., should women’s organizations serve transmen?).

Beyond diversity in terms of gender identity is the recognition of diverse gender expressions.  In reality, there is no universal femininity.  Rather, there are multiple femininities.  Because of the conflation of sex and gender, we tend to assume that femininity = woman; so the reality that femininity can be expressed through any body, regardless of sex and gender identity, is actively resisted and suppressed.  This means we also overlook the hierarchy of femininities, wherein hyperfemininity in female-bodied individuals is rewarded and valued over other expressions of femininity and its expression in other bodies.

Just to make sure the above discussion is clear, I stress that there is a great deal of gender diversity that is too often ignored or erased.  “Woman” does not imply white, US-born, able-bodied, heterosexual (or even sexual), cisgender, feminine, middle-class, Christian, and thin.  There is no singular status or identity of woman.  As a consequence of overlooking this gender diversity, we also miss the inequality that persists among women and among femininities.

In Defense Of Femininities

Despite the many gains that (cis)women have made, and increasing attention to the lives of transwomen, femininity itself remains stigmatized and devalued.  In fact, I would argue that some of the gains made toward gender equality have come at the expense of femininity.  Indeed, early on, some feminists expressed concern that the elevation of women’s status to that of men’s would largely men that women become men.  You can join the old boys club on the condition that you become a boy.

My discipline (sociology) recently tipped over the threshold of gender parity to become a predominantly-female field.  Though the “glass ceiling” has been cracked, if not completely shattered, in some of the field’s top-departments and leadership positions, feminist sociologists continue to struggle to gain legitimacy in mainstream sociology.

Further, we continue to prioritize and reward masculine (or even masculinist) presentations of self.  On two occasions, I witnessed a woman professor scold women students (in front of a mixed-audience) for appearing to lack confidence and aggressiveness: “don’t do that, that’s girly!”  I, too, was discouraged by a (man) professor from being a “shy guy” during an upcoming talk, which, upon comparing notes with another student, realized was the softened version of “man up!”  (I suppose I was assumed too sensitive or critical for the more direct assault on my gendered presentation of self.)

These interpersonal constraints are compounded by those at the institutional level.  In particular, academic institutions continue to evaluate scholars, particularly for tenure, using standards of the days where (white) male scholars had stay-at-home wives to take care of house and home.  Women who become parents face great professional costs, while women who forgo parenthood are rewarded.  Of course, an ironic twist to this aspect of sexism is that fathers receive a slight boost.

Liberating Femininities

As an optimist, I see liberating girls, women, as well as femininity as beneficial to all members of society, no matter their sex, gender identity, and gender expression.  As a critical scholar, I see this liberation as inherently tied to the liberation of all oppressed groups. Sexism is linked to transphobia is linked to heterosexism is linked to classism is linked to racism is linked to xenophobia is linked to ableism is linked to ageism and so on.

For example, two groups of oppressed men — Black men and trans, bisexual, and gay men — stand to benefit from the liberation of femininity.  Just as a hierarchy exists for femininities, one exists for the diverse expressions of masculinity, with that of US-born white middle-class able-bodied heterosexual men as the most valued.  Thus, Black masculinity and queer masculinity are devalued, stereotyped, and simultaneously threatened and treated as a threat.  As a result, many queer and Black men devalue femininity in society and particularly among themselves.  (Some rationalize this by asking, “why would you want to be further stigmatized?”)  True racial and sexual equality cannot exist if these men’s gender expressions remain constrained and policed.

It is time, then, to update our feminist vision of the future.  Feminism cannot be limited to the goal of liberating (a “narrow” category of) women.  We must liberate all women, regardless of their sex assigned at birth, race, age, ethnicity, ability, nativity, religion, body size and shape, and social class.  And, we must liberate all expressions of gender, particularly femininities.  For women will never be truly free in a society that oppresses femininity.

It Does Get Better — We Can And Have To Make It Better

I am not certain why the mainstream media have shown interest in the recent tragic losses of five queer youths, but this national attention is long overdue.  One suicide is too many suicides.  These that have occurred in just three weeks have been instrumental in reminding the country of the hostility young people face for being different.  While the focus on making changes in state-level and national marriage, family, non-discrimination, employment, and hate crimes laws has been important, we need not forget that we have, still, so far to go in improving the lives of everyday queer people.  Fortunately, that insight has been shared by others, including Dan Savage with his “It Gets Better” campaign, Ellen DeGeneres, and many celebrities via MTV.

I appreciate the many messages from everyday people and celebrities alike that it gets better, and I have added my own message “we have to make it better”:

We can see that change occurs year by year, even day by day.  But, it is in our efforts and the efforts of our allies that change comes about.  It does not magically happen; we cannot expect change while bigots work just as hard to resist change.  For most of us, as I have noted before, just living our lives out and proud is a form of activism.  We do the work of bigots when we inflict harm on ourselves, or deny who we are, or restrict our actions to avoid discrimination and prejudice.  For laws, hearts, and minds to change, we have to live our lives, stand up to injustice, and continue to fight on.  It does get better!

Legal Progress is Good, But Don’t Forget About Cultural Progress

I can relate to some of the disappointment with either the inaction, slow action, or counteraction of the Obama administration regarding sexual and gender equality.  Over a year ago, then-candidate Barack Obama made a number of promises that he, now as President, has either backed down from, disregarded, or moved in the opposite direction (like on the Defense of Marriage Act).  While it’s nice to have a friend in the White House, we need not forget that much of the work it will take to realize full equality in a legal, social, and cultural sense will be our own doing.  Though my generation was not around for the Stonewall riots and gay liberation, and was too young to understand any of the emergence of AIDS and the mobilization for better treatment and prevention options, we have to remember the power we hold as people to create change for ourselves.

My concern is that we’ve become increasingly obsessed with making changes to laws and policies, thus depending upon politicians and fellow voters, and have forgotten about the importance of cultural change.  For example, the government may recognize our marriages and families as real and equal, but the majority of the country will still view these as immoral or, at best, alternative.  This is reflected in voting patterns – we lose too often to continue to cross our fingers and hope that a future Prop 8 won’t happen.  (Heck, the fact that it happened in 2000 and then in 2008 in California of all places says that we need to rethink our game plan.)

I cite, for example, the removal of laws that prohibited people of different races from marrying by the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court decision.  Within the context of the law, interracial relationships were no longer treated any differently from intraracial relationships.  But, in my quick skim of the 2002 General Social Survey, a nationally-representative sample of adults in the United States, I see that nearly 10% of respondents still thought that there should be a law prohibiting interracial marriage.  That was in 2002!  That was 35 years after the law changed!    The General Social Survey’s 2006 survey revealed that 55% of their respondents for that year viewed homosexual sex as “always wrong” compared to 33% that said that it’s “not wrong at all”.  What good is legal marriage equality if more than half of the country thinks that our sexual and romantic relationships are immoral and abnormal?

Often times, when keeping up with my favorite blogs, I skim over posts about kiss-ins, sit-ins, and other forms of protest for the sexual equality.  But, it recently hit me that these political actions are just as important, if not more, as new bills that are introduced in congress, new decisions handed down from the courts, and new orders coming out of the White House.  The most recent I came across was the formation of “A Day in Hand”, a group in the UK encouraging same-gender couples to hold hands in public.  I’ve also seen a number of posts about the nation-wide kiss-in that was planned.  I guess a part of me shrugged because I do not currently have a honey to hold hands with and kiss, either publicly or privately.  But, I’m all for promoting others to do so.  It is these forms of actions that send a reminder to the world that we exist, we’re happy, and we’re healthy.  I’ve come across a number of studies that found that attitudes toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are much more positive when they actually know such people.  I know that this sort of advice comes with the potential of fear of harassment and violence, and the potential for being victimized, but we have to start somewhere.  Sometimes the greatest force keeping us from being out and proud is the fear that we’ve internalized.