I wanted to talk about a very loaded word today – “feminist.” I don’t know how old I was when I learned the word, I think it was in the 1980s. At the time that I learned it there was a positive association with the word. I understood that if I labeled myself as a feminist it meant that I believed that women were equal to men. Then somewhere in the 90s it got a bad name and conjured images of bitter and masculine looking women who were man-haters. For me nothing has changed but words and concepts go in and out of fashion. Strictly speaking I suppose I should label myself an “egalitarian” but that’s not specific enough for me to embrace the word in relation to a woman’s movement. I still prefer the “F” word.
Since an important reason why I write this blog is to help educate people about the dangerous chemicals in personal care products (who mostly happen to be women) I think it’s an important part of my personal development to read feminist literature. In fact it was while I was reading The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf that I got the idea to give up wearing makeup. Since I was reading Wolf’s book almost 20 years after it was first published I felt it was outdated. The Beauty Myth was said to represent 3rd wave feminism which centered on women freeing themselves from societal pressures to look a certain way. Note: first wave feminism lead to political rights for women in Western countries in the early 20th century and the second wave lead to improved legal/working rights in the 1970s.
Growing up as a teenager in the 1990s I think I took for granted what all previous generations of women had done to improve things for women. Through pure ignorance I thought things were ticking along just fine into the noughties and I was waiting for a book that would show that Wolf’s ideas were no longer applicable today. However I was really shocked when I read Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism by Natasha Walter. According to her it would seem that we women have lost the momentum on the feminist trajectory that our foremothers set in motion for us.
Walter’s book centers on two main concepts which she calls the New Sexism and the New Determinism. Today when we watch TV shows like Mad Men we’re shocked at the overt and rampant sexism that took place in the offices on Madison Avenue in the 1960s. Although today much of that type of sexism has left the offices (albeit not completely) it is actually just mutating into a different type of sexism, one that can be found in porn, pole dancers, and prostitution which used to be subversive are now very much main stream. There seems to be this reverse psychology that women are now choosing to go into these types of professions because they are empowering and in control of their lives however there is a big question mark for Walter as to whether or not this is really the case.
In the second section of her book Walter talks about New Determinism. Determinism is the concept that boys and girls and therefore men and women act in certain ways which are predisposed due to their gender. This is the whole nature versus nurture debate and it swings in roundabouts. In 2005, Laurence Summer, the then president of Harvard University sparked World War III between the genders. Read the full saga on the Women in Science and Engineering Leadership Institute especially the lame apology letter he issued. In simple terms he felt at the time of giving his now infamous speech at the National Bureau of Economic Research that is was down to nature and had little or nothing to do with nurture the fact that women were less successful then men in the fields of math and science. Women scientists everywhere were angry, not because of what he said, but the fact that his assertions had little scientific support. However, what was perhaps even more telling and interesting was how the media covered the story. The women who challenged the basis on which Summer made his assertions were portrayed very unflatteringly in the media. And since then the media seems to have clocked on and accept this biological determinism as if it is fact when in actuality there are still way more questions than answers about why men and women are different.
Anyways I have to give a big thanks to my little brother who bought me the book Living Dolls for Christmas. As a side note, and I think he’ll laugh if he’s reading this for what’s about to follow. When he and I used to go and visit our great grandmother she would always get us both one “girl” toy and one “boy” toy. So for example I think when I was around 6 and my brother was 3 she got us both a My Little Pony and GI Joe action figures. It’s strange because even then I remember thinking it was silly to get me GI Joes because I was obviously not interested in them, but at the same time I understood that there was an important reason why. Now if we’re really going to go down memory lane I can further embarrass my brother by telling you that he also used to play with my Barbie dolls. As much as it broke my mother’s heart that I wanted to play with Barbies (she thought it was inappropriate for a little girl to play with a doll that had breasts) I did finally wear her down and acquire a couple of the dolls. As soon as I got them however I completely lost interest and after that I used to find my brother would scatter around the house with all of their clothes removed. Not sure what Freud would say about that? Sorry little bro, but I love you!