Stuck on a Lower Rung: How Far Have Women Really Come?

Spring 2009
Experience and Other Evidence Essays

Article 4 of 12

Despite the long and winding road of struggle for women’s rights, the pinnacle of the journey has not yet been reached even in 2008. Why do women still earn less then men? Why are sexually promiscuous women looked down upon and ostracized while men who are considered “playboys” and “studs” praised? And why are women still forced to face the choice of either being a good mother or having a successful career? The 19th Amendment, gender discrimination laws, and the success of current female politicians in today’s society have all contributed to the huge successes towards equality, yet women still reside in the shadow of masculinity. The gap between baby-boomer feminists and the millennial generation, the negative connotation surrounding the word “feminist”, and society’s complacency with the subordinate role of the female gender all contribute to the difficulty for women to escape the centuries-old pigeonhole of sexism and inequality.

The differences between the experiences of the original feminists of America’s Progressive Era and those of young women of today are vast. In the year 2008, women are used to seeing other women on television, in politics, or doing more in a business office than quietly typing with their ankles crossed. The need and push for feminism has evaporated due to the generation gap between those women fighting for the right to vote ninety years ago and those fighting for equal pay today. According to Charles Clark, a writer for CQ researcher who normally focuses on feminist issues, “Females growing up today have no memory of the 1960s and '70s . . . when the few women visible in the work place were often expected — without being asked — to pour coffee for their male colleagues” (175). Younger generations today have probably never witnessed this blatant sexism due to various amendments and laws that keep the workplace politically correct. Clark quotes Shawn Leary, a feminist, mother of three and attorney in Lenox, Massachusetts: “The gains we've made since then are considered irrelevant by young women. Now that employment protections are the law, now that women are not being denied admission to medical school and now that women have been educated to know that they don't have to be sexually harassed,” she says, “the young don't feel they have to fight” (175-176). Because these “protections” are considered the norm for young women, feminism is seemingly outdated. Because women now have the right to vote, the right to sue, and the right to every legal equality as men— huge progress from just a hundred years ago, when popular consensus was that women were biologically less intelligent than men—the younger generations see no reason to fight the accepted social inequalities now that the legal equalities have been obtained.

However, the social inequalities I witnessed in my formative years left a lasting impression.  Growing up in Houston, Texas, I was surrounded by chauvinistic, traditionalist men who believed women should always be in a lesser role. Some of my classmates, mostly immature high school boys, would call a girl a “feminist” or a “lesbian” (to them the two words held the same definition) to insult her if she showed too much progressivism, did not dress scandalously enough for a dance, or did not show as much interest in him or his friends as he had hoped. “Feminist” to these boys was an insult, not a word to describe a woman who justly represents her rights to equality. So of course the girls in my class did not want to be “feminists” because then they would also be associated with being either a lesbian or a cold, unattractive female. This experience, however, is not just my own. Feminists everywhere find themselves scrutinized and judged. Conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh refers to feminist women as “feminazis” (Leibovich par 14), depicting them as cold, harsh, and scary by evoking images of Hitler and the fascist Nazi party. This misuse of the actual word “feminist” and the coupling of the term with derogatory definitions contribute to the disappearance of a strong feminist force from today’s society. Interestingly enough, it is not just people on the other side, like Limbaugh, who give us a bad name. Bitch magazine is a publication that prides itself on backing the feminist force and producing content for those interested in supporting women’s equality. In actuality, this magazine is depicting the feminist force with the word “bitch”—not to far away from the meaning of the word “feminazi.” This magazine puts feminists in a bad light and reaffirms the negative views of those opposed to the movement. Just as it negatively influenced the girls in my school, the incorrect context in which the word “feminist” is used keeps women from wanting to speak out and fight for their rights. Samara Ginsberg, a writer for The F Word: Contemporary UK Feminism, expresses this belief: “They believe that one cannot be a feminist without wearing clumpy boots and no make-up, growing their body hair to neanderthal proportions and spurning their male friends. They fear the scorn of others. They fear being regarded as sexually unattractive and mentally unsound” (Ginsberg par 3). Because of the development of the word “feminist” into an insult, actual feminists are believed to be cold, unattractive, masculine women. The dissipation of the “feminist” movement is a direct result of the twisting of the term. Women have strayed away from feminism due to the fear that if they do not, they will be viewed as this manipulated, derogatory interpretation of what a feminist actually is as opposed to simply a contributor in the fight for equality.

Today, women are content with being second place to men and as a result the feminist movement has hit a plateau in growth. Yes, the successes of women like Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin are clear depictions of just how far we have come since the march for suffrage, but in the everyday world women still come up short on the equality scale. According to the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau women still earn an average of only 71 cents on the dollar earned by men (Clark 173). Yes, women now have the ability to be employed like men and hold powerful positions, but equal pay still remains a pressing issue. Another illustration of current gender inequalities is the inability of our society to view successful women in a positive light. For example, Senator Clinton’s 2008 campaign was a huge step for women, but nonetheless we cannot ignore the fact that she was not chosen as the Democratic candidate. Obviously, huge political factors contribute to this fact, but one cannot shrug the possibility of slight other influences as well. Many students and friends that I talked to during the primary season viewed her as “mean” and “scary” (recall the misinterpretation of the word “feminist”), and that is why they would not vote for her. Buzzle.com, a website dedicated to producing “intelligent life on the web” through thought provoking articles on recent events discussed Clinton’s non-election in a recent article. The site explained that “the power of the superwoman always seems to come at the expense of her perceived humanity. When commentators say that Hillary Clinton is too cold to win over voters, what they are really saying is that she is too powerful to be a real woman. Behavior that would be forgiven in a man--wariness of confiding in others, self-belief--is seen as evidence of a hyper-ambition that makes her less than fully human” (“America” par 7). The inability of a woman to be powerful without being seen as cold is almost impossible, as exemplified by the clouded judgment voters employed when presented with the choice of a woman candidate. According to a CNN survey, when people were asked whether America is ready to elect a woman president, only 55 percent said yes (Alter 2). That means almost half of Americans believe the nation is not ready for a woman to be the president. Despite hundreds of years of struggle, we are still standing one rung below men on the ladder of justice. This complacency towards the subordination of women is pervasive in today’s society and remains largely uncontested; if this were not the case, a woman’s pay would equal a man’s dollar and this entire nation, 100 percent, would be looking at a possible woman presidential candidate with no qualms about her gender.

Women’s specific place in society is still laced with inequality despite the long and fruitful fight for equal rights over the past hundred years. One contributing factor to this is the inability for young women today to relate to the inequality and discrimination their own mothers faced and fought; feminism is irrelevant and alien to them as women are now legally equal. Also, the misuse of the term “feminist” prevents women from wanting to appear feministic, or, as the word is believed to mean, “masculine” or “cold.” The other contributor to the dwindling of feminism is society’s complacency towards the second place of women to men in society and the negligence towards any sort of answer to the inequalities. This lack of feminism allows for the growth of sexism. For without societal challenges like the feminist movement, the nation will forget its progress and continue on in a state of injustice. Sexism and gender discrimination are still very much alive in 2008 because the mindsets of both men and women are still, despite the successful work of major feminist movements in the past, doused in inequality and clouded with the misconception that men will always be a step above us on the ladder —a paradigm that must be challenged.

Alter, Jonathan. “Is America Ready” Newsweek Online. Dec. 25 - Jan. 1, 2006 Issue. 2 Nov. 2008. <http://www.newsweek.com/id/44273>

“America is Not Ready for a Woman President” Buzzle Web Portal: Intelligent Life on the Web 29 July 2005. 1 Nov. 2008. <http://www.buzzle.com/editorials/7-29-2005-73927.asp>

Bottini, Ivy. “Feminism: Demeaned by Association.” California Women’s Commission 2007. 1 Nov 2008. <http://women.ca.gov/UserFile/920.Feminism.pdf>

Clark, Charles S. “Feminism’s Future.” The CQ Researcher 28 Feb. 1997: pp 169- 192. CQ Researcher. 30 Oct. 2008 <http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/index.php>

Ginsberg, Samara. “First Impressions.” The F Word: Contemporary UK Feminism 2 June 2007. 31 Oct. 2008 <http://www.thefword.org.uk/features/2007/06/first_impressio>

Leibovich, Mark. “The Comparison That Ends the Conversation.” Washington Post Online 22 June 2005. 2 Nov. 2008. <http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/06/21/AR2005062101753.html>

Piasecki, Joe. “Taking back the B-word.” Pasadena Weekly Online. 30 Mar. 2008. 1 Nov. 2008. <http://www.pasadenaweekly.com/cms/story/detail/?id=3257&IssueNum=13>