Many women are all for equal rights and access for women, yet they hesitate to be labelled a "feminist." The stereotypical image of the feminist as the picket-sign toting, pixie-coiffed female seems to evoke negative reactions for those averse to the "F" word. For one thing, let's be clear that this is the stereotype, which by definition completely ignores the diversity of the community that's for gender equality. Men can be feminists. So can women who like to wash their hair or wear makeup. According to dictionary.com, a "feminist" is "A person whose beliefs and behavior are based on feminism." "Feminism" is defined as:
1. Belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.
2. The movement organized around this belief.
Nothing in this definition precludes any one type of person from ascribing to feminist ideals.
My friend said something very illustrative of the ambivalence around feminism the other day as we were discussing diversity and multicultural inequity. She said something to the effect of, "See, I'm all for women's rights and equality, but I think of women with picket signs and protesting when I think of feminists. And to be honest, I want to be taken care of and pampered." I'm sure that many other women feel the same kind of ambivalence. I know I do at times...I want women to have equal wages, yet I still secretly want my boyfriend to offer to pay for dinner, bring me flowers, and do stupid stuff like make me a build-a-bear. This illustrates how EVIL cultural conditioning is! Society sends us these messages that a "real man" takes care of his woman and that a "good boyfriend/husband" showers his partner with affection, thoughtful gifts, and other things that cost money.
If we take a more critical look at these expectations for men and women, we would see that these attitudes holding women up on this pedestal actually are the same ones that keep us down. This is a concept in the gender psychology literature referred to as benevolent sexism, which is defined as "a subjectively favorable, chivalrous ideology that offers protection and affection to women who embrace conventional roles" (Glick & Fiske, 2001, p 109). It seems that many women who are afraid to embrace feminism are unwilling to give up the fallacious "privileges" of ladyhood. Yet these ideals are the ones that are the basis for claims that women should be protected from difficult tasks, that they are too fragile to do equal work...well, then you certainly shouldn't pay a women equally for their work! And let's not forget that these ideas have seriously homophobic undertones.
My thoughts are sorta all over the place right now, so I highly suggest you check out the Salon article cited above and also the work of Peter Glick & Susan T. Fiske. Here's the citation from the article quoted above, which provides a good review of the theory and research on both hostile sexism (the kind of overt misygyny usually thought of) and benevolent sexism:
- Glick, P., & Fiske, S. T. (2001). An ambivalent alliance: Hostile and benevolent sexism as complementary justifications of gender inequality. American Psychologist, 56(2), 109-118.