When the topic of women’s rights comes up outside of an American history lecture, a common reaction is a groan and awkward shuffle away from the speaker. The back-and-forth arguments about female equality (especially scant months after a vicious election year) can be a wearying and groan-worthy subject.
Despite awareness that women and men are still not equal both socially and in the workplace, women’s rights are an uncomfortable and dreaded topic. In fact, it seems like most specifically female things are scorned. When helping a friend sign up for classes one semester, I mentioned a women’s studies course that would fill a requirement; in response, my friend simply wrinkled her nose in disgust.
What’s with the disdain for women’s rights, women’s classes, and especially feminism? Technically, nothing. Without early women’s rights movements in history, women would not have the right to inherit, vote, or work outside of the household. However, these issues seem like dilemmas of yesteryear.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, feminism is “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of equality of the sexes.” Now, that doesn’t sound too bad; equality is something we Americans (perhaps falsely) pride ourselves on. But, as the women’s rights blog "Who Needs Feminism?" says, a feminist is seen as a “man-hating, bra-burning, whiny liberal.”
Unfortunately, feminism has in recent years built itself up to the point of ridicule. Many feminists have condemned themselves and their cause with the classic “boy who cried wolf” problem. The more extreme feminists don’t hesitate to deliver verbal lashings to men and women who they feel perpetuate gender roles and stereotypes. By seeing sexism and gender subjugation lurking in every corner, many feminists are incapable of being taken seriously.
As a result, the image of a “feminist” conjures up a different image than it used to. These days, we picture a sour-faced woman with her hair chopped short, possibly with unshaven legs. Whether accurate or not (though usually not) this image has become a comical trope for many people.
As feminism is now a familiar comedic hyperbole, it stopped being an effective political or social tool. As it becomes an object of ridicule, the truth of women’s rights as they stand today fades into irrelevance. When the sole idea of feminism becomes a joke or something at which to scoff, we wonder, do we really need feminism? Are women’s rights still an issue?
With hot political items such as abortion and contraceptive issues, it seems that women’s rights are in at least one form relevant. However, the more ignored side of women’s rights, such as inequality in the workforce, or even in society, exists too. However, enough progress has been made by our predecessors that blame cannot be fully placed on a “male-dominated society” any longer.
Women, too, can share guilt for the inequalities that women still face. Not, as radical feminists believe, by wearing makeup and reading Cosmopolitan. In the corporate world, where we hear of so much injustice, women hold themselves back. A 2009 OnePoll survey showed that, startlingly, most women believe men are better company leaders. The Morton Report suggests that this and other female tendencies to keep each other down are a result of women who “take pride in this heritage of oppressive struggle.” True or not, it’s mentalities like these that will keep individual women from achieving their personal goals.
Whether or not you are an advocate of women’s rights, most can agree that how much you are paid or how much respect you garner in society should not be dependent on your sex. Corporate prestige should come from ambition and hard work, not whether you wear a suit or skirt to work.
In the last 100 years, huge achievements have been made by feminists. We can be grateful for women’s suffrage and the social leaps and bounds made in the 1960s. It’s unfortunate that the word “feminism” has been corrupted by men and women both, to have extreme negative connotations.
By separating the extreme feminists from the general pro-women’s-rights activists, it’s easier to identify reasonable goals. We have to be grateful for what those before us have done, but in women’s rights (and other civil rights arenas) there is still work to be done.
Hailey Gross is a sophomore in English from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.