A few weeks after arriving to Săcueni I experienced a somehow unusual situation. The flat where we are currently living was in the process of being furnished and redecorated so everything was a little messy. One morning, the man who usually helps us with the maintenance of the house came to install a shelving unit in the bathroom and some dust was left behind after using the drill. It is common for the language barrier to cause misunderstanding and so I wrongly handed the man a cleaning brush to sweep-off the dirt. “No, no! Boys strong, girls clean” -he said with his rudimentary English skills. My facial expression instantly showcased confusion and my feminist side fired up when I answered back: “No, no! Boys strong, girls strong, boys clean, girls clean”.
Expectations were reinforced during an experiment conducted with a 12-year-old boy and girl from the Liceul Teoretic Petőfi Sándor Elméleti Líceum in an attempt to establish whether the gender cleavage had already defined their identity. Having been given the options Girl, Boy and Both I asked the following questions: Who is smarter? Who is better at cooking? Who is better at fixing cars? Who likes pink? Who can be an engineer when they grow up? Even though they seemed dubious when facing some of these questions, they strongly agreed in that girls are better cooks, boys are better at fixing cars and that pink is a girly color.
Three months into Săcueni’s lifestyle, I have discovered a pattern of thought regarding the role that women are supposed to have in society. The process of observation conducted during my time here allows me to say that this is the perfect time to introduce an extremely popular concept that is nowadays at the heart of many conversations, “feminism”. Whilst a small number of people have a clear idea of what lies behind this term, there exists an outstanding majority who contradicts themselves by believing in gender equality but rejecting the same movement that fights for its accomplishment. The latest cohort tends to assume that “feminism” is either wrong or dispensable, just an ephemeral trend, a first world issue that advocates for hatred towards men and promotes women’s superiority at the expense of removing men from power. I regret to inform you that this is far from reality!
We are against patriarchy, not men
Academics in the field are reluctant to bestow a single ethereal definition upon a concept that is too volatile and diverse to be pinned down. However, it is possible to identify three key principles uphold by all feminist supporters irrespective of the movement’s ideological branch they follow.
Firstly, feminist argue that gender is to this day one of the most prominent social cleaves since it has the power to shape a person’s identity by defining who they are and how they perceive themselves. To understand this notion, it is imperative to make a distinction between differences that are based on “sex” and those made on the basis of “gender”. On the one hand, sex involves those inevitable biological and chromosomal differences which are then translated into distinct physical traits and reproductive organs. On the other hand, gender differences are a social construction to which both women and men need to conform. Therefore, as Catriona McKinnon brilliantly exemplifies: the fact that women give birth and not men is a biological sex difference, but it is a social gender difference that woman continues to be more likely than men to be stay-at-home mothers who look after the children on a full-time basis. Ruling the latest difference as unfair depends on whether care work benefits of a social status, whether women are able to undertake alternative life pathways or enjoy financial independence…
Unfortunately, feminist’s second thesis recognizes that gender also creates a hierarchy or patriarchal society which places men at the top and women at the bottom. With this statement feminists are not implying that men are consciously nor willingly perpetuating this discriminatory system, but instead blame informal structures such as social norms of its maintenance. It is the case that some people acknowledge the existence of patriarchy but decide not to question it because of their religion or traditions amongst others. Conversely, in the light of these unjust events feminists urge for changes to be made either by means of revolution or through reforms of the legal system, current social norms or even at a deeper level given that the gender hierarchy is ingrained in our attitudes and preferences. Needless to say, feminists are not against men but instead strive for the achievement of gender equality so that women and men can have an equal status, enjoy equal respect and have the same opportunities, resources and freedom to choose.
Building a feminist world
Between the late 19th and early 20th century the first-wave feminism; otherwise known as the women’s suffrage movement, began in the United States and Europe at a time when new constitutions were being written, industrial societies developed and liberal ideas promulgated. It was also when it became absolutely clear that men’s rights could not be extended to women, under the believe that females were intellectually inferior and need not to interfere in state affairs because their God given duty was to be confined in the domestic sphere.
Women’s movements were also said to be closely linked with those advocating for the abolition and emancipation of slavery given that not only both relied on liberal ideas, but also because the situation of women was not far different from that of slaves. As portrayed by Jon Stuart Mill married women had to give over their legal identity to their spouses and as a result, they become their property in every sense of the word. This is why suffragists were particularly demanding citizenship, legal and political rights with the aim of achieving equality of opportunity and freedom from discrimination.
A resurgence of the movement occurred during the 1960s and 1970s in the context of postwar Western welfare societies under the slogan “the personal is political”. This statement revolved around the liberal notion of maintaining a separation between the private and public spheres, with state action and justice only being applied to the latest in order to protect individual liberties. Second-wave feminists strongly criticized this idea by arguing that social constructions and gender hierarchy can also be found within family life. They argued that boys and girls grow up watching men and women conform to certain gender norms which they then internalize and apply in other areas of their own life; as it is the case of the interviewed children at the Petőfi Sándor Elméleti Líceum. Moreover, learning that men are breadwinners and women nurturing caregivers also confines females to family life and prevents them from becoming financially independent, as well as fulfilling alternative aspirations in public sphere areas such as government, judiciary or business where they could have a significant influence. As Anne Summers pointed out during her speech at SOH Talks & Ideas, “(…) We were the second sex. We were adornments. We were there to have the children. We were not taken seriously. No one cared what we thought”. Therefore, the need surged to challenge the legality of unequal pay rates, segregated employments, abortion bans and other discriminatory practices.
Grrrl… Feminism is still much needed!
Over the past 30 years there has been a widespread establishment of feminist’s values and practices in the social, cultural and political realms. Subsequently, many people believe that “the fight is more or less over” since nowadays a great number of women enjoy high levels of success in terms of educational attainment, employment status and personal relationships. However, those contemporary critics who have reported the demise of feminism fail to acknowledge that the death of this practice is yet to come due to its ongoing global presence, political influence and its capacity to evolve over time in order to adapt to the ever-changing societal needs.
The emergence of the third-wave feminism during the 1990s introduced the need to deconstruct the sex/gender/sexuality binary construction, and rethink the relationship between feminism and women’s individualized experiences so as to embrace the diversity and differences in perspectives amongst women. In this line, Kimberlé Crensha put forward the revolutionary concept of “intersectionality” with the aim of shifting what had been thus far an exclusionary movement. First-wave feminism had vindicated the rights of mostly white, middle-class, first world females whilst the second wave treated women as a homogeneous group since it did not recognize that they can simultaneously be under the umbrella of different societal cleavages. For instance, in DeGraffenreid v. General Motors case, an African-American women claimed that she had been denied employment because she was a black woman. Even though her claim was dismissed when taken to court under the premise that the business did hire African-Americans and women, the judge had failed to recognize that all hired African-Americans were men and all hired women were white. In other words, he refused to broaden the frame to include her particular experience of having to combine a race and gender discrimination claim just because Mrs. DeGraffenreid’s struggle was not as the one involving the other implicated cohorts.
Believe it or not, despite the huge progress that has been made to this day, we are still dealing with issues raised by first and second wave feminists. People need to face the reality that things such as domestic violence, sexual harassment, pay gap, gender norms, constraints in health and reproductive freedoms or denial of education for women and girls amongst many others, continue to be a global problem. Thus, when someone tells me that they believe in equality but think the “fight is almost over”, or that “women clean and boys are strong” what do you want me to say, that I am not a feminist? I still have reasons to be one.
Andrea Sofía Sánchez Almeida