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January 15, 2008


For Martine, this is the feminism post I was talking about. I started writing it over two months ago, and it just grew and grew until I finally just had to stop and publish a version of it. It's unfinished, but I won't be updating it anymore. I think the problems I've had with finishing this post really illustrate one of the central points: that feminism is a difficult concept to define. Keeping a post to the point is a challenge when the very issue one is writing about is not so much an issue as it is a label that has been used for several issues - which are not necessarily connected.

I should really write something about feminism and gender roles and women's studies and all that stuff. I've had discussions about it, I read a lot of blog entries about it, and so a lot of thoughts are basically bouncing around in my head. The problem is that I don't know where to start, and the reason for this is that I don't know exactly what I'm writing about.

Well, if that introduction didn't make you stop reading...

I have a book about feminism. It was a Christmas present, it's written for teen girls, and the Norwegian title translates into: "Half of heaven is ours" (note that in Norwegian "heaven" and "the sky" are the same word). According to this book, girls are afraid to label themselves as feminists, but we shouldn't be, because a feminist is really just a person who believes in equal rights for women and men. In other words, "feminist" means "intelligent, modern person living in a Western country today". Ok, so all the people I know are feminists. I've met people who are not, but I have chosen not to know them. (For example, there was a girl in my high school French class who firmly believed that all men are much, much smarter than all women. Guess she had just never met any guy who was more of an airhead than she was. And I hope I never meet a guy like that either.) But if it's that simple, why is there even an "ism"? Why can we study this in college? Why are there "Women's Studies" departments?

I checked Dollymix, which is one of the many websites I vaguely associate with feminism. The subjects of the 149 posts tagged "Feminism" ranged from Sesame Street's "Women can do anything" song (which obviously fits the definition of what feminism is) to offensive Youtube comments and what to do if something you publish online is exploited (where I would argue the connection to feminism is vague). The same site also has a tag called "Women's Ishoos". While I agree that Polycystic Ovary Syndrome and words for vagina are "women's issues", that's not what they're studying in "Women's Studies", right?. And what about rape and the right to safe streets? Norwegian readers know how I feel about connecting those issues to feminism. (To summarize: I just want to get home safe, so stop debating theory already!) The thing is, guys want to get home safe too. Granted, rape is a crime where women are usually the victims, but that doesn't make it "our" problem. It doesn't mean that it's less of a problem if a guy is raped. And let's not forget that keeping the streets safe means keeping them free of armed robbers and drunk people who pick fights too. Safety from any kind of nighttime assault is a human issue. The same goes for war, poverty and eating disorders. The question isn't who the victim usually is statistically, but who should care about the problem.

According to this same book, there are two kinds of feminists. One kind believe that men and women are born psychologically the same, and that any mental differences are learned through our culture. The other kind believe that men and women are inherently different, that the male way of thinking has dominated our society, and that it's time to make room for female values. What really irritates me about this is that it shouldn't be a question of belief at all. Whether our brains are the same when we're born is not up to anyone at the Social Studies or Humanities side of campus to decide, it's for the Natural Science side to figure out. As long as they're not sure, I can only work with what I have. I don't know if my love of shoes comes from nature or nurture, but I know that it exists. I also know that when they describe the male and the female way of thinking, most of the time I agree with the male - what is that supposed to mean? That my emotional, empathetic female mind has been corrupted by male role models like my dad? That Anna is right, and I'm actually a man? (Oh, that's why I don't like pink! Although the need to wear heels and skirts is kinda weird.) It just doesn't make any sense. Furthermore, whether or not we're identical shouldn't matter in the least when it comes to determining whether we are equal in terms of value. This is one of my favorite points in the wonderful Blank Slate by Steven Pinker. He has written the best text about feminism I have ever read. (Sadly, that book has been  somewhere in my friend's apartment for a long time, and I only just got it back before I left for Paris. I have the feeling he waited for as long as possible to give it back to me because he knew that I would start quoting it again. I kind of got the hint that it was annoying him when he said: "Julie has a new boyfriend. His name is Steven Pinker.")

The book also refers to "master suppression techniques", better known in Norway as "hersketeknikker", "discovered" by the Norwegian feminist Berit Ås. (Again, calling her a feminist shouldn't really be necessary if we're all feminists.) I remember learning about these techniques in ninth grade - because the girls used them on each other. Again, this is a human issue. Maybe it happens more often that men use these techniques on women, but theoretically, that's not the point.

Maybe I've just been extremely privileged (ok, scratch the "maybe"; I have been), but I don't see a lot of the problems that "feminists" are supposed to see. I don't see how emotion-free rational thinking is male and therefore wrong, I don't see how wearing high heels is degrading as long as I choose to do so myself, and I truly believe that much of the wage difference between men and women can be explained by barriers we put up ourselves, rather than discrimination from male employers. I didn't even interpret the Meredith Brooks song "Bitch" as being about female capriciousness in general; I just thought it was about Meredith Brooks. When I was looking at colleges, a friend encouraged an all-girls school, because it would make academic choices easier if I wasn't thinking about certain subjects and college roles as male and some as female. I thought: "If a girl isn't mature enough to choose a "male" subject or major when she really wants to, than she's not ready for college at all." If we (women) want to be treated "like everyone else", maybe we should stop defining ourselves as a unique group of people who are firstly characterized by our gender and only secondly by our personalities. It just makes it seem like the world is divided into "women" and "all the other people", and isn't that exactly what we're fighting against? Maybe we should, as one blogger writes, stop whining and focus on real issues:

"Sometimes I think if modern feminists stopped focusing on children's toys, women's fashion, chivalry, and how middle-class white Western women like themselves were being oppressed, and directed their collective energy completely towards fighting domestic violence and countries where girls cannot walk to school without being raped, the latter problems might not be so prevalent-- and might even be abolished." (Source)

Again, these issues are not women's issues, but really important issues in general. So where does that leave feminism and Women's Studies?

Posted by Julie at January 15, 2008 9:22 AM

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Hei, Julie i Paris (vinke)! Dette måtte jeg så klart kommentere på :)! Jeg er forsåvidt enig i det du sier, og jeg tror man må lete langt og lengre enn det igjen for å finne noen som protesterer. Men jeg trekker ikke helt samme konklusjon. Når man ser på det store bildet så er det mange problemer hvor kjønn er en avgjørende faktor. Man kan ikke se bort fra kjønnsaksen. Jeg tror ikke disse forskjellene vil løses av seg selv ved at hver enkelt kvinne tar ansvar for sin egen situasjon. Det er ikke positivt for samfunnet at det finnes så få kvinner i styrene. Jeg tror ikke likelønn vil komme av seg selv. Her er vi nok grunnleggende uenige, siden jeg ser strukturer som binder handlingsfriheten der du kanskje mener at man alltid er fri til å velge selv. Jeg vil helst ikke først og fremst definere meg selv som kvinne. Men problemet er at samfunnet for lengst har definert meg.

Posted by: Ingvild at January 16, 2008 5:08 PM

It's not that I don't agree with you per say. I believe that equal rights are something we should all be fighting for in today's society, and that most people want to have equal rights and equal opportunity. And your definition of feminism is basically right.


1. Your idea that we should ignore the problem and assume that everything will work itself out is a little naive, I think. Women fall behind in the work place not because the individual males try to suppress them, but because the larger structures of society are built up around it. Look at how much women and men earn. Look at who works most, and who works part time. Look at who stays home with the child. I'm not saying it's better to be a man (I'm sure a few men would love to work part-time and stay home with the kids and not feel obligated to say no thank you to pappa-perm), I'm just saying we're not treating people equally.

2. These structures that we've defined and that we help redefine all the time keep these differences going. My sister in law, who when she got pregnant swore that she and my brother would share the free time with the child equally between them are now wholeheartedly arguing that women have a special bond to their children, my brother is on the fast-track to a great job as a surgeon while she is on the fast track to a less well-paid, less highly regarded job in the children's ward. And if this was an isolated incident, I guess it would be okay. But of course it isn't. Society shapes us and the way we think. If we don't fight against these structures, we'll never have actual equal rights. This is bad for men as well.

I'm scared that when I apply for my grown-up job, I'll be passed up not because I'm a less good candidate, but because the employer can't help but think: "Hm, she seems okay, but she's also 28 years old and childless. This means that I'll have to expect her to be gone at least 2 years before she's 35 due to child births. I guess I'll go with this guy instead who's a "team player", has been to the military and will not take out the pappa-perm." Then, when I do get pregnant, and my lovely husband and I are supposed to decide who's gonna stay home, it's gonna be natural that it's me. After all, he probably earns more, and we'll have trouble keeping up our standard of living if he stays home. See where I'm going with this?

Posted by: Martine at March 6, 2008 12:26 PM