Feminism has provided the platform for women around the globe to free their minds from the mental bondage provided by 19th-century chauvinists. But one should not underplay other factors in the continuing struggle for equality.
By Christopher Udemans
“Iron my shirt,” shouted a man from the audience. Seconds later, the quarrelsome statement could be heard in reprise from the opposite end of the hall. “Iron my shirt!” Perplexed, the feminine figure on stage requested the lights be turned on in order to address the acrimonious comments that were being directed at her. “Oh the remnants of sexism – alive and well today,” she retaliated.
Within a few minutes the men had been removed but their inclement comments lingered on.
Chauvinism, sexism, misogyny; what ever you chose to call it, is alive and well. Although mostly associated with Islamic Sharia Law, Confucianism and traditional African culture, it is thriving in societies that deem themselves progressive.
This is something that Hillary Clinton discovered when ordered to undertake the domestic work of two audience members in Salem, New Hampshire in 2008.
Patriarchy as a phenomenon dates back to the age of antiquity. Before the Greeks and Romans, in the age of the hunter-gatherers, society functioned within the context of egalitarian values. It was only once agricultural systems were developed that patriarchal structures ossified within society.
The story of the Greek general Meno is a well-known one. The young Greek general waged war all over Persia, all the while gaining the trust of the Cypriotes. The youthful character is widely known for featuring in an eponymously titled Platonic dialogue in which he urges Socrates to advise him on whether virtue can be taught. Socrates resists, in turn asking Meno whether he understands what virtue is. The impatient leader leaves with no conclusions being drawn.
Less widely acknowledged are Meno’s ideas on gender roles.
“Let us take the virtue of a man”, says Meno, “he should know how to administer the state, and in the administration of it to benefit his friends and harm his enemies; and he must be careful not to suffer harm himself. A woman’s virtue, if you wish to know about that, may also be easily described: her duty is to order the house, and keep what is indoors, and obey her husband.”
Can a man that is in an apparent pursuit of living a virtuous life, consolidate his beliefs with that of his idea of a submissive woman? This we shall never know, but his sentiments are rife in our twenty-first century world.
The most obvious and enigmatic purveyor of patriarchal hierarchy is something that is second nature to most human beings. It is the tool we use to integrate into society, the most common of all Lacanian sutures. You are using your understanding of it right now. It is language.
Just the other day I was watching an episode of Blue Planet. The most striking feature of the program, apart from the scenes of male elephant seals drawing blood from one another by using the top halves of their bodies as trebuchets, was the very recognizable timbre of Sir David Attenborough’s voice.
However, after a few minutes, something else became evident to me. The use of words, that I otherwise would have overlooked, took on a highly masculine tone.
Elephant pups were “sired”, not conceived. And “harem of females” was thrown around liberally.
More troublesome are the Latin Romantic Languages of Europe. The genderisation of nouns in these languages creates a field of war, in which the feminist movement has taken up arms.
In French, “le president”, is masculine. As is “le professeur”. While words like “la domestique” and “la bonne”, both terms for domestic workers, are feminine.
In Spanish, “Academico” is masculine and until recently “primer ministro” did not have a feminine form.
At the beginning of 2012 the use of “mademoiselle” was banned in certain areas of France. The rationale? The term is neither here nor there. The male equivalent, “damouiseau”, has not been used for years.
The argument was that the term “madame” should be used as a universal signifier. “Madame” is deemed more respectful in French culture. Feminist groups contend the fact that the title should be reserved for those who are married.
And to a man nonetheless.
Two feminist groups, Osez le Feminisme and Les Chiennes de Garde, launched the initiative dubbed Mademoiselle, La Case En Trop, which roughly translates to “Miss, there is one too many boxes on this form”.
George Orwell understood the manipulative properties of words. “If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”, said the author in his series of short essays aptly entitled Politics and the English Language.
While Orwell was referring to the propaganda of the state, it is true of all discussions, whether we realise it or not. “Doublespeak” and “doublethink” are words that come to mind.
However, there seems to be a bigger problem at hand. An influence that is so entrenched in society that unjustified rationalisations are made by sentient minds on its behalf.
Religion provides the basis for a socially sponsored form of sexual discrimination.
Jimmy Carter has referred to this nebulous idea as “a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.” Carter, who has been a devout Southern Baptist for the past sixty years, has faced up to the problem of religion as an oppressive force.
“At their most repugnant, the beliefs that women must be subjugated to the wishes of men excuses slavery, violence, forced prostitution, genital mutilation and national laws that omit rape as a crime,” says Carter.
Despite Carter’s progressive views regarding women’s rights, it cannot be denied that the Bible espouses the oppression of women. The Christian sacred text even goes as far as agreeing with Meno, the misogynist Greek.
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord,” it says in Colossians 3:18.
And worse still in 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent,” says St Paul.
The orders for wives to remain subservient to their husbands are rife. The idea of the submissive women is a running feature in the Bible.
The whims of the biblical male should be met entirely, and should not exclude his desires in the bedroom.
According to the columnist Joyce Arthur, who wrote an article for the National Organisation of Men Against Sexism, for centuries men have attempted to control the reproductive capacity of females in order to guarantee control of their own paternity.
In his article, Abortion: The Ultimate Insult to Male Authority, Arthur points out that a woman will always know that a child is related to her, men do not have this luxury. In an attempt to ease their own insecurities men have imposed laws and ethical systems to ensure women’s reproductive systems remain under male control.
In 2012, a woman living in the Republic of Ireland who was in her second trimester of pregnancy was refused an abortion even though she was having a miscarriage. According to the laws of the country so long as an unborn human has a heartbeat, it is illegal to perform an abortion. Three days later the mother, Savita Halappanavar, succumbed to septicemia.
The abortion laws in Ireland have not been changed since 1861, although calls have been made for amendments since the death of Halappanavar. In a country whose prevailing religion is Catholicism, it is no surprise that the country has archaic laws relating to the termination of pregnancy.
According to Guttmacher Institute Senior Researcher Dr Gilda Sendgh, countries with restrictive abortion laws do not necessarily have lower abortion rates. In fact, her studies show that women are more likely to have unsafe abortions performed by unqualified medical practitioners, drastically raising mortality rates in pregnant mothers.
The extent to which feminism has played a role in the diminishing patriarchal system is hotly contested. While intellectuals like Judith Miller have made a significant contribution to the way the world thinks about feminists, the legitimacy of the movement as a whole can and has been undermined in an instant. Femen, the purveyors of radical feminism, are testament to this.
While feminism has created an awareness of self for women around the globe, advances in technology and economic needs have become feminism’s knights in shining armour.
The English columnist and writer, Julie Burchill once stated that the freedoms that women have found since the sixties have been a direct result of contraception and pro-abortion sentiment.
The condom, in its present latex form, was invented in the 1920s. While it had been around for centuries, with a primitive form of the condom being around in the time of the Ancient Greeks, it only gained popularity in the 19th century. This may have been due to the secularisation of society in general but it is more likely that it occurred as a result of advances in rubber technology, provided by Charles Goodyear.
The 20th century was a time of innovation. One of the greatest innovations in medical technology was the advancement of abortive medicine. Suddenly, the abortion procedure became safer, presenting fewer complications to the mother who wanted to terminate her pregnancy. By 1983, modern procedures for abortion had been developed.
As contraception and abortion became more popular, male control over women’s wombs have waned.
The role of economics also cannot be ignored.
Think of your typical modern family. Let’s call them the Richter’s. Mr. Richter has a job in marketing, earning a salary that is acceptable but not enough to get by. Mrs. Richter works at an advertising agency, making just as much as her husband. Master and Miss Richter both go to good schools and the family lives in a decent neighbourhood.
Now think of that same family back in the 50s. It is pretty safe to say that Mrs Richter probably wasn’t working. Why? Maybe her husband didn’t allow her to. Maybe she thought she had to stay at home with her kids. However, the more likely scenario is this: she didn’t have to.
Let us now return to the present.
In the last 5 years alone, the cost of living has risen drastically. An article on the Mail Online in the United Kingdom by Sean Poulter shows that in the period from 2008 to 2013 the cost of gas increased by 52%, petrol by 33%, electricity by 32%, rent by 24% and food by 17%.
If there was ever a need for women to enter the workforce, it was necessity. Rising inflation and the resulting rise in the cost of living over the past six decades has led to the need for a second breadwinner. The modern day Mr Richter’s income would not suffice. Salaries need to be supplemented. Hence, Mrs Richter needs to have a job.
It cannot be denied that technological innovation and economics have played a huge role in the dilution of patriarchal ideals. Don’t tell the capitalist chauvinist this, he might implode given the systems that he has espoused are the same systems that gave rise to the liberation of women.
Mrs Clinton, or as the French Feminists would call her Ms Clinton, concluded her meeting in New Hampshire in the height of style. She kept her wits about her, all the while remaining witty.
She made light of the situation. “As I think has just been abundantly demonstrated, I am also running to break through the highest and hardest glass ceiling.”
After answering a few questions, she mused, “If there’s anybody left in the audience who wants to learn how to iron his own shirt, I’ll talk about that.”