Feminism and gender issues in America today
The Feminist Movement - also called women's liberation movement - is a social movement that seeks equal rights for women, giving them equal status with men and freedom to decide their own careers and life patterns. While generally providing a critique of social relations, many proponents of feminism also focus on analyzing gender inequality and the promotion of women's rights, interests, and issues.
This essay primarly dwells on the problem of feminism in America today. American feminist theory mainly aims at understanding the nature of inequality and focuses on gender politics, power relations and sexuality. Feminist political activism focuses on issues such as reproductive rights, domestic violence, maternity leave, equal pay, sexual harassment, discrimination and sexual violence. Nowadays more than 55% per cent of American women identify themselves as feminists.
Concern for women's rights dates back to the Enlightenment when the liberal and reformist ideals of that period began to be extended from the bourgeoisie, peasants, and urban laborers to women as well. Then these ideas were fully set forth in Mary Wollstonecraft's “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, published in England in 1792, which challenged the idea that women exist only to please men and proposed that women receive the same opportunities as men in education, work, and politics. Another major work was “The Feminine Mystique”, published in 1963 by Betty Friedan, an American. She attacked deadening domesticity - the conditioning of women to accept passive roles and depend on male dominance. In the 19th century the awareness of women's need for equality with men crystallized in America in so called ‘first wave feminism’. Participants of this movement fought for suffrage in the United States beginning with the meeting in Seneca Falls in New York in 1848 and culminating in the right to vote in 1920. ‘The second wave’ is usually considered to have begun about 1963 and run until the backlash of the 1980s, when feminism is seen to have stagnated. And the last, ‘the third wave feminism’ consists of many of the daughters and sons of the second wave, as well as the second wavers themselves. These feminists grew up with many of the advantages that the second wave fought for, and their issues are today's issues - parental leave and day care for the children of working parents, making positions in corporate and governmental high offices, worldwide sustainable development, and a global awareness of feminist causes. The third wave is a global surge; in the US it is multi-cultural and inclusive and it supports women of all heritages as well as the rights of lesbian women and gay men.
Third-wave feminists grew up in a country transformed by second-wave feminist leaders, who have established equal employment and education laws, access to birth control and legal abortion, support within police departments for prosecution of rapists, and women holding a vocal presence in politics. So, nowadays many American feminists see women as fundamentally strong, confident, brave individuals, they look for greater integration of women into politics, economics, and social forums.
So, talking about main points and issues of American feminists’ program today, it’s worth mentioning access to education through fair consideration for women for scholarships, equal access for women to jobs and careers, equal pay, and equal consideration for promotions and career enhancement, access to politics through a 50% voice for women in decision making at all levels of government and power structures. Also most of American feminist organizations seek control over reproduction through reproductive freedom for all women, including maintaining legal access to abortion; control over sexuality through the right of everyone to define their own sexuality and freedom without discrimination. Also they struggle against violence through ending control over women's mobility and personal freedom and through censuring domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape.
Due to great popularity of feminism in the USA, this movement isn’t homogeneous at all; it has plenty of varieties. The first kind of feminism is Liberal, or Equality, Feminism. Liberal feminists stress the importance of freedom, especially the freedom to choose. They see more similarities between women and men than differences and usually come out in favour of equitable opportunities for both sexes. These feminists view choice as an absolute right and also strive to avoid the obviousness of gender codes and the gender socialization of children. Some of today's liberal feminists describe themselves as equality feminists and see a link between themselves and first-wave or early second-wave feminists.
Cultural, or Difference, Feminism has become a really strong movement by 1980s. It attempts to revalue the feminine aspects that have been devalued by society. Difference feminists see many gender traits as biological or at least deeply structured cultural ones. They celebrate the differences between women and men, seeing feminine qualities as a source of personal strength and pride and providing affirmation that women occupy the moral high position. Cultural feminism focuses on cultural transformation, stressing the role of the intuitive side of life. First-wave difference feminists also argued for protective labor legislation for women.
Another variety of feminism, Radical Feminism stresses the differences between females and males. Whether the difference is biological or formed by society – it isn’t so important; the results of male difference and dominance are at issue. According to the radical feminist ideology, the violence of the heterosexual male has led to the patriarchal and hierarchical cultures of today. Further, the male has victimized the female through pornography, violence, and the militarization of the world.
Feminists who agree with the principles of Marxist and Socialist Feminism believe that women are seen as a sex class, gendered by society into a secondary position through a systemic sex gender system that dictates social roles, purposes, and norms. These feminists believe that women are exploited as both a sex and a class, whereas men take the roles of goods production and potentially reach freedom. To change this situation, Marxist and socialist feminists seek an end to gendered socialization and a beginning of sharing of the wealth.
One more movement, Ecofeminism, grows from the idea that women's values are closer to nature than men’s ones. Ecofeminism revalues feminine traits. Women are seen as in tune with nature and are to work in conjunction with it, while men have a hierarchical relationship to nature and are to control it. This view poses the idea that men's control of nature has created an ecological crisis nowadays in much of the world. Ecofeminists look for nonviolent solutions to world problems. They consider feminine values necessary for surviving in the conditions of the world's patriarchy. Ecofeminists may also subscribe to liberal, radical, or Marxist/socialist thought, but they focus on ecology - both of nature and human systems.
Though, another group of feminists, African American ones may not have been included in early mainstream second-wave feminism, they have always played a certain role in feminist criticism and ideology. They have demanded that feminists consider the problems of racism and classism (the hierarchy created by a caste-like economic and social class system) along with sexism; further, they have explained the interconnections from racism to sexism to classism. Sexism cannot truly be understood without understanding its racist undertones; in the similar way, racism embodies sexism. Black feminists have disproved the stereotypes of black women as matriarchs and superwomen and have organized movements to gain economic and political rights for women of color. African American women support numerous feminist and women's issues organizations, some of them chiefly for women of color. They are also part of the general feminist movement and leadership.
The last one, but from my point of view, the most interesting feminist movement is Male Feminism. Men have been allies and supporters of feminism from the beginning of the women's movements. They may consider themselves to be Ecofeminists, cultural feminists, liberal feminists, and so on. Usually, their goal is to create nonsexist relationships, to join in the battle to end violence against women, and to develop partnerships with women instead of hierarchies.
Undoubtedly, such a widespread and quite well organized social and political movement as feminism has achieved certain results. For instance, during the past two decades, feminist organizations have been some of the most successful fundraisers in the non-profit world, with grants from government, foundations, and private corporations. The political sphere is also quite available for women – for example, to date thirty three women have served in the United States Senate, with fourteen serving at this time. In American business the situation is quite satisfying too - 10.6 million firms are at least 50% owned by a woman or women. Women are also actively participating in solving most difficult and important social problems such as environmental crisis, drug abuse and homelessness.
Despite all feminists’ achievements, the majority of feminists are sure that they still have plenty of work to do. There’re many facts that confirm this idea. For example, NOW’s website explains that if women made the same amount of money as men, the average family income would rise by $4,000 and poverty rates would drop by half. It would also raise family incomes by $200 billion. Women are not only held down economically. They also suffer every day from the specter of gender violence. According to the National Victim Center, 683,000 women are raped annually. While only 58 percent of rapists are sentenced to more than one year in prison. Another statistics shows that according to the American Medical Association, domestic violence in America results annually in 100,000 days of hospitalizations. With these statistics, it would be very hard to believe that any form of gender equity has been reached. It would seem that the world still needs feminists.
There is one very interesting phenomenon that usually prevents contemporary women from succeeding in different spheres of social life, especially in getting promotion. It is so called ‘glass ceiling’. A ‘glass ceiling’ is an unofficial barrier to an upper management or such prominent position within a company or other organization which women are perceived to be unable to cross. There are 2 similar terms: a ‘ glass elevator’ (it is sometimes used to describe the rapid promotion of men over women, especially into management, in female-dominated fields like nursing) and a ‘glass cliff’ (it describes a situation wherein a woman, has been promoted into a risky, difficult job where the chances of failure are higher). Most of modern American psychologists believe that this ‘glass ceiling’ is only the self-imposed psychological obstacle, that influences every decision women make in their lives. Nevertheless it has become the reason for only ten percent of top-level managerial or professional positions held by women.
One of the greatest problems that faces American feminism now is an image crisis. When people picture feminists in their heads, the first image they get is a homely, middle-aged woman who just hates all men. With this image in mind, it is easy to understand why many people, who believe in the ideals and policies which are essentially feminist, choose not to identify as feminists. The truth of the matter is there are as many different kinds of feminists as there are people. A woman who does something as simple as vote is a feminist. A woman who educates herself about her reproductive health is a feminist. A woman who holds an office in an organization is a feminist. Feminism is about women taking their rightful place as equals in the society.
Nancy F. Cott, The grounding of modern feminism (New Heaven: Yale University Press, 1987).
Ryan Fette, Statistics show feminism making slow progress (New York, 2004).
Christina Hoff Sommers, Researching the “Rape Culture” of America (Clark University, 1998).
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