Feminist Ambiguity

Last time out, in my brief discussion of modern feminism, I mentioned and provided an example of the ambiguity that feminists today face in their pursuit of… whatever version of equalist utopia their idea of feminism preaches. However, the battlegrounds across which this confusion & argument take place are many and varied and I thought I might explore a few more of them in this post. To make a point, essentially.

I begin with a joke: a feminist is standing near the front of a crowded bus next to a man, who is sitting down. At the next stop, a woman boards and the man stands up, offering her his seat. Muttering “You’re living in a bygone age” and clearly disgusted, the feminist grabs his shoulder and forces him back into his seat. At the next stop, another woman boards and again the man stands up. “We aren’t all damsels in distress” snarls the feminist, pushing him back down. At the third stop, a third female passenger boards; for the third time our man attempts to stand up, and for the first time the feminist standing next to him pushes him back down. This time, however, it’s the man who addresses her first; “Would you please stop doing that, you’ve made me miss three stops already””

Yeah, I’m not great at telling jokes.

Anyway, in spite of its dubious quality, the joke illustrates one such feminist battleground quite well; that of societal gender roles. The above situation, of whether one should offer a woman a seat when one is available in preference, is an extreme example- most people would consider it simple good manners, or a harmless quirk of society at best. In fact, many bemoan the ‘loss’ of such customs, claiming that chivalry is dead. However, there are some feminists, such as our example above, who consider chivalry as a concept an inherently patriarchal one; the chivalric (which might be better translated as ‘knightly’) originated during the medieval period and held that women should be protected and treated with respect. So far, so feminist; however, the essential reason that such parts of the chivalric code exist is because women of the time had next to zero power and thus no ability to fight back if they were treated dishonourably. As such, some feminists argue that the concept is outdated and patriarchal, subconsciously implying that modern women, like their medieval counterparts, are unable to fend for themselves in our modern age. So which is it; a harmless, even pro-feminist, societal institution, or a relic of an institutionally misogynist age?

Such arguments are not just levelled at seats on a bus; no less a figure than home secretary Theresa May weighed in on such an argument last year, saying that it was wrong to introduce quotas for the number of women on the boards of major companies as it devalued them, implying they weren’t good enough to be there on their own merit (the counter-argument being, of course, that women are criminally under-represented in such instutions and the forced introduction of women into their highest echelons might go some way to removing institutionalised misogyny in such companies). Hers isn’t the only argument one can make to back her point; others argue against such pro-female initiatives as being anti-male, preventing men from being elected to boards on their own merit.

You might recognise this argument as being, in this case, exceedingly stupid- it is comparatively very easy for a man to get onto such a board on their own merit. Although the idea of misandry (the oppression of and hateful behaviour towards men by women) is occasionally worth mentioning in certain circumstances, it has become a byword for what angry, anti-feminist men say to cover their frankly sexist attitudes. The issue is that whilst misandry is certainly a thing, it is very, very seldom a major issue when compared to the vast mountain of inequality built up by 5,000 years of institutional sexism and patriachal, misogynist attitudes. I mention this solely as a warning to any guys reading this- before accusing anyone of misandry, either deliberately or indirectly, think very, very carefully about it and make sure every other possible reason could be eliminate. The chance of misandry being the problem is very slim. Just something to bear in mind. Anyway…

Another set of issues and objections begin to enter the equation when we move beyond the traditional gender roles women aren’t meant to fill and move onto those that they are; those of cook, housewife, child-raiser and so on. It is generally agreed by most of a feminist inclination that women should not be forced into fulfilling these roles; that they should be free to be their own person and not forced to simply do the chores men don’t want to. However, this begs the question: is the structure of the ‘traditional’ family unit inherently wrong? Some would argue yes; that be being a stay-at-home mum & housewife, a woman is, intentionally or otherwise, contributing to the idea that this way of doing things is the only acceptable norm, reinforcing the patriarchy. Others, however, argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a woman staying home, looking after her children, cooking meals and so on; if she wants to do things that way, that is absolutely her choice to make. Just as she should not be forced into the role, so she should not be forced out of it; maybe she wants to spend more time with her kids, maybe cooking has always been her thing. Some may suggest that cooking is only ‘a woman’s thing’ because of these institutionalised patriarchal norms, but then we realise that we can apply the exact same argument to this situation; something being a ‘woman’s activity’ doesn’t necessarily mean a woman can’t enjoy it with all the enthusiasm that a man (if so inclined) might. When we start considering the practicalities of a man fulfilling the ‘house-husband’ role, entering a genuinely female-dominated environment and capable of legitimately using misandry as an argument in some cases, the whole business finally spirals into a vortex of confusion and trying to keep track of the arguments flying all over the place becomes practically impossible.

There are countless other examples of this sort of thing, many of which are far less easy to determine the “right” answer to than the examples covered here. Does the far greater interest in male compared to female professional sport mean sports fans are straight up sexist? Is it the fault of any particular videogame featuring them that such a large proportion of gaming protagonists are straight white 30-something men? I could go on, but I feel my aim has been achieved; to reinforce my point about the ambiguity and politics inherent in modern feminism. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave me with a natural conclusion, so… be nice to women, I guess? No wait, that might be considered over-chivalrous…

…but some are more equal than others

Seemingly the key default belief of any modern, respectable government and, indeed, a well brought-up child of the modern age, is that of egalitarianism- that all men are born equal. Numerous documents, from the US Declaration of Independence to the UN Bill of Human Rights, have proclaimed this as a ‘self-evident truth’, and anyone who still blatantly clings onto the idea that some people are born ‘better’ than others by virtue of their family having more money is dubbed out of touch at best, and (bizarrely) a Nazi at worst. And this might be considered surprising given the amount of approval and the extent to which we set store by a person’s rank or status.

I mean, think about it. A child from a well-respected, middle class family with two professional parents will invariably get more opportunities in life, and will frequently be considered more ‘trustworthy’, than a kid born into a broken home with a mother on benefits and a father in jail, particularly if his accent (especially) or skin colour (possibly to a slightly lesser extent in Europe than the US) suggests this fact. Someone with an expensive, tailored suit can stand a better chance at a job interview to a candidate with an old, fading jacket and worn knees on his trousers that he has never been rich enough to replace, and I haven’t even started on the wage and job availability gap between men and women, despite that there are nowadays more female university graduates than males. You get the general idea. We might think that all are born equal, but that doesn’t mean we treat them like that.

Some have said that this, particularly in the world of work, is to do with the background and age of the people concerned. Particularly in large, old and incredibly valuable corporate enterprises such as banks, the average age of senior staff and shareholders tends to be on the grey end of things, the majority of them are male and many of them will have had the top-quality private education that allowed them to get there, so the argument put forward is that these men were brought up surrounded by this sort of ‘public schoolers are fantastic and everyone else is a pleb’ mentality. And it is without doubt true that very few companies have an average age of a board member below 50, and many above 65; in fact the average age of a CEO in the UK has recently gone up from a decade-long value of 51 to nearly 53.  However, the evidence suggests that the inclusion of younger board members and CEOs generally benefits a company by providing a fresher understanding of the modern world; data that could only be gathered by the fact that there are a large number of young, high-ranking businesspeople to evaluate. And anyway; in most job interviews, it’s less likely to be the board asking the questions than it is a recruiting officer of medium business experience- this may be an issue, but I don’t think it’s the key thing here.

It could well be possible that the true answer is that there is no cause at all, and the whole business is nothing more than a statistical blip. In Freakonomics, an analysis was done to find the twenty ‘blackest’ and ‘whitest’ boy’s names in the US (I seem to remember DeShawn was the ‘blackest’ and Jake the ‘whitest’), and then compared the job prospects of people with names on either of those two lists. The results suggested that people with one of the ‘white’ names did better in the job market than those with ‘black’ names, perhaps suggesting that interviewers are being, subconsciously or not, racist. But, a statistical analysis revealed this to not, in fact, be the case; we must remember that black Americans are, on average, less well off than their white countrymen, meaning they are more likely to go to a dodgy school, have problems at home or hang around with the wrong friends. Therefore, black people do worse, on average, on the job market because they are more likely to be not as well-qualified as white equivalents, making them, from a purely analytical standpoint, often worse candidates. This meant that Jake was more likely to get a job than DeShawn because Jake was simply more likely to be a better-educated guy, so any racism on the part of job interviewers is not prevalent enough to be statistically significant. To some extent, we may be looking at the same thing here- people who turn up to an interview with cheap or hand-me-down clothes are likely to have come from a poorer background to someone with a tailored Armani suit, and are therefore likely to have had a lower standard of education and make less attractive candidates to an interviewing panel. Similarly, women tend to drop their careers earlier in life if they want to start a family, since the traditional family model puts the man as chief breadwinner, meaning they are less likely to advance up the ladder and earn the high wages that could even out the difference in male/female pay.

But statistics cannot quite cover anything- to use another slightly tangential bit of research, a study done some years ago found that teachers gave higher marks to essays written in neat handwriting than they did to identical essays that were written messier. The neat handwriting suggested a diligent approach to learning, a good education in their formative years, making the teacher think the child was cleverer, and thus deserving of more marks, than a scruffier, less orderly hand. Once again, we can draw parallels to our two guys in their different suits. Mr Faded may have good qualifications and present himself well, but his attire suggests to his interviewers that he is from a poorer background. We have a subconscious understanding of the link between poorer backgrounds and the increased risk of poor education and other compromising factors, and so the interviewers unconsciously link our man to the idea that he has been less well educated than Mr Armani, even if the evidence presented before them suggests otherwise. They are not trying to be prejudiced, they just think the other guy looks more likely to be as good as his paperwork suggests. Some of it isn’t even linked to such logical connections; research suggests that interviewers, just as people in everyday life, are drawn to those they feel are similar to them, and they might also make the subconscious link that ‘my wife stays at home and looks after the kids, there aren’t that many women in the office, so what’s this one doing here?’- again, not deliberate discrimination, but it happens.

In many ways this is an unfortunate state of affairs, and one that we should attempt to remedy in everyday life whenever and wherever we can. But a lot of the stuff that to a casual observer might look prejudiced, might be violating our egalitarian creed, we do without thinking, letting out brain make connections that logic should not. The trick is not to ‘not judge a book by it’s cover’, but not to let your brain register that there’s a cover at all.