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The Lady is a Feminist…or is She?

There has been a recent rise of conservative, evangelical women identifying themselves as ‘feminists.’ And there has been an equally strong backlash among prominent feminists who take issue with these women claiming the ‘f-word’ for themselves. What is a feminist? Can one who believes in separate gender spheres also truly promote gender equality, or are they merely kidding themselves, or worse, promoting a wacked-out femogyny? In this post Angie Andriot explores the many faces of feminism for answers.

Lady Lilith
"Lady Lilith" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

While perusing Facebook recently, I came across the most intriguing question:

“Is being a lady antithetical to feminism?”

Well….now there’s a conundrum. And boy howdy did it spark a debate! Heck, we couldn’t even agree on what it means to be a lady. For that matter, what’s a feminist? Let’s break it down, shall we?

  1. When I say I am a female, I am referring to my sex. This is a biological category.
  2. When I say I am feminine, I am referring to my gender. This is a social category.
  3. When I say I am a lady, I am referring to my…..manners? “Breeding?” Social class? Self-actualization? Depends on who you ask. This is definitely more evaluative.

Being lady-like typically means that you are exuding a particular kind of femininity: a well-mannered, polite, self-possessed sort of femininity. Here’s what comes to my mind when I hear the term: A lady is mild-mannered. A lady does not curse or shriek or holler. A lady is modest, chaste, and virtuous. She is the counterpart to the gentleman, and she balances him out by letting him pull out her chair, open the door for her, and perform other such chivalrous acts. But perhaps most importantly, a woman who thinks of herself as a lady, first and foremost, has embraced gender norms and sex distinctions. Women, at their best, are ladies. Men, at their best, are gentlemen. These are complementary, but distinct categories.

So can someone who thinks all these things also be a feminist? Ooooohhhh that’s a toughie. Well, I know what the Ladies Against Feminism would say. They promote “maidenhood, modesty, virtue, intelligence, womanly arts, and femininity.” Which, I guess, is the opposite of feminism? And the ever eloquent ladies women at Jezebel seem to also agree that, at least, conservative women can’t be feminists. Oh no – they’re femogynists. Heh. Get it? Ah, clever. But between these two camps, what can we find?

So can someone who thinks all these things also be a feminist? Ooooohhhh that’s a toughie. Well, I know what the Ladies Against Feminism would say.

Ever hear of cultural (or difference) feminism? It differs from more standard feminism in one key way. Both acknowledge that there is gender inequality. Both acknowledge this is a Bad Thing. Both promote fixing this problem. But that’s where it ends, because (1) they have different ideas of what ‘gender inequality’ means, and (2) they have different ideas on how to fix it.

One crux of the mainline feminist argument is that these gender differences are socialized. In our head. Not rooted in biology. Capable of being overcome. And this gender socialization is keeping us down. And by us, I don’t just mean women – see, that’s where some people get really off-track in their criticism of feminism. Feminist believe that gender socialization (and stereotyping) hurts us all. It just hurts women more. I mean, let’s be honest- who’s the marginalized group here?

Cultural feminists, on the other hand, believe that these gender differences are mostly biological. And while biology might not mean destiny, it does sort us pretty predictably into two groups. The problem is that our society doesn’t value the feminine. The solution is to work to raise awareness of and respect for the unique contributions that women have to offer (or so they believe). You can see some modern examples of this sort of difference feminism in the New Feminism movement, and in the uprising of evangelical and conservative women calling themselves feminists.

So can a lady be a feminist? You tell me.

I think both approaches are necessary for true progress in our society. We need to make room for women to act like men, and for men to act like women, should they choose to do so. Regardless of what caused them, we do have people who don’t fit in the boy-girl boxes we’ve made, and we can fix that in one of two ways: change the people to fit our existing gender system, or change the system to acknowledge these others. Personally, I prefer the latter approach.

But we also need to value the feminine, however we define it. Even if gender is socialized, even if we work to try to get rid of this strict gender socialization, in the meantime, we need to learn to value all those attributes we label as ‘girly’ and give them just as much importance.

In short, we need to stop sneering at pink as if it were an infectious disease.

These two concerns are really the same, because the best sign that the feminine is truly venerated as equal to masculinity is when men can freely do feminine things without facing derision and scorn. Women can act like men because masculinity is culturally ideal. Men cannot act like women without being accused of debasing themselves. Why would acting feminine be debasing? Be disempowering? This is the crux of the matter.

If being a lady means embracing the heteronormative, white, patriarchal notions of what it means to be a woman, then we are only limiting ourselves as a gender. But focusing on making the right to masculinity equally available to women is not the answer either. We have to step outside this limiting binary. We must decide for ourselves what a lady is – and unless that answer is inclusive, and honors the diversity of women, then we have not found our answer.

Dig Deeper:

  1. What does being a ‘lady’ mean to you? Can one conform to feminine ideals and still be a feminist?
  2. Do you think that cultural feminism is ‘real’ feminism? What about conservative, evangelical feminism?
  3. Have you ever been made fun of or otherwise treated poorly because of some form of gender noncomformity?
  4. Why do you think that men are more heavily sanctioned for acting ‘girly’ than women are for being ‘tomboys’?