Monday, March 8, 2010

No Pedestals, Please

The other day I came across this post about why this blogger is not a feminist. Not only was the post itself shallow and totally misdefining feminism, but many of the comments were simply mind-boggling. Go read the post and the first two comments. (Read more comments, really, because there are some good ones there as well as more that will, if you're like me at all, make you shake your head or want to cry or shudder. But the first two comments are mainly what I need for this post. Plus, there are over 500 comments. I definitely didn't get through them all.)

I can, sort of, look past the ridiculously false assumptions about feminists. People making such statements along the lines that feminists are all men-haters or want all women to be the same are simply misinformed. What is actually the most distressing to me about the post and some of the comments is the idea that women are more.

More than men. Better than men. Inherently more spiritual than men. Naturally more nurturing than men. And so on. This is an idea that has become quite commonplace in church anymore (and possibly elsewhere as well, but church happens to be where I hear it), and that bothers me. Such statements are incredibly offensive, and I can't believe that both men and women tolerate them. They are obviously offensive to men and, perhaps less obviously, offensive to women as well. I don't want to or need others to denigrate men in order to raise me to a higher level. Can you see how condescending that is? The idea behind it being, as I see it, that women can only possibly be close to equal with men if men are lowered. I know I'm not less than men, but I also know I'm not more. All I desire is for everyone to look around and realize that men and women are on the same level. And I can't quite believe that any traits are inherently masculine or feminine. I am, and always have been, extremely competitive. I'm not naturally so nurturing as others I know. And I certainly know many men who are much more spiritual than I am. Does this make me masculine? Judging from statements as those quoted in the first comment on the blog, yes. But I say, no, it simply makes me human.

But I also see statements along these lines as part of a constant effort to place women on a pedestal. And so many women seem to accept this unquestioningly. It always makes me think of "Philadelphia Story". I don't want to be the cold, distant, un-attainable "goddess", placed upon a pedestal where no human frailty is allowed. Not only that, but required to fit my life into the tiny space of that pedestal. And, as the "goddess" on the pedestal, pressured to please those who placed me there by fitting into whatever roles they might prescribe to me. I suppose this might appeal to some women, and that's fine. That's their choice (which I will always support their right to have). But the thought makes my stomach churn. So, no pedestals for me, please.


Alanna said...

I completely agree with you on all of this, Erin. I can try to give people the benefit of the doubt when they say things "like women are better than men" and assume that they mean well, but I don't agree and I think saying things like that can be just as damaging as saying that men are better.

I do see certain qualities more present in many women than men (like being nurturing, etc.), but I certainly wouldn't say that this is the case for ALL women and ALL men. And so what's the use of generalizations if there are so many exceptions to them?

And besides, some of the most nurturing women I know have not been able to have children, while some of the not-so-nurturing women I know have had children and turned out to be wonderful mothers. So what does it all mean? That we are who we are! And generalizing about who we might be is worthless!

I feel like I'm rambling here, but mostly I just wanted to say that I really agree with what you're saying.

By the way, if you've ever read Oscar Wilde's, "An Ideal Husband," he's basically making fun of the woman-on-the-pedestal idea by placing men on the pedestal and then allowing them to fall from it. Brilliant!

Susan said...

Very well written. I, too, have heard people say at church that women are inherently better than men; that men need the priesthood because they lack qualities that women innately have. While I can't claim to be an expert on feminism, I don't believe the ideal of feminism is to berate men. Unfortunately I have had the experience of being put lower than men - told that because I'm a woman I don't need to be educated, don't need to excel, don't need to have goals outside of motherhood. I applaud those feminists who speak out against such archaic beliefs (which are FAR too rampant in the church). I'm not going to worry about being better than men. But I do expect to be allowed the same opportunities, to have differing opinions, and to NOT be labeled as solely a wife and mother.

Erin said...

Alanna, I wonder sometimes if women being generally more nurturing and men less is more cultural conditioning rather than any inherent quality. But, yes, I've started to to think maybe we should emphasize humanity rather than masculinity and femininity. "These are the traits of a great human which we should all desire to have." I'll definitely have to look up "An Ideal Husband" - I love "The Importance of Being Earnest"!

Susan, I also feel that such archaic beliefs are too prevalent at church. I'm hoping that greater numbers of Mormon feminists will gradually bring about change in such attitudes. Unfortunately, it's been far too easy for people to give feminists a bad name in the past (often unfounded) and that sense of feminism being evil seems to be particularly strong in the church, which only makes the change in attitude that much harder to come by.

Alanna said...

I'm always horrified when I hear things like what Susan said. I grew up in a family of women-- mom, dad and their five daughters-- but never once did my father ever imply that daughters were in any way "less" than sons. He never even hinted that he wanted a son in place of or in addition to his daughters. When my mom was pregnant with girl #5, people kept asking my parents if this was their "last try for a boy." It made my dad so angry that he finally started telling people that if this was a son, the poor kid was going to play with dolls and wear dresses because he was NOT buying new stuff for his fifth kid! That usually shut people up pretty fast.

But I can remember, at seven, being highly offended by the question. I wanted to ask those people, "Why would he need a son when he's got awesome girls like us?"

I'm really thankful that in my childhood, these ideas that women didn't need to be educated or were somehow less than men were just archaic ideas. It never occurred to me until hearing stories like Susan's that my experience was somewhat unique.

Anyway. I think this will probably be a subject for my own blog some day-- try not to be too bored when it happens, Erin! But I wanted to say that there are very conservative men in the church like my father who would probably be classified as feminists according to our little discussion!

Aye Spy said...

I wholeheartedly agree that the idea that women are "more" as was written in the blog article is wrong, and I too am discouraged when I come across man-bashing. I definitely do not want the expectations that come from being on a pedestal. However, there is something in that article that I agree with, which is the idea that men and women are different. I think we shy so far away from "separate but equal" that we don't see that yeah, it's possible--and when I say "equal," I mean equal in value and importance in society. We're different, physically and emotionally. I believe we're different in some of the things God expects from us too; not that one role is greater than the other, just different. And that's perfectly ok.

It bothers me when people use arguments that lightly brush off cultural influence and traditional roles, as if culture was something imposed on society instead of something that societies create themselves. Is it impossible that some cultural values could have stemmed from observances of natural gender differences? What comes first: nature or culture? Ultimately, it doesn't matter. We have to deal with the nature and the culture we've been given. But I think that most generalizations, including those about gender, would not exist if there was no valid evidence to support them.

I don't mean to say that I go along with any tradition that sees women as inferior to men (or vice-versa). I just think that in this kind of debate, especially in the women of the Church, we tend too often to swing to extremes. On the one hand, we have the anti-feminists, who in praising themselves for not taking the path of the bra-burning, competitive career-woman feminist stereotype, tend to put themselves above men and thus become like the stereotype they're railing against. And then on the other hand, we have anti-anti-feminists, who think we should back up and take gender out of the equation altogether, since that's what seems to be causing all the ruckus. Except that's just impossible. I think it's just as foolish to ignore differences as it is to claim we're better for our differences.

The existence of this kind of debate shows that women are trying to work out what it means to be a woman and what is expected of them. I submit that in answer to this question, we are different from men, and that's not only okay, it is intentional. There are traditional roles of wife and mother that obviously not every woman will attain or necessarily desire--and they're not the ONLY roles a woman will have in her life--but in my opinion, it's less important to figure out whether we were designed for these roles, and more important to realize that the roles were designed for us. They are simply a framework for the expansion of our individual talents and abilities.

My last thought is, most of what I've heard in the Church about women being better than men has come from the men. I think their intention is to be humble in their praise of us, rather than to put us on some pedestal, but we're starting to take them literally and think we really are better than men, instead of turning around and humbly praising the righteous men among us. Maybe we should get over ourselves and not be so sensitive about our gender, period.

Erin said...

Alanna, hooray for male feminists! We need more of them around, especially at church (even if they don't self-identify that way)!

Sarah, I would certainly never try to say men and women are exactly the same, and I don't think most feminists would. There are obvious physical differences, I'm just not sure how far beyond that the differences extend. I'm certainly no expert on the research that's been done in that area, so I can't say. But I don't think they extend as far as we have learned to think they do.

You're right, culture versus nature is kind of a chicken and egg problem. But, for me, some pretty big evidence against generalizations about gender is found in simply looking around you. Exactly how many people do you know that fit any of those generalizations? We're all likely to have some of the generalizations "appropriate" for our gender in our personality. But I've yet to come across someone who has them all or has none of the other. Yes, we have to live with the culture we've been given, but I disagree that we have to deal with it. It's our job to try to change it for the better.

Is it really impossible to take gender out of the equation? That's like saying it's impossible to take race out of the equation. It might be difficult to, but I like to hope it's not impossible. I don't see that as ignoring differences; I see it as ignoring prejudices. We'd be looking at the differences between individuals, regardless of gender and what we decide gender might imply about a person. Rather than saying, "The Primary President must be a woman because women are more nurturing" (which I'm willing to bet is some of the motivation behind that) we'd be able to open the field to anyone. "Brothers A, B, and C and Sisters A, B, and C all have some great qualities for a Primary President - let's consider them." You'd be forced to really look at individual strengths and weaknesses and place anyone anywhere that might help them develop the talents and skills they have, or new ones they might be lacking. I don't know if I explained that well, but I hope it makes sense. You yourself seem to say it's possible to ignore gender in your last sentence. :)

We're definitely blessed to live in a time in a society where we can worry more about figuring this stuff out than worrying about having the vote or being the property of husbands and fathers. I think, as far as figuring out what it means to be a woman or a man, that each woman or man has to figure that out for themselves. Because generalizations simply don't work. As Alanna said, there are always far too many exceptions to the rule, so the rule becomes pointless. What being a woman means for you and what it means for me could be drastically different - but that's okay. As long as we've had the opportunities open to us to decide for ourselves what we want it to mean.

You're right, it does frequently come from men in church, though I have heard it from women as well. I certainly think that in some cases you're also correct about it being well-intentioned, but they're making a big mess of it. Such statements are no way to humbly praise. But that's not true across the board. I think some men (and women) are simply missing the days of the "Fascinating Woman" or are trying to use it as a very poor excuse for an all-male priesthood (as seen in Susan's post)and so on.

Aye Spy said...

Hm, I think in order to continue we need to define some things.

First, the idea of who a "feminist" is has been explained to me so many times by so many different people in so many different ways, that I hardly know what it is anymore. So my definition tends to be "someone who is extremely (and likely overly) sensitive to and concerned about how women are treated." On top of this definition are all kinds of confusing taboos about people resenting being called a feminist or being defensive about feminism, until I get so tired of tip-toeing, I'd just as soon abandon the term entirely. I'm totally fine discussing gender and womanhood, I just don't think we have good labels for the schools of thought anymore, so I'm not interested in being labeled or in fighting against all "feminists," whoever they are.

I guess the next term would be "generalizations." Maybe we're thinking of different ones. I'll pull the one I think you disliked most from the Ezra Taft Benson quote from the comment to that blog, that women are less aggressive and competitive than men. I know lots of women who fit this generalization, in my opinion. All the women I know? No. But most of them? Yes. Generalizations are not about exceptions, they're about trends of the majority. I think there are many, many gender-specific behavioral trends. Think about all the corporations that design entire marketing strategies based on these behavioral trends for the success of their products. It wouldn't be possible to have gender-specific products and marketing if there were no generalizations about the way men and women think and behave.

Next is "equation," as in "take gender out of the equation." I understood it as an equation of identity, who you are in society and how you see the world. No, I don't think it's possible to take gender out of the equation. I think gender is ESSENTIAL to a person's identity. Race is difficult to take out of the equation, especially if it's closely associated with a specific culture. Yeah, I think we should all not be so sensitive about gender (and race, for that matter), meaning less prone to take offense, but that doesn't mean that differences are ignored. Rather, they're acknowledged and mutually respected, so there's no need for anyone to get defensive.

In regard to Church callings, I wish to tread lightly, but again, I believe there are generalizations you can make in regards to gender. I think callings resemble traditional gender roles in that it's more important to think about what you can bring to them and how you can grow into the framework they provide than to assume you're being shoved into some niche you don't think you fit into.

I like what Tevye said about traditions in Fiddler on the Roof: "Because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do." Yes, I think everyone needs to figure out what it means to be a woman or a man, how their gender figures into their identity, but traditions and roles are meant to assist in that understanding. People need guidelines and rules to function in the world, period. For all our freedom, I think that we are far more confused about gender and identity nowadays than our ancestors were.

kristine N said...

I know I'm coming late to the discussion. I have to say I don't think men and women are all that different in terms of competition. Sure, we compete differently (which is almost certainly cultural) but we women do compete with one another--fiercely. In fact, my observation is that women are far more likely to hold on to a competition, or on to competitive feelings than men are, and are more likely to let competition get in the way of another relationship.

The thing is, it's not socially acceptable to compete with one another, so when we compete, we're underhanded and sneaky about it. I'm pretty sure all of us women have at least one "frenemy" in our lives, which I don't think all men (or even very many) could say.

Susan said...

This is late in coming, but I just wanted to clarify:

Both my parents hve been HIGHLY supportive of me. My dad especially instilled in his daughters the importance of being educated. While I have been told that women don't need to be educated, those comments came from outside my immediate family.

Erin said...

Sorry for the long delay - it's been a busy week or so around here. Thank you everyone for your contributions to the discussion!


If you continue to read the comments at Cjane's post you'll find one definition of feminists that is stated several times, and I think a little more accurate than yours: "One who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes." I think each generation of feminists has to decide where they want to take that and how they want to try to achieve that equality. From what I hear, it sounds like some previous generations have perhaps been a bit excessive. For our generation it seems to be largely about choice - ensuring that women and men have equal opportunities and choices and are supported in those choices. Hopefully Kristine doesn't mind, but I'm going to refer you to her post in response to Cjane's: It does a great job of concisely stating how most feminists around you feel. If you've ever had an experience like Susan's, you won't feel that it's being overly sensitive if you're offended by such ideas.

You're right; I particularly disliked the Benson quote. But I've since learned that such rhetoric was common during that era, and I'm trying to focus on how things have changed for the better. (The difficulty is that the quotes such as his seem to stick around way too long in our culture. People continue to find them and use them and teach such ideas to their children and then such ideas are carried on to another generation.) Anyway, I was going to say essentially what Kristine said. In my experience women are just as competitive as men. Perhaps in different areas? Yes, sometimes. But less aggressive and competitive? No way! Like you say, generalizations are (usually) based on a trend. But with most of the gender generalizations I can think of I see so many exceptions as to render them useless. Not some little tiny minority of exceptions, but way too many for anyone to be able to usefully use the generalizations.

With "equation" we were definitely thinking differently. I was thinking in terms of how we look at others. I'm all for differences being acknowledged and respected, I simply think we should take those differences on a personal level rather than a general one, especially regarding gender. It's too easy to dismiss an entire sex for some job or other when you're thinking "All men will do it like this and all women will do it like that." Personally, it's difficult for me to figure out how much my gender informs my identity. How essential is it to me, really? It's hard to know since I can't see a me of a different gender. I certainly don't sit around deciding what I should or should not do in my life based on my gender. In a world where there was equality between men and women (in the ways stated above), how different would a female me be from a male me? While certainly interesting to try to untangle, I find I quickly get back to the chicken and egg problem of what's nature versus what culture.

Erin said...

So, why is it necessary for church callings to follow traditional gender roles? Of course it's good to figure out how you can grow through a calling and help others to grow at the same time. But I don't see that as a reason for callings to follow traditional gender roles. Our lives very rarely follow traditional gender roles anymore (perhaps because the idea of traditional gender roles is flawed in the first place?). How many women in history have really had the luxury of being a stay-at-home-mom? Yes, it's a luxury, and one that very few people can afford. And if you look at the young women in any ward today, many of them won't be able to either. Anyway, why would it be so bad to see how a woman could grow as a Sunday School President or a man as a Primary President - surely they could, right? I simply don't see how opening such things up a bit more could hurt anything.

Much of the point of Fiddler On the Roof is that some of their traditions were unnecessary and silly. Remember, Tevye says that at the beginning of the movie and by the end I think he's changed his mind, at least about some traditions. I like this: Yes, people need guidelines and rules to function in the world. Anarchy would not be a good thing. But it's not our job to simply accept the traditions, guidelines, and rules we've been given and carry on. It's our job to look at them critically and see how we can change them for the better. And when we find something that's "incredibly stupid", it's our responsibility to challenge and try to change it. Will we make mistakes in our attempt to do this? Absolutely. But I'm pretty certain that means our ancestors did as well.