Voltaire once described his good friend, mathematician, and physicist, Emilie du Chatalet, as “a great man, whose only fault was being a woman.” In the context of 18th century France, this was a great compliment because Voltaire was essentially praising Chatalet’s genius while at the same time acknowledging the sad reality that she would never be truly appreciated by her peers, because of something outside of her control-her gender. And although the suffrage and the 1960s feminist movements fortunately gave American women both the civil freedom and equality for which they long yearned, it did not eradicate the subconscious belief that being a woman is an impediment meant to be overcome. In fact, the idea of feminism has become so misconstrued that we are now grappling with three unintentional repercussions that are simultaneously hampering women’s progress in society, eroding childhood for a generation of girls, and leaving them confused on what it means to be a successful woman today.
Feminism in the 1960s was a hard-fought battle spearheaded by women who had to assert continually that being a woman was not a limitation of their capabilities. But in the process of negating this belief, they unintentionally reinforced it and created a setback for today’s women. Case in point, in 1984 there was a national proposal for maternity leave, but fierce opposition from feminists prevented this from getting off the ground. As a 2010 Washington Post column detailed, “influential feminist activists in Washington opposed maternity leave because it wasn’t treating women the same as men … They said: ‘No, no, no. We don’t want national maternity leave. We want to fold maternity into other medical needs.'”
Feminists may have feared that acknowledging a medical need would make women seem weak, but instead they gave the impression that pregnancy, a uniquely feminine aspect, is shameful and an obstacle to being considered equal to men, when in reality, this has always been a beautiful and powerful aspect of being a woman. Put plainly, a national maternity mandate can’t treat women the same as men because women give birth and men don’t, so there is no shame in acknowledging a fundamental, biological difference between women and men, especially when it entails helping the very group of people you want to help.
Maternity leave may have been stunted out of fear of eroding progress, but the stereotypes surrounding progress have also proven to be detrimental to the true goals of feminism-one being the hypersexualization of girlhood. Never have the lines between girlhood and adult life been so blurred, and in so many different ways that it is hard to pick and choose which product is more harmful. From MGA Entertainment and its prostitute-looking Bratz dolls, along with all of the subsequent copycats, to Abercrombie marketing thongs and push-up bras for 10-year-olds, corporations have been shameless in marketing to children, but as much as we can blame corporations for causing this, parents control the purse strings, and corporations don’t have feelings and only respond to consumer demand-so obviously if there’s a market, they’ll try to sell. Abercrombie wouldn’t have dared to go so far if it didn’t feel confident people would buy, and MGA wouldn’t have sold a single doll if mothers would have rallied against the product out of fear that their girls would want to look like their favorite dolls the same way that they worry about the sadly more realistic-looking Barbie. Tell me if I’m wrong, but I can’t rationalize this any other way other than corporations sold the stereotype that feminism meant sexualization, and while women undoubtedly benefited from being freed from puritanical beliefs regarding sexuality, the sexualization of feminism kept being sold to a younger and younger age group over the years under the guise of modernity, and society unceremoniously accepted it. It’s disheartening when you realize that a suckling baby on a parenting magazine elicits more repulsion by women than elementary school girls going to school with “Juicy” emblazoned on the back of their shorts.
Feminism is meant to be power and equality, but many women today probably have an aversion to leaning in because they don’t want to be derided as “cold bitches,” and in many ways women with this fear are completely right. One only needs to look at the first ladies of this nation to understand why.
First Lady Michelle Obama, an accomplished individual in her own right, was unpopular in the beginning of her husband’s campaign because she was vocal and opinionated. Now, in order not to become the “Hillary Clinton” of Obama’s administration, she suddenly switched to become a mother devoting her time to encouraging U.S. children to eat healthy and exercise, while glamorously posing for two Vogue magazine covers and moonlighting on late night talk shows, in other words the epitome of a true first lady … in the 1950s. If we want more women asserting their views and taking control, we should not deride or call first ladies “a liability,” because not everyone is a Hillary Clinton who can take the heat and continue on her path until everyone finally either lovingly or begrudgingly accepts you for who you are.
I don’t mean to lay the blame on the glass ceiling on women. I do say, however, that I believe that we become our own worst enemy by negating or twisting aspects of being feminine instead of celebrating them. So, what is the biggest glass ceiling to today’s women? There’s no easy answer, but I would say that women are great individuals whose only fault is not owning the power of being women.
Editor’s Note: The views presented in this column are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of The Heights.