I am part of the Cyber Scholars, which is closely related to the Center for Women in Technology at UMBC. CWIT work to help those less socially encouraged (primarily women, but also people of minorities) to find positions in engineering and computer science in the workforce. Being a woman engineer is extremely rare; rarer than it should be, and CWIT is working hard to make an impact in order to fix that. At a sort of recent meeting I had with other men in the CWIT program, the question was posed, what exactly is feminism?
This is a better question than some might think it is.
Feminism is most simply put, the fight for women’s rights and abilities, the fight to make them “equal” to men (what comprises “equal” is often left rather vague, but usually involves things like similar base pay and approximately 50/50 distribution in the typical workforce,) and the fight against the stereotype that women should only be “in the kitchen” or “shouldn’t work”. Google translates it as:
“The advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.”
And if you were just looking to answer what feminism is at surface level, that would suffice. But I don’t think it answers the question of what feminism truly is. So let’s try again, and take it a little deeper.
To say that women want “equality” at its most base term is I think, a little misleading. This is simply because women do not want everything that men have to do. My chief example would be the draft, which a quick Google search implies that most feminists actually oppose. In the case that equality was valued above all else, the idea of feminists opposing the draft doesn’t make any sense. Surely if men do it, women should do it too right? Feminists shouldn’t have a problem with women having to sign up for the draft, right?
Feminists opposing women in the draft isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the idea of women being forced to sign up for the draft doesn’t exactly have me head over heels either. But it does force us to reevaluate the term “equality” which is often thrown around with little regard for what it actually means, and instead to think about what exactly feminists want.
Fortunately, I am of the opinion that there is a simple term that fulfills the feminist’s desire for women to receive equal pay, to have a decidedly not-dominant male work-force, and to have the social right to work however they would like – respect.
And it is at this point that I think the true form of feminism starts to take shape. This is because what respect means for women has been slowly changing course over the past several hundred years. And I put the blame squarely on men.
Back in the day, nearly before my time, (and still in my time, especially in conservative/Christian circles) a man took care of his wife. He provided for her, and cared for her and loved her, and honored her. He worked and his wife didn’t, not because he didn’t respect her, but because he wanted to CARE for her, and part of caring for her was making sure she didn’t have to work. The ultimate gesture of respect to a woman was to care for her, keep her at home, keep her safe, keep her warm, keep her out of the sun, make sure she is happy, and keep her out of the workforce. Taking care of a woman so she didn’t have to take care of herself was genuinely respectful. In the meantime, in the era where manpower, strength and time were the most valuable thing a man could market, he did so, toiling long hours in the fields, at the mills, in the factories, doing the work that was required to keep his family afloat. Being able to work wasn’t a privilege. It was a responsibility.
For better or for worse however, this has changed.
This has occurred for a couple different reasons, but chief among them is that…men don’t respect women that way anymore. Rather than keeping them out of the workforce by wanting to care for them, it’s become a poisonous act of disrespect. Paying them less is not an attempt to make sure they don’t have to work, but a genuine undervaluing of what that woman can bring to the table. Many men no longer feel the need to provide for their wives; they can leave when they want, for whatever reason they want, and women pay the price, because they never went to college, or never got that valuable work experience, or never had an easy-in to become part of the workforce when they needed to be able to provide for themselves. Men have used and abused women; providing for them when it suited their own selfish ends, but leaving women out to dry as soon as it required genuine love and care on their part.
Another reason is simply that nowadays, making money is no longer just a responsibility. It’s a chance to have a career, to achieve something truly big with your life, to do something that you love and find interesting, and we are in a new stage of humanity (especially in the US) where if you want to do what you love, that is POSSIBLE.
And women have found a voice. No longer is it enough to rely on unreliable men. No longer is it enough to be content as men take the jobs while the women stay at home. Women want to EXPLORE. They want to have a career, they want to be able to take care of themselves, and they don’t want to have to worry about men (who as time has gone on have become significantly more abusive of their traditional role in society) taking care of them.
And as these changes have occurred, so too has the definition of respecting a woman changed as well. No longer does it mean they stay at home while the husband brings home the bacon. No longer does it mean relying on men to take care of them. Men lost that version of respect. Respect for a woman now often involves allowing them into the workforce, giving them equal pay, and valuing what they bring to a company and to society.
Feminism isn’t really about equality, not really. Feminism is the result of a changing definition of respect to women in modern society.
So, should we go back to the way it was, or should we embrace the new form of respect for women? That’s a hard question to answer. There are some very good reasons for the original version. For example, more women entering the workforce has an inverse effect on the fertility rate (women have less babies because they’re in the workforce), which consequently causes a stagnating population that would likely lead to the human population starting to drop. While this might sound like not a completely bad thing, it could have startlingly bad effects on the economy, human geography, and society as a whole. Then again, there are some benefits to the modern approach as well; it gives women a chance to find who they want to be on their own. A plurality of people already believe in the modern approach anyway.
Regardless of which way we do end up going however, it’s without a doubt that we, as men, need to keep respecting women, in whatever form that might take.