Gender Equality Today: Dramatically Improved or Just Dramatic?

Gender Equality Today: Dramatically Improved or Just Dramatic?

“The Battle of the Sexes” is as vexed a subject today as it was in the early modern period, when women were expected to be chaste, obedient, and silent and were subjected to the common law “rule of thumb.” When in 1660, the Restoration ruler Charles II officially allowed women to perform female parts on stage, the result was mixed, both empowering and objectifying the professional actress.  From Pelosi on the left to Coulter on the right, outspoken women today face no less ridicule and sexism than Shakespeare’s shrews did.  And so, through the centuries, each milestone has not only given way to a new set of challenges but also given new life to stale, stereotypical viewpoints, leaving analysts, historians, and scholars scrambling to assess progress accurately.

Editorials on feminism and gender equality have been particularly abundant in the NYT in the past week.  In “When We’re Equal, We’ll Be Happy” from 10/22, Judith Warner weighs in on the continuing debate spurred by Wharton School professors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, whose study earlier this year suggested that women are no happier today than they were three decades ago; Warner argues that women will not have unfettered access to happiness until they have unfettered access to all human rights.  In “The Mismeasure of Woman” from 10/23, Joanne Lipman argues that statistical evidence of progress is deceiving. In spite of some measurable strides, such as the ones noted recently in The Shriver Report, Lipman rightly oberves that public discourse about women remains desultory and denigratory; as two examples, she points to the abounding comments about Clinton’s cankles during the presidential primaries and to the page of search results about the breasts, rather than the credentials, of a female journalist whom she googled in preparation for an interview.  In “The Nuns’ Story” from 10/24, Maureen Dowd takes issue with new attempts by the Vatican to criticize and curtail the modest increase in freedoms that American nuns have experienced in recent years.

Back in 1977, scholar Joan Kelly wrote an article entitled, “Did Women Have a Renaissance,” in which she argued that women in the 16th century did not have a “renaissance,” making the word something of a misnomer to use to describe the era.  So, what’s next, a piece today titled, “Did Women Have a Civil Rights Movement?”

The more I study history, and the patterns and cycles it reveals, the more inclined I am to feel pessimistic about the state of feminist affairs and see the situation as perennially dramatic, not dramatically progressive.  In a post months back, I wrote about my experience of querying my undergraduate English students on the meaning of the word feminist–it wasn’t pretty.  The consensus definition was derogatory and the group, on the whole, saw no need for a feminist movement anymore.  Sadly, my classroom anecdote only lends credence to the commentary of Warner, Lipman, and Dowd.

On a more positive note, later today I’ll be seeing “Naked Women Fully Clothed,” the latest offering by Women’s Theatre Project in Ft. Lauderdale, so look for my review to follow.

3 Responses to “Gender Equality Today: Dramatically Improved or Just Dramatic?”
  1. Joshua says:

    I’m so glad I found this blog! I read some of your comments over at Parabasis and really admired how smartly you made your points.

    Your anecdote about asking your students for their perceptions of feminists is disturbing, to say the least. At 28, I’m no longer really a spring chicken, but I consider myself a passionate feminist in spite of being raised during the progressive backlash of the past 2o years.

    As a gay man, I often feel as if I’m observing male and female gender expectations from the outside. (Once you’re queer, society doesn’t really have any expectations of you.) That said, it seems to me like sexism is so deeply ingrained into our culture that most of the time people don’t even notice it.

    I’m writing a play right now about two women who decide to take a “stripper-cise” class. I was surprised at how muddled my own thoughts and opinions are surrounding this stuff. Who knew gender was so complicated? It’s really, really hard.

    • nstodard says:

      Josh, thanks for reading…Indeed, gender is soooo complicated, and I believe it’s because society has made it this way with so many unwritten rules, coded language and expectations, etc. It feels like many layers of rock that some of us keep hoping and tirelessly working to erode, with what success, I’m just not sure.

      I found your blog through Isaac’s blog and have been enjoying it since…and congrats on all your success with Milkmilklemonade!

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