It’s an interesting line to walk as a feminist. We fight against the compulsory practice of femininity because it is fucking oppressive. At the same time, we fight against the systematic devaluing of that which is construed as feminine, because that’s also fucking oppressive. Both fights have been co-opted by the patriarchy, and then used to divide and conquer us – pitting women against each other, and often also internally against ourselves. Frankly, it’s brilliant.
The Fight Against Compulsory Femininity
So (some Western) women have been allowed (some degree of) economic self-sufficiency, in that we can participate (to some degree) in the labour force, have our own bank accounts, own property, are not property ourselves (at least legally), vote, and so forth. Since being allowed to do work that has traditionally been men’s work, we’ve discovered that a lot of it is easier, more rewarding, or both, than what has traditionally been women’s work. And now, naturally, a lot of us would rather do “men’s work”, because let’s face it, a lot of “women’s work” is scutwork and it sucks.
Of course, even if we don’t value scutwork, we do value its results. We like our toilets clean, for example. And that means somebody has to clean them. Since women got out into the paid workforce en masse, there’s been plenty of feminist and progressive work about what to do about “women’s work”, ranging from paying housewives in accordance with the real economic worth of their work, to getting men to do their share, to workers’ rights for the people who are paid to do it now (janitors, cooks, maids, etc.)
None of that shit flies in a kyriarchy though. You can’t make top-dogs do work that’s beneath them, and you certainly can’t do anything that would give lower echelons more power or autonomy. So out in the Real World, away from loony leftist places like feminist discourse, you end up with a kind of Liz Lemon liberal feminism that elevates some upper-middle-class, mostly white women, but strengthens a whole network of other kyriarchal chains.
You get lots of talk about getting women into the workforce, and into higher education and upper management, and some of them really do get there. But the paid jobs that women have traditionally been allowed to do don’t get any more respect or any more remuneration, and since this is capitalism, that which is unpaid doesn’t get any respect either. Women who do paid work sometimes start looking down on women who do unpaid home work, and we get the Mommy Wars.
And of course all women are still judged by how well they keep their houses, raise their children, and perform all those other traditionally feminine tasks. The women who can afford to, pay other women (almost always Women of Colour, and/or recent immigrants, and/or others who are economically vulnerable) less than the work is worth, to do it for them, perpetuating those women’s oppression. The women who can’t afford to, do it themselves on top of their paid work, or let it slide at their social peril.
Guess who benefits? Men, and rich people. They used to just take advantage of women’s sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour, and now they also benefit from our paid work by having our incomes to contribute to the household (should they have a female domestic partner), and more generally by having not only a greater supply of workers, but a supply of workers that they seem to manage to find all sorts of ways of paying less.
The Fight to Value the Feminine
This is more than most people are willing to say out loud in public, but it’s a classic example of what feminists mean when we say that our culture devalues the feminine. Feminists have been working all sorts of ways against this, from arguing against gender binarism, to ethics of care philosophy, to the study of women’s handicrafts and the textile arts as real art. This shit doesn’t fly in a kyriarchy either. Things being different without one being automatically superior and the other inferior? Supposedly different kinds of people having more commonalities than differences? Lack of a bright, hard line between groups? How can you divide and conquer if there’s no division? How can you reinforce hierarchy if things are valued equally?
Don’t worry, kyriarchy is self-sustaining! Introducing… (cue ominous music) … THE SEX WARS! Which I’m not going to go into in any depth because it’s so fraught and much of it was before my time so I don’t really get it and regardless of how I put it, somebody is bound to wind up hurt and alienated. The bottom line is that there are multiple feminisms and a lot of people think everybody else is doing it wrong. It’s largely about what is a woman, really, and who oppresses who and how, and how and with whom women can have sex or otherwise ally with in a patriarchy without perpetuating our own oppression (but other things too). And because feminists are human, and live in human, kyriarchal, society, these kinds of disagreements have become fights and falling-outs and disillusionments and enmities, and are the reason you’ll see women who are totally working to free women from patriarchal oppression, but don’t call themselves feminists because they feel mainstream feminism has neglected or outright rejected them.
And so what do we have now? We have a movement too fragmented to do much of anything, and infighting among who’s left. Not to mention that what’s most visible of what’s left is what is most beneficial to the kyriarchy anyway. On the one hand, you hear about shrill, hairy-legged radicals (who may or may not hate men, transsexuals, sex, porn, marriage, mothers, family, etc.) Fear of this stereotype is why so many women “aren’t feminists, but….” On the other, you hear about the so-called sex-positive feminists, who totally love men, transsexuals, sex, porn, marriage, mothers, family, etc., and promote pole dancing and stiletto heels as empowering. Which lets the kyriarchy put women into a lovely false dichotomy: you can either embrace your oppression (and spend lots of money buying products to oppress yourself with), or be one of those. Like I said, brilliant.