An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘feminism’

You’ve Come a Long Way Baby

Arthur Golden’s best seller of the ‘90s, Memoirs of a Geishahas been sitting on my bookshelf for ten years—waiting for me to retire, dandle grandchildren on my knees, putter in the yard, and finally sit down to read. When reading about a different culture, it’s easy to be critical—especially where gender roles are described. The idea of women trained in the art of pleasing men—as entertainers and sexual companions—strikes Westerners as immoral—although history records that French courtesans were highly trained.

In a male-dominated society, women pretty well must please men in order to gain the financial security of marriage or mistress. In our country, the equal rights movement of the 1970s opened the door to more career opportunities for women, but paradoxically, women have been increasingly judged by their youth and sex appeal ever since. Sure, women can be news announcers now—as long as the wrinkles don’t show. Even the women broadcasters on PBS had facelifts a couple of years ago when high-definition television became the norm.

Breast implants–the painful equivalent of the old Chinese practice of foot-binding, and previously relegated to Las Vegas showgirls–are now commonly  endured by upper-middle income housewives as well as career women—even in Utah.

Maybe Muslim women, revealing nothing more than their faces in public, are the truly liberated females on the planet. No tummy tucks, boob jobs, diets, leg shaving, or pantyhose—no need to even comb their hair before going out.

Modern American women may have more job opportunities, but we still live in a male-dominated society where beauty counts more than brains and ability.

Women Against Women

More than thirty years after the ERA controversy, American women have gained the right to participate in occupations formerly closed to them and to more equal education opportunities—yet, we are judged by our faces and figures more than ever before. The need to be validated by male attention has preschool girls learning provocative dance steps, middle school girls displaying bare mid-drifts and any cleavage nature has provided, and high school girls opting for breast enhancement if nature was stingy.

While I appreciate the desire to have a nice guy around, I feel concern for the apathy women show toward the opportunities we have gained and for the push-back against further progress. I hate the fact that feminism is considered a dirty word conjuring visions of mannish women out to emasculate every male within knife range. A few years ago, I tried to get Herland, a 1915 novel by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, approved for use with my 9th grade English classes in suburban Salt Lake City. Parents accused me of being a feminist with the same tone Glenn Beck pronounces “communist” and “socialist.” It didn’t matter that Herland was written at a time when American women had few legal rights, and Gilman aimed to correct archaic practices such as restrictive clothing, lack of physical exercise, and limited educational opportunities for girls and women. It didn’t matter that the book was an imaginative creation of a world without disease, poverty and crime and would give students the opportunity to discuss relevant social problems. According to the parents on the approval committee, reading a book advocating equal opportunities for women would undermine their family values. Obviously, I, a married, active LDS woman with five children of my own, had a social agenda contrary to the values of this Utah community.

Boyd K. Packer made “feminism” equivalent to the other F word in a speech to the All-Church Coordinating Committee in 1993.  In that speech he listed feminism as one of the three dangers to the LDS Church, along with homosexuals and intellectuals. Packer gave no details on how the feminist movement threatened the church. He did address the issue of working mothers and said while some were justified, the church should not provide “license to the many who are not.” Although few Mormons today recall that speech, the perception that the church is officially opposed to all feminist issues persists and makes Mormon women hesitant to support any women’s issues. Then, of course, Rush Limbaugh coined the phrase “Feminazi” to add a right-wing political dimension. Interesting that women let men define the issues for them.

Fear that we may lose a golden past that never existed also plays a part in women’s attitudes. It’s easy for younger women to believe that people were happier back in the 1950s when all the mothers stayed home and dads earned the living. Personally, I didn’t know too many families in the ‘50s with June Cleaver type mothers. My mother and aunt worked in our family grocery business as my grandmother had before them. Quite a few of my friends’ mothers worked outside the home at least part time. Yet, the dream of returning to the happier days of the past persists—accompanied by the notion that keeping women’s wages low and not providing decent child care and maternity leave somehow benefits families.

Why don’t women speak out for benefits for themselves and other women? Women who landed a great provider usually don’t see their stake in the struggle—unless a sister or daughter is less fortunate. Maybe it’s time to value all women as sisters and daughters.

Feminism, Sex, and Happiness

A recent Mormon Times article about the Rockefeller Foundation/Time  survey findings that American women are less happy now than women were 30 or 40 years ago drew criticism from the feminist bloggernacle. The MT author, well aware of the biases of both her readers and her bosses at Deseret News, interpreted the survey to pretty much dismiss feminism as a factor in female happiness.

Now I don’t know that any “ism,” including feminism and Mormonism, actually creates happiness. Certainly life is much different for women now than 40 years ago when female attorneys and male nurses were as rare as Democrats in Texas. One change particularly concerns me.  Despite all the gains in legal and occupational equality, modern American women are judged by appearance much more now than before the equality gap narrowed. And by appearance, I mean a youthful, sexy physical image. Back in the ‘70s when the ERA was being discussed, exposed cleavage and see-through skirts were not appropriate business attire for women. Today we women fight the erosion of age with the dedication of Netherlands engineers building dikes to hold back the sea. Our aging bodies have become enemies to subdue rather than friends to appreciate and pamper.

Now, men’s bodies as well as women’s deteriorate with every birthday, but male power and income increase with age. In too many areas, women still access power and income via sex appeal—and nobody has to tell you that sexy good looks do not improve with age. Even Maureen Dowd, the feminist NY Times columnist, posts glamour shots of herself on her webpage. While her photos are hardly cheesecake, they show a lot more leg and chest than photos of her male colleagues.

Why do we women still define ourselves by our desirability to men? Maybe because we don’t notice the problem when we’re young. Denying reality, we think Mother Nature will treat us differently. We won’t lose our looks. But no matter how strenuously we fight the ravages of time—defending ourselves with hair color, make up, diets, and surgery—Ma Nature wins every battle. Sometimes I think Muslim women have the better deal. Hide it all under a burqa.

Maybe if woman united and demanded being valued for our brains instead of our boobs, we’d attain equality. And maybe not. Rebellion can backfire. Look at how the sexual revolution affected women. As part of the equality movement of the ‘60s and 70’s, women demanded the same right to enjoy sex as men. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that idea. Women’s sexual pleasure has been ignored for way too long in American culture  . But by demanding sex with no strings attached, women gave away their best bargaining chip. Eventually the nesting urge kicks in for most women and they want a permanent attachment and a family. Not so with all males. Does a woman have any leverage to encourage marriage if the guy she’s been living with for ten years decides it’s time to replace the old model?

According to the survey (and who would fault the RF and Time mag?), equality doesn’t equal happiness. Since even the best of intentions and plans can go awry, maybe we should be grateful the gap between gender equality has yet to be acknowledged, much less bridged in Mormondom. Maybe pushing for a larger role in the decision-making process at church would somehow result in our being judged even more by our physical attractions. Do we really want to compete with the Hot Mormon Muffin in our ward for a calling as Relief Society president?

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