For this lecture, please watch this documentary about feminism in America.
Overt & Covert Prejudice
Before talking about sexism today and racism next class, we need to consider prejudice as a whole, and consider the difference between overt and covert prejudice. A friend of mine had a horrible experience when I was preparing this lecture for the first time. He was playing video games online, and one of the players asked if anybody playing was black in the most offensive way possible. Hopefully, this requires no further explanation of what word was used. My friend said he did not know how to respond and simply said nothing in return. He said he was still wrestling with whether or not he should have said something, and that this was the first OVERT racism he had experienced in the new millennium.
He made a further observation that is quite valuable in describing racism and sexism in America today: While OVERT prejudice is most often and in most places rarer today, COVERT prejudice is constant and continuous. While slurs, mob violence and other open acts of racism are rare, we still live in a culture that is racially divided with institutions plagued by institutional racism. While women wear pants and are not openly called “doll” or “baby” so much anymore, the glass ceiling remains alive and well.
Just a little while ago, overt prejudice was the law of the land. Women were told openly, by teachers and scientists, that they were intellectually and socially inferior to men. I have an older co-worker who told me that when he was in elementary school in San Diego in the early 1950s, his class put on a production of Little Black Sambo, a British children’s story about a boy in India. He got the main part of Sambo which he performed in blackface, applied by his teacher. Because the British called Indians and Africans “blacks”, but this term is not applied to Indians in America, the children in the chorus were dressed up in overalls and mammy dresses and the teacher had them sing ‘Camp Town Races’ and other traditional black songs from the days of slavery even though Sambo is Indian and not ‘black’ or from the South.
It is a sign of progress that overt racism and sexism has become covert. This change has happened almost entirely in the last 50 years, since the 60s and the triumphs made by the civil rights and feminist movements. Unfortunately this change has convinced many, both right and left wing, that racism and sexism no longer exist in America, or that it still exists but is marginal and best to ignore. The media, which downplays America’s social problems (as we looked at with propaganda), ignores racism and sexism for the most part. Worst of all, the few times it pays attention to these problems is when they serve the interests of the dominant majority or powers that be. As my friend noted, if you point at covert racism as a marginalized person, YOU are called racist. We hear about white people losing opportunities to affirmative action policies, but not about racism against minority groups that cost them the same sorts of opportunities. Just after 9/11, feminists made brief appearances on news programs to tell us of the evils that traditional Islamic culture inflicts upon women, and then feminism disappeared again from our televisions.
I enjoy looking at the animal kingdom to see the root behaviors of our human problems. While the apes are our most direct ancestors, the octopus is studied by researchers as one of our most important and ancient ancestors because it has a brain very much like our brain stem, the most basic and early part of our brains. Thus, studying octopi allows us to study the most basic behaviors of animals and ourselves. In one study, researchers took an octopus and shocked it whenever they showed it a teddy bear. Quite understandably, the octopus soon became very scared of the bear, but the experiment did not stop there. They took a second octopus, put it in a separate tank next to the other traumatized octopus so the two could not communicate other than by sight. They then showed the teddy bear to the first octopus, and let the second octopus watch the first be frightened. They then took away the first octopus and showed the second the teddy bear. Surprisingly, the second octopus was even more frightened of the teddy bear than the first.
The researchers concluded that octopi can watch each other, as all animals with brains can, and learn about what they should like or fear from the behaviors of others. They also concluded, important for considering prejudice, that the second octopus was more scared than the first because it knew it should be scared of the teddy bear but did not know why it should be scared. Consider that covert and institutional prejudice are learned reactions and fears, and they need never be consciously or overtly expressed or explained by those who teach or learn these reactions. In this sense, covert prejudice can be more severe and harder to unlearn because it is never consciously or overtly expressed and so there is no opportunity for direct criticism.
A good (or rather horrible) example of covert racism is covered in a famous work The Myth of Model Minority. The article was written in the 90s by Rosalind Chou, then an Asian-American college student who was upset by many articles in Time and Newsweek that warned of rising Asian-American voices as a new “special-interest” group. These articles seemed to speak with the voice of the “average” American, in the name of “the common interest”, a voice that feared Asian voices becoming like African and Latino voices of dissent. Apparently, the “common interest” is threatened by minority groups who have “special interests” that can pull in the opposite direction, and warns that while Asians have been quiet and supportive of the common interest in the past there are signs that they are becoming dissenting opinions like the voices of Africans and Latinos. Chou notes that Time, Newsweek and the mainstream media often speak with such a voice, a voice which does not identify itself as particular or white at all but is speaking in opposition to all other interests. Why are Asian and African and Latino American interests not “our” common interests? This is one of the dominant ways that covert racism remains a constant and very real experience for many Americans.
Today, we cover sexism and the reactions of feminists to the oppression of women. Just like for Asian Americans, feminists are not “us” in the media but a special interest group that opposes the common interest.
The gender mythology of our culture and many other patriarchal cultures is that women are docile, non-violent, unconfident, incompetent, and emotional. Lt. Col. Grossman in his excellent book On Killing tells us that there is no difference between men and women in combat physically or psychologically. Women are capable of violence and even rape, though our society does not recognize this yet. There is rape and torture among female prison inmates. There have been documented instances of female gang members gang raping men. Women, including young girls, have been said to be more psychological than physical in bullying compared to men and boys, but they are clearly not docile, unconfident or incompetent.
What, then, are the differences between men and women? Most obviously, there are physiological differences that relate to sex and procreation. In addition, there is one dynamic of psychology in which women relatively differ from men. Men tend to seek power through NOT being social, isolating themselves and their opinions, whereas women tend to seek power through BEING social, interacting with others. The two best examples are 1) classic women ‘let’s talk’ vs. men ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ that becomes strained in many heterosexual relationships (like choosing a restaurant, where women wants to discuss and man wants her to just pick), and 2) male boss ‘don’t bring it to me until it’s done and done right’ vs. female boss ‘let’s go over the details so we are on the same page’ difference of support offered.
In apes and the most ancient nomadic and tribal societies, there is evidence that women often had status and leadership positions. Women were shamans, leaders, and there were often central female mother gods. As people began to collect into city states, we can see patriarchy increase. Why did this happen? The best explanation so far, one that does not rely on any inability of women, is the increased size of the community. When people lived in small communities, women could raise children at the center of the village, as the political center. As city states increased in size, it made it increasingly difficult to raise one’s children at the public center. Thus, women retreated into the home, and men, who had to be the go-for before now were the ones who could venture out of the home and into the centers of political activity. Today, devices allow both women and men to raise children while fully participating in public life, but women are still somewhat confined to the home in balancing life between home and career.
When we look at the cultures of the world and their historical development, we can see that many cultures have taken part in a similar oppression of women, but at the same time women have had increasing power in society and new movements have to appeal to women to take off. Consider that Buddhism, Christianity and Islam (the three largest cultures yet) all had to offer women better status and rights than they had previously (Naga princess story of Buddhism, stories of Jesus involving women and men cheating equally bad, Islamic law and divorce and consensual sex), but all three oppressed women. Consider that in Christianity and Buddhism, traditionally nuns can only teach kids, not adult men.
Modern society has continued the trend, such that today women have equal legal status in many nations but covert sexism and a lack of women owning property persists. A united Nations 2004 report claims that women work 20% more a day on job and home together than men do (10 ½ hours to men 8 ¾ hours). Women are 51% of the population (technically the MAJORITY of the population), do 66% of the work, get 10% of the income, and worldwide own 1% of the property. Thus, sexism (overt AND covert) is quite alive, in spite of counter claims.
Mass media has done little to help the situation. Women are typically portrayed as secondary to men, and largely important as romantic interests. A recent study by San Diego State’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film showed that in the 100 top-grossing films of 2013, women represented only 15% of protagonists, 29% of major characters, and 30% of all speaking characters, and that very little has changed since 2002. Many feminist critics have argued that TV and movies today SEEM to be pro-feminist (Sex and the City, Ali McBeal, Brigit Jones’ Diary) but in fact they are stories where a working white woman (and her friends) try to find the perfect man to find happiness.
Feminism is the movement in reaction to sexism and prejudice against women. The basic idea is that women should have the same status as men in society, or “women are people too”. Back when I was in high school, I was impressed when, representing the National Organization for Women, the largest, most influential feminist organization in America, Kate Weber asked the student body in assembly, “Who thinks women are equal to men?”. When most everyone raised their hands, she replied, “Then you are all feminists!”. It is a shame that people, men but ALSO women, are afraid of calling themselves feminists, largely from the backlash of the 80s between the second wave and third wave of feminism which said that “militant feminists” “hate men”. While it is true that feminists are people, and some people, in the name of any ideology, can be bigoted and dogmatic, feminists in general are interested in women’s progress and equality, not in belittling or repressing the rights of men.
Historically, many consider Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) to be the first major feminist work, arguing that women and men should have equal rights, and that women are not rationally inferior to men, but appear so because they were not educated to the degree that men were. Two years before (1790), Wollstonecraft (1759 – 1797) had written Vindication of the Rights of Men, a justification of the French Revolution and progressive values such as equality that were being attacked by conservatives and traditionalists. In writing the influential work, arguing that doing away with nobles and slavery benefits society as a whole, she began to conceive of her second Vindication, a work centered on progress towards women’s equality.
Like bell hooks would much later, in the 1980s, Wollstonecraft argued that improving the lives of women such that they are regarded as equals will make them better wives, better mothers, and benefit everyone socially. Women are perceived, genuinely or falsely, to be superficial only because they are denied equal education. Women are taught that it is beauty, not intelligence, that counts, and so many are left no option other than “to adorn its prison”. Because women are the early educators of both daughters and sons, they should be educated such that they can be better educators and parents. Both boys and girls should be given the same public education to help society progress as a whole.
The Three Waves of American Feminism
In America there were three waves of feminism, each building on the last and addressing new issues from the last wave. The first wave was the women’s suffrage movement of the 1920s in America and Britain. In the same way that World War I was not known by that name until World War II, the first wave was not known as such until the second wave of the 1960s. The most famous first wave figure is Susan B. Anthony. She argued that the abortion issue should be set aside to concentrate on women’s right to vote as an adult citizen and women’s right to refuse sex to their husbands (note Mohammed in the Ahadith says this in 600 CE, with problems today). The first wave, not of course known as that till the second wave, ended in 1919 with 19th amendment to the constitution.
The second wave was the civil rights movement, the late 60s and early 70s which is also called the women’s liberation movement or ‘women’s lib’. Defined by Carol Hanisch’s phrase “The personal is political”, took off in early 60s and culminated in the civil rights act of 1966 (backed by both NOW and NAACP, the biggest US anti-sexism and racism groups together). While the first wave said ‘this is America so we deserve to vote’, the second wave was part of anti-establishment left movement that said that America was a corrupt institution that needed to be changed.
Simone De Beauvoir wrote The Second Sex in France in 1953, arguing that women had been marginalized as ‘The OTHER’ by men using Hegel’s idea of the master-slave dialectic. I fondly remember my German Hegel professor struggling to recall the phrase, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”, speaking of feminists using Hegel in the name of progressive values. De Beauvoir was one of the original Existentialists, along with Sartre, Fanon and Merleau-Ponty. Existentialism, founded by Sartre and inspired by Nietzsche, argues that we are each individually responsible for giving meaning and purpose to our lives, and that when we rely on cultural norms or institutions to give our lives meaning we inauthentic and ignorant, failing to live up to our individual potential.
The Feminine Mystique (1963) by Betty Friedan was another big book of the time (much more published in America than Marxist De Beauvoir’s), arguing that women were not feeling fulfilled as homemakers and mothers, and they needed an identity for themselves as individuals beyond the identity of the family. In the 1950s, doctors were prescribing Valium to depressed housewives, as somehow they had 2 1/3 children and a white picket fence, but were not feeling fulfilled with a life of vacuuming and baking muffins.
The third wave rose in the 90s after the 80s backlash against the 60s progressive movements and continues today. The third wave tried to not only pay attention to black women, Latina women, third world women, but also to break down the idea of women as essentially different from men but equal.
The major criticism of the movement as a whole, which only fully rose in the third wave, was much embodied in the work of Gloria Jean Watkins, known as ‘bell hooks’, an early critic of 2nd wave as white middle class women empowerment that ignores all else in the name of ‘feminism’, thus hooks’ ‘womanism’. bell hooks, her name uncapitalized on purpose, argues that issues of oppression are more complex than some feminists have considered. Courageously, she argues that white women can be oppressors, and not simply the oppressed, just as black men, in oppressing black women, can be oppressors as well.
This criticism fits well with the idea of cultural hegemony, a concept proposed by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci while imprisoned by Mussolini and the Italian fascists. Gramsci argued that while Marx and Engels reduced all conflict to the struggle between workers and owners, between the rich and the poor, society is more complex and certain groups dominate others (ex: Christians are predominant in America and this can lead to demonization of Muslims, just as Europeans are predominant such that minority groups are suppressed). The process by which these dominant and marginal forces work out their struggles is known as hegemonic discourse. Just as bell hooks argues, oppression is complex, involving several factors, and cannot be boiled down to one simple issue. Unfortunately, some progressives have argued and still argue that their fight, such as class war, feminism, or anti-racism, is the REAL struggle, and that the others are simply counter-revolutionary diversions that distract from what is important. As bell hooks recognizes, progressives should work together as allies rather than oppose each other if they want to make genuine progress.
The two big feminist issues, which are still being fought out today, are 1) Is gender a subjective construct (in the mind) or social reality (in the world)? And 2) Did feminism accomplish what it set out to achieve, or should it change in response to criticism of the movement? I was talking with a fellow BCC instructor, and she said her son and his friends in high school think that feminists are all hippie women who don’t shave their arm pits, hate men and that they don’t understand that oppression of women is a thing of the past, thinking that all feminists are anti-male and anti-sex and not recognizing that much of the struggle is still ongoing.
De Beauvoir famously wrote, “One is not born a woman, one becomes a woman”. Judith Butler, one of the most famous of American philosophers today and a professor at UC Berkeley, says that gender identity is performative. Both of these figures thus back the Poststructuralist conception, that identity is created and performed. If a woman puts on makeup and wears a short skirt, is she being oppressed or is she actively expressing her individual sexuality? Second wave came under fire from the third wave because feminists often told women that if they tried to be sexy they were being deceived and made into property. This drew a fight between anti-pornography and prostitution feminists and younger pro-sex feminism.
On the pro side was the Grrrl punk movement of the 1990s, lead by the group Bikini Kill as a band of the third wave branch. Notice the t-shirt that lead singer and band founder Kathleen Hanna is wearing, displaying a man as a scantily-clad sex object, and putting this on display as a reversal of gender norms. Judith Butler may well have enjoyed the performance.
Here is a link to an extensive three part documentary on feminism and the women’s movement: