Bye Bye Ms. American Pie
The American Pie is a centuries old recipe calling for ingredients to create a true democratic society among people in the United States. It alters its taste to suit an ever-changing nation’s appetite. However much the ingredients change, the portions remain the same, with one group receiving a decidedly larger slice. But the slighted group, the women, always declare, “We don’t just want a bigger piece of the pie. We want to change the recipe altogether.” Their feminist motto demands a new dish, one which consists of equal ingredients for both men and women.
Today this recipe remains unwritten. Despite significant gains made by various women’s rights campaigns, the feminist movement has lost touch with reality; true gender equality requires a re-examination of both male and female gender roles in American society.
Although the battle for equal rights for women in the United States gained prominence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the movement’s conception dates back to the nation’s humble beginnings. Future First Lady Abigail Adams first warned her husband, John Adams, to “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors” when drawing up a code of laws for the young nation. The founding father replied succinctly, “I cannot but laugh” at such an idea.
In a letter to an acquaintance, he provided further explanation for his response by expressing the common sentiment of the day: women simply lacked the competence necessary for life in the real world. Thus, the nation’s first set of laws established the role of women as homebound dependents, with no legal existence separate from their husbands.
Some feminists argue that men believe the equality of women threatens to rob them of their “monopoly” of power. However, when the United States entered World War I and World War II, the government actively encouraged women to join the workforce.
Propaganda such as the classic “Rosie the Riveter” posters spread the “We Can Do It” message from household to household. Women such as Mary Entwistle left their homes or their low-wage jobs to “man” the wartime industries. Entwistle surprisingly discovered “the only reason welding was a man’s job is that men had always done it.” Women working in other fields noticed the same. The spirit of empowerment and self-reliance swept through American women. Yet as soon as the men returned home from war, the factories and assembly lines suddenly proved too difficult (or so the justification went) for the women handling them, and their employers promptly dismissed them. Women who protested such blatant sexism often found little support from society at large.
Nevertheless, the women’s rights movement managed to steadily progress during the twentieth century, particularly with the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, protecting a citizen’s right to vote regardless of their sex.
Nearly half of a century passed before feminism again invaded America in the 1960s and 1970s. Unlike the earlier women’s rights effort, which realized the improbability of all of their demands being met, radical feminists of the new movement declared an all-or-nothing stance. To these extremists, only support for all of their demands constitutes true feminism.
Cathy Young, an advocate of gender equality, (as opposed to the aforementioned extremism) explains, “the ‘moderate’ solution of grafting women’s new rights and roles onto more traditional ideals of womanhood…can leave women painfully torn between two worlds.”
Therefore, it seems as if women must choose one or the other: either they abandon their femininity or give up their newfound independence. Since neither option appeals to the modern feminist, she creates her own third option: go after the men. This new brand of feminism is appealing to some women because it validates their personal issues, especially their anger towards men.
These anti-male feminists often overshadow feminists not adhering to such radical beliefs, whose own viewpoints, such as egalitarian parenting roles and women’s independent decision making, consequently go unheard. The majority of women’s rights activists may fall into this latter group, unbeknownst to all since the former group better fits the new (and louder) feminist stereotype.
This radical stereotype only provokes the opposition that feminism faces from the religious fundamentalist movement. Christian fundamentalists,* who strongly condemn abortion, fight against the adamant feminist belief in a woman’s right to choose. They also disapprove of women’s entry into certain traditionally male dominated schools, careers, groups, sports, etc. This stance merely reinforces the occurrence of brutal hazing and sexual harassment towards females who dare to enter predominantly male arenas.
Additionally, fundamentalist arguments sometimes establish themselves on ambiguous terms and assumptions. When arguing against mothers in the workforce, these anti-feminists imply that fathers should not or would not take the responsibility of the stay at home parent. So firmly in favor of traditional gender roles (in which wives submit to their husbands), extreme conservatives claim that “social science research on intact marriages finds that in real marriages, male headship is simply a fact.” In order to agree with this statement one must disregard the subjective natures of “real marriages” and “male headship.”
Hypocrisy in the actions of extreme fundamentalists demonstrates another flaw in their crusade. Female anti-feminists speak out in opposition of women’s liberation, meaning that women who are against female independence fight the women who support female independence, therefore exercising the right that they essentially oppose.
Such ironies, hypocrisies, and double standards are not confined to radical fundamentalists alone. American society in general places blatantly unequal amounts of pressure on females. Even in today’s post-sexual revolution society, women continue to face criticism for committing acts perfectly acceptable among men. In fact, the sexual revolution simply moved women from prudishness to promiscuity on the liberation spectrum. Before, according to Victoria Woodhull, a suffragette of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the husband’s control of sexual activity reduced the wife’s role to “legal prostitution.” Now, “The guy gets all the glory the more he can score / While the girl can do the same and yet you call her a whore” as “Can’t Hold Us Down,” a song by Christina Aguilera, explains.
Another effect of the sexual revolution manifests itself in the large numbers of single working mothers. Single or not, mothers who spend more daytime hours at the office than at home with their children face the ridicule of those calling for a return to traditional family roles. However, traditional family roles change with time. Wealthy mothers of the 1800s hired nursemaids to attend to their children. In the 1920s, “a mother was viewed as shortchanging her offspring if she handed them over to a servant.” Who determines which of the two time periods is more traditional?
For centuries, society has been searching for answers to a question that remains unasked: what are men’s and women’s true gender roles in American society? Blame for neglecting to identify the core of the issue lies on both sides of the dispute. “No feminist whose concern for women stems from a concern for justice in general can ever legitimately allow her only interest to be the advantage of women,” explains British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards. Some believe that little explanation is necessary; biological differences establish a person’s role in life. But what accounts for the differences in definitions of femininity and masculinity among different communities?
Society obviously influences gender roles as well. In the United States, women dressing in shorts, sportswear, or pants draw few stares, but if men walk around in skirts, dresses, and makeup they risk attracting unwanted attention to themselves (whereas men wearing traditional kilts in Scotland or robes in African countries may pass by without notice). Similarly, in the modern business world, still considered a “man’s world,” women find success only after gaining the hard-earned respect of their male co-workers. Conversely, people assume men who hold jobs in mostly female positions are suffering from a “masculinity crisis.”
As society becomes more accepting of working mothers, the question of who takes the title of primary caregiver demands attention. Large bodies of evidence suggests that both parents’ presence in the life of their family best benefits the children, regardless of the parents’ gender and even in cases of divorce. Yet societal standards and the legal system create many obstacles preventing this from happening.
Women may comprise a higher percentage of college students based on the assumption that their education must support at least themselves, and possibly children as well. A father with joint-custody of his children found payments to his ex-wife “were based on the assumption that she alone was caring for the kids.” Most attorneys and divorcees believe that fathers seeking custody must prove themselves as “above and beyond” parents, whereas mothers just need to qualify as “okay.”
Both men and women have proved themselves capable of successfully mastering roles traditionally considered appropriate for the opposite sex. In order for one gender to gain acceptance into its new role, the other must receive acceptance as well.
American society continues to change despite attempts to halt the progression of true democracy—with liberty and justice for all. Even before other countries recognized the United States as a sovereign nation, women worked to prove their worth as equal citizens in the eyes of their male counterparts. Women slowly but successfully achieved equal status in some areas of living, yet they still face discrimination simply because of their gender in other areas of society. Such sexism harms women and men alike. Only shattering male and female stereotypes will tear down the wall that threatens to otherwise divide the genders forever.
*This is not meant to imply that all people who oppose abortion are fundamentalists.
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