Choice feminism has always been a controversial subject: can any choice made by a woman be deemed feminist simply because she is a woman? Some argue that this is the case because “feminism is about choice.”
Conversely, many a feminist argue that women are fully capable of making – and often do make – sexist choices, choices that are arguably harmful to them as women and/or to female-identified people (“womankind”) as a whole. Just because a woman makes a particular choice, these feminists insist, it is not enough to make that choice feminist, because feminism should mean equality and not every choice does. For example, is a woman who chooses to give up her career and become a housewife making a feminist choice, or is her housewifehood necessarily sexist? Can it be logically posited that a well-educated woman who gives up her career – to raise children or for another reason – is not turning back the gender equality clock?
In an incendiary piece called “1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible,” Elizabeth Wurtzel contends that upper class women who choose to give up their career to raise their children or just be housewives are doing a disservice to women everywhere – and that these women are perpetuating and exacerbating the war on women because they are taking themselves from financial independence to depending on men, which is in turn causing men, who largely have more power in this world (including in government) than women, to see them as incapable and pathetic beings.
The men, the husbands of the 1 percent, are on trading floors or in office complexes with other men all day, and to the extent that they see anyone who isn’t male it’s pretty much just secretaries and assistants. And they go home to…whatever. What are they supposed to think? They pay gargantuan American Express bills and don’t know why or what for. Then they give money to Mitt Romney.
Traditional marriages breed men that don’t value women
Wurtzel has a point, especially when taking into account the recent study “Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace,” which presents the following findings:
We found that employed husbands in traditional marriages, compared to those in modern marriages, tend to (a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.
As J. Victoria Sanders in Bitch writes,
The problem is that patriarchal beliefs don’t seem to have room for women to be equal at work while also being submissive at home.
The study’s findings aren’t limited to the upper class.
Now let’s imagine Wurtzel is also talking about the 99% wives – say, a lower class friend of a friend who is explicitly seeking a “sugar daddy” she can marry because she hates having to work; a wealthy friend who decided to stay at home once her first son was born so she could raise him (and her second kid) herself; a lower middle class aunt who, for no apparent reason, gave up her office job and took up the duties of housewife when her son was in his twenties.
Feminism as economic independence
Wurtzel argues that women’s equality is necessarily tied to their economic independence. Thus, if a wealthy woman is economically dependent on a man when she could be out making her own money, she is curtailing her freedom – and indirectly setting back gender equality everywhere:
I have to admit that when I meet a woman who I know is a graduate of, say, Princeton — one who has read The Second Sex and therefore ought to know better — but is still a full-time wife, I feel betrayed. I’m not much of a moralist — I have absolutely no right to be — but in the interest of doing what’s right both for me personally and for women generally, I have been strict with myself about earning my keep. […]I don’t want everyone to live like me, but I do expect educated and able-bodied women to be holding their own in the world of work.
Women’s role in the war on women
Wurtzel then explains how this paradigm leads to bad news for women across the board:
Because here’s what happens when women go shopping at Chanel and get facials at Tracy Martyn when they should be wage-earning mensches: the war on women happens.
Indeed, if women are viewed as less deserving of rights than men, if they are the subservient gender, if they are nonessential because they stay in the private sphere instead of the public sphere where people make things happen – doesn’t it become easier to hold the belief that women’s personal (and other) choices should be made for them? That women can’t be trusted to make their own decisions, such as having an abortion, because they just aren’t smart or educated enough to make the right one, because men simply are better equipped to make such serious life decisions?
It also follows that women should consequently earn less than men for doing the same job, since they’re basically worth less as humans. In fact, the GOP last month blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act … which Wurtzel would blame on the 1% wives who stay at home. After all, as she points out, fewer than 5% of the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies, 16% of corporate executives, and 17% of law partners are female – and women are still earning much less than men for doing the same job. A recent study demonstrates that male doctors make $12,000 more a year than their female counterparts (even when factoring in medical specialty, title, work hours, productivity, and various other factors).
So maybe this is (partly) why (in the U.S.) women earn less money than men, why they cannot get contraceptives in every state, why their reproductive rights as a whole continue to be eroded, and why many other atrocious, woman-hating things are taking place – why the war on women exists and continues to progress.
How responsible should women be to improving women’s lot?
Of course, whether Wurtzel’s argument refers to the wives of the 1% or all wives who choose to stay at home, it invalidates the choices of women and takes away their agency, portraying them as foolish, oblivious, or worse. Her article also offers a very biased and limited view on a very narrow demographic.
But say we assume that Wurtzel’s position is valid.
Does this mean that it is the responsibility of a 1% woman, regardless of what she desires for whatever reasons, to help advance the lot of women in society? Should a wealthy woman who can keep her career going even though there is no financial need for her to do so, reject the option of staying at home (whether to raise a child or not) to help keep gender equality moving forward?
If Wurtzel is right, what is more important – utilitarianism or personal fulfillment? How much responsibility to each other and to the progress of humanity do women have, and how entitled are women to be selfish?
Are these stay-at-home women undoing decades of feminist progress, or are we putting too much pressure on women? As if we already didn’t have enough. Maybe it’s both.
Which also leads me to wonder, why aren’t we asking anything like this about men?
I’ve wanted to write about this topic for over a week, but have been putting it off because, as a white-looking woman, I cannot know what it’s like to be an oppressed racial minority. I therefore don’t feel very comfortable (qualified) to write about the experiences of black women. In any case, I’d like to comment on the Rihanna/Chris Brown situation while doing my best to keep my privilege in check.
It’s not news that we hear much more about white, blonde, and stereotypically “pretty” women who are beaten or kidnapped than we do about other women who go through the same kind of violence. It’s also not news that women of color are not given as much value as white women in this society (and that women aren’t valued as highly as men, of course).
But I still didn’t expect the Grammys to highlight and celebrate the work of a man convicted of bloodying and bruising a woman. (Three years ago, Brown beat up girlfriend Rihanna and subsequently turned himself in to the police, after which he was released on $50,000 bail.) Brown performed twice at the Grammy awards last February 12.
As Lori of Feministing wrote,
It is absolutely unacceptable that someone who is known to have perpetuated violence against a woman has been so uncritically welcomed and promoted by the music industry.
I completely agree.
Sasha Pasulka wrote a compelling post about the message society has been sending women by failing to punish Brown for his crime more severely since 2009:
The message we sent to young women was unmistakable: You are powerless. You are worthless. You will be a victim, and that will be okay with us. […] We will easily forgive a person who victimizes you. We are able to look beyond the fact that you were treated as less than human, that a bigger, stronger person decided to resolve a conflict with you through violence. We know it happened, but it’s just not that big of a deal to us.
Moreover, the week before the Grammy awards, a producer of the show made a nauseating announcement:
“We’re glad to have him back,” said Grammys Executive Producer Ken Ehrlich. “I think people deserve a second chance, you know. If you’ll note, he has not been on the Grammys for the past few years and it may have taken us a while to kind of get over the fact that we were the victim of what happened.” (Emphasis mine.)
Like Pasulka noted, Ehrlich — *cough* a white man *cough* — is telling us that the victims of Brown’s attacks on Rihanna’s face were… the Grammys. Really? Simply horrifying.
What about race?
Remarkably, the media isn’t paying much attention to the racial elements of the situation.
Let’s dig deeper.
Do you think Brown would have received more criticism for beating up Rihanna if Rihanna were white? What if instead of Rihanna, Brown, a black man, had beaten up a white woman with blue eyes – somebody like the blonde Taylor Swift or the brunette Katy Perry? If this had happened, I bet he would not have gotten invited to perform at the Grammy awards this month (or if he had, many more people would have been up in arms about it!).
In turn, do you think there would be fewer backlashes against Brown if he were white? I wouldn’t be the least surprised if Rihanna were getting victim-blamed even more harshly if she had gotten beaten by a white man.
Black women and stereotypes
Stereotypes are essentially an attempt to justify violence of white people and black men against black women. And they often work.
A 2004 study about African American women and violence in the media found that “the convergence of gender, race, and class oppressions minimized the seriousness of the violence, portrayed most of its victims as stereotypic Jezebels whose lewd behavior provoked assault, and absolved the perpetrators of responsibility” in TV news coverage of Freaknik, an annual “spring break” event that drew African American college students from across the U.S. to Atlanta, Georgia in the 1990s.
In other words, the media portrayed African American women who suffered violence at Freaknik as having provoked it through their supposedly excessive sexuality – it was their own fault that men beat them, you see, because they were overly sexual, or Jezebels. Consequently and appallingly, the perpetrators didn’t receive as much blame for what happened.
Gina McCauley of the blog What About Our Daughters suggested that another stereotype may be at play here: that of the strong black woman or possibly the Sapphire, “the wise-cracking, balls-crushing, emasculating woman, is usually shown with her hands on her hips and her head thrown back as she lets everyone know she is in charge.”
McCauley believes that Brown may be profiting from a mindset common in the black community which says that black men can get away with nearly anything and that it’s black women who are responsible — even when violence is exerted against them.
“We always blame black women when something goes wrong,” McCauley explained. “And we hold them to a completely different standard than we hold black men and boys to. And so while Chris Brown isn’t responsible for any actions, at his own hands, the girl — in this case, Rihanna — is always held responsible. And it doesn’t matter if she’s a poor black girl in the middle of the hood, or one of the most famous and probably commercially successful artists on the planet. She’s still a black girl, and she’s still responsible for every single thing that may happen to her in life.”
McCauley says that young black women tell themselves they are invincible as a coping mechanism and that, if they admit that Brown was to blame for beating Rihanna — a wildly successful young black woman –, black women must also admit that this violence can happen to them, a notion that would destroy the myth of the strong black woman that so many of these girls have internalized.
McCauley made sure to point out that this is not young black women’s fault:
“We don’t have conversations with girls about violence,” she says. “We don’t say, ‘How do you navigate interpersonal relationships with boys?’ I think the only message that young girls get consistently about relationships is don’t get pregnant, don’t get pregnant, don’t get pregnant.”
The bottom line
What makes the Rihanna-Brown incident so important is that it is high-profile. The point isn’t Rihanna or Chris Brown — the point is that we need to have a real conversation about domestic violence and how to prevent it and address it. The point is that by excusing or glossing over Brown’s violence (because of his past or the popularity of his music or whatever reason), we are sending women and young girls — but especially young black women — the perverse message that it’s okay if they get beaten and that their aggressor may ultimately not even be held accountable for his brutal actions.
Like McCauley wrote,
Somewhere right now, a group of women in real life is trying to convince a woman or girl that it is perfectly permissible for her “man” to beat the living snot out of her. They are trivializing the abuse and providing arguments for why she should stay.
Celebrating Chris Brown’s musical abilities despite his violent tendencies past tells women that getting beat up by a significant other is not a big deal. This message is being yelled especially loudly at black women.
We need to change it.
An old favorite, this essay originally appeared as a guest post on Pro Writing Tips.
Language, copyediting, and tips for honing your copyediting skills
I love language for several reasons: double entendres, its delicate and potentially brutal beauty, its occasional dive into the abyss of the ineffable, and its unconscious power.
We absorb outward reality—life—through language; it shapes our perceptions. For instance, most insults in the English language (and the Spanish language, among others) make disproportionate use of female gender and non-human animal designations, e.g. throw like a girl, SOB (note the B), he’s a dog, and the litany of your momma jokes. I wonder why a non-human animal as precious as a dog is used to insult a human, why there are no your pappa jokes, and why men aren’t told to get back to the garage like women are told to get back to the kitchen (which would be awful, too).
The obvious answer is that we live in a sexist and speciesist society—but I won’t go into that.
My point is that these terms, the words that we use to communicate with each other and describe the world around us, do influence the way that we see and treat each other and our surroundings. Humans have been penetrating and raping nature for centuries, violating it, and now our ecosystems are on the brink of collapse. Women are second class citizens in this world, and don’t even get me started on non-humans and other minorities. The power of language is not to be underestimated.
Words are weapons, not innocuous tools with which to craft one-dimensional “roses are red” poems. Language can neither be objective nor exist in a vacuum; it is dialogic: texts exist in and are affected by the culture system that encompasses them, including previously written works. Additionally, each reader will perceive content through her or his own mental filter, altering the text’s meaning even further. Words are, then, to be respected and employed with caution.
This is where copyediting (and, of course, writing) gets interesting. It becomes a multidimensional, unwittingly influential feat of taking over the world. Okay, not really. But a single word can, indeed, change everything. We copyeditors are trusted with a creator’s thoughts and get to manipulate them to our heart’s content. It is thus a grand job that we undertake, a privilege. I appreciate and take pride in it.
Throughout my years as a copyeditor, I have discovered tactics to help me sharpen my skills and increase my productivity. Here they are:
- Write and copyedit yourself. Then, have a painstaking grammar geek (maybe a copyeditor you look up to) correct your work so you can learn from your mistakes.
- Scrutinize books, newspapers, magazines, blogs, shampoo bottles in the bath—anything and everything you can get your hands on. Take notes and, if you aren’t sure, check them against a style guide or dictionary. Be vicious!
- Visualize words to help you remember their spelling.
- Visualize and punctuate conversations and songs in your head.
- Use a thesaurus—and always check your word choice in the dictionary before plugging it into your text.
- If you get a chance, take a short, mind cleansing break after copyediting a lengthy or abstruse text, and give it one last look-over before turning it in.
- Keep it tight.
- Stick to the active voice whenever possible.
- Share your wisdom: if you know writers who are receptive to feedback, give it to them, especially if you are the one to edit their work. Not only will you be helping out a colleague, but you will also, hopefully, not have to correct the same mistakes time and time again anymore.
- Give out copies of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style (or whichever guide is most appropriate) for Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa and birthdays to lighten your workload.
The most important thing, however, is to enjoy the process. No matter how advanced your skills may be, there will always be more to learn. And this is good news! It means that there is no such thing as perfection—and if there were, our lives would surely be very boring. So be thorough, but patient; offer constructive criticism (to yourself, too); nurture your skills and others’. And have fun! Because if you don’t have fun, what’s the point?