Patriarchy receding in society
September 29, 2011
Filed under OPINION
This column was contributed by Ben Menzies. It is written in response to a column published in the New York Times by Lisa Belkin.
Lisa Belkin, a columnist for The New York Times who “covers family life and writes the Motherlode blog,” is distraught. Writing in the Times, Belkin wondered: “As parents around the country send their children to campuses for the start of another academic year, what are we to make of the fact that lessons of equality, respect and self-worth have been heard when it comes to the classroom, but lost somewhere on the way to the clubs?”
What could be the cause of such a horrifying state of affairs? For Belkin, the culprit is none other than “a feeling that sexualization of women is fun and funny rather than insulting and uncomfortable.”
Upon reading her commentary, entitled rather provocatively “After Class, Skimpy Equality,” I was taken by the fact that Belkin appears to live in a world wholly disconnected from the one in which I live, yet her perspective is fascinating as an artifact showing the progress made for gender justice in the past decades.
According to Belkin, though she would never admit it, women are defined by their relationship to men. That is to say, the fact that a woman (defined by a shockingly narrow concept of gender) dresses in a “sexualized” (her term) manner necessarily means that she is doing so out of fealty to “man” (again, as a biological essence). This begs many questions: what defines sexualization? Sexual to whom? And, most importantly, why can’t a woman choose to dress in whatever manner she pleases?
Obviously, Belkin’s answer (though unstated) is simple: in a world of female empowerment, women could dress in any fashion they pleased because they would be free of hegemonic masculinity. This seems fabulously antiquated, though.
Even a cursory glance at the composition of the college is a stunning counterpoint to the no-agency worldview. In 20 years, the college has transitioned from “about equally coeducational” (quoted from the 1991-92 course catalog) to a 2010 gender split of 58 percent to 42 percent.
Even more important is the lagging indicator of departmental makeup. In 1991, the English department was composed of nine men and two women. Today, the division is even at five each. Nearly every department on campus has substantial female representation, which is a nationwide phenomenon indicated by the rising number of PhDs awarded to women. In 1999, women received 42.9 percent of doctoral degrees awarded. In 2009, that percentage was 52.3 percent.
The increasing presence of females in academics is reflected in programs with a far greater emphasis on female perspectives historically excluded from study. Glancing at the curriculum of the Religion degree is instructive in this manner: the first requirement is for a class in “Gender and Sociology of Religion.” Across the humanities and social sciences, classes increasingly direct focus toward feminist (and related) authors. The mere existence of a Gender Studies program, for which there was no equivalent in 1991, testifies to this shift.
Does this mean that the insidious influence of patriarchy and sexism have been banished from our campus? Of course not. Belkin, in fact, points at what I think are valid causes for concern when she relates anecdotes of certain fraternity practices at other schools (notorious cases at Duke University, the University of Southern California and Yale University). There are many upstanding members of the fraternities on campus, and Whitman’s Greek system is overall infinitely more progressive than most. However, one member of a fraternity once related to me a conversation he observed between members of his fraternity in which the conclusion was reached that none would date a woman who would not do his laundry. I think we all know that that is not an isolated instance.
Nor would it be fair to suggest that relics of patriarchy and sexism are limited to fraternities and sororities. Every day, most women still feel the need to perform the ritual of makeup so as to appear presentable, while most men feel no such pressure. Interpersonal conversations often let slip deeply held sexist beliefs that are rarely aired out in public, even though they do have real effects.
The mistake Belkin makes is not in identifying the existence of problems, but rather in ignoring the ways in which we as a society have changed to solve those problems. Structural problems should be noted and fought, but we need not fear a pernicious patriarch leering behind every corner. Rather, we as feminists must recognize that we live in a world in which women are increasingly agents themselves, and that dressing “sexy” may not indicate a deep-seated fealty to manhood. To quote a fictional civil rights icon: “I got some real honest-to-God battles to fight . . . I don’t have time for the cosmetic ones.”