Reader Response: Womyn's Success Formula

by Monica Smith

The article entitled "Womyn's Success Formula: Learning To Think and
Act the 'MIT Way,'" in the last issue, joked that women should choose
either the "put-up" or "shut-up" routine, or in other words, to act
like one of the guys or to exploit their femininity. This is not just
an issue for women at MIT, but has been a controversy within the
women's movement as well: whether to fight for women's equality with
men (easiest to do when women act like men), or to affirm women's
differences from men (more likely when women act unlike men).
Ultimately, either choice implies an acceptance of
compartmentalization, or a dichotomy, because the choice between
equality or non-equality is seen as an either-or/"us" versus "them"
choice, when it actually ignores a multitude of choices in-between.
Why shouldn't women demand equality with men, and at the same time,
demand a recognition of the ways in which women are distinct from men?
Women should have the choice of how to define themselves, not simply
through a comparison to what "male" is.
	Historically, women were viewed as having inherent biological
differences from men, being dependent on men, and in need of special
care. Men and women inhabited separate spheres (public and private),
and had different destinies, since women were seen as naturally best
suited for bearing and rearing children. "God-given" differences
between the sexes, both biological and emotional, were used to justify
protectionist treatment for women, regulation of their occupational
choices, and the environment they were allowed to work in.
	How could anyone argue against divine destiny? Some groups
within the women's suffrage movement encouraged this view of
women-as-different, for example the American Woman's Suffrage
Association, which fought for the right to vote but did not advocate
the "radical" idea of pressing for fundamental changes in institutions
that subordinated women, like marriage or the family. They supported
the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed blacks
the right to vote, on the naive assumption that suffrage would then
logically be extended to women as well. The more radical women's group
of the time opposed the Amendment, precisely because it did not
include women; their agenda also included broader social goals like
women's rights to own property, make contracts, serve on juries,
testify in court, receive an education, and achieve legal equality
with husbands in marriage. These two main factions symbolize the depth
of the equality-versus-difference dilemma; in this country it goes
back at least to the time of the Civil War.
	Some prominent women in the suffrage movement (including
Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) portrayed African American men
as being quite different from white men in order to create a
solidarity between white men and white women, and thus advance the
rights of white women. To divert attention from the differences
between the sexes, women exploited yet another "us" versus "them"
battle, through racial discrimination. Elizabeth Stanton in her
address to the Legislature of the State of New York, on February 14,
1854, was outraged that white male legislators "place the negro ... in
a superior position to [their] own wives and mothers". She argued that
since the vote was given to "negros, lunatics, and idiots", then
certainly women deserved the right as well. A few scholars have argued
that any comparison between the subordination of women and the
institution of slavery is inherently racist, because women did not
suffer in the same way as blacks did, and because the comparison
shifts attention away from the racist tactics used by white women. At
the time, the parallels may have seemed appropriate. Certainly,
exploiting racist fears to advance the cause of white women buys into
the equality-versus-difference dichotomy by exploiting difference to
the detriment of overall equality.
	Even after the legal gains in the 1970s for gender equality,
when courts no longer viewed women as belonging in the home, or having
a more timid nature than men, the biological differences remained.
"Once women began to be treated like men, people began to notice that
women really are not like men. Women are most noticeably not like men
when they are pregnant." (Cain, 1991) Biological differences between
men and women have long been used as an excuse to promote "protective"
measures for women and thus unequal treatment. For example, until the
1990s, fetal protection policies had been used to effectively exclude
fertile women, whether pregnant or not, from jobs involving contact
with potential hazards for fetuses, like lead. Men were not
"protected" from such hazards, although some of the same substances
that might cause damage to a fetus may also cause damage to sperm
cells in men. Before the Supreme Court struck down the policy at one
company, women were discriminated against because they were forced to
choose between their jobs and their capacity to reproduce (the company
would allow them to work if they underwent sterilization). After the
policy was changed, women were still in a harmful position; they were
able to choose to be exposed to potentially damaging substances, just
like men were. A better resolution to the problem would have
recognized the issue as one which concerns all people (environmental
hazards in the workplace), without simple substituting technical
equality (treatment like men) for distinct protectionism (treatment
like mothers-to-be, or a womb with legs).
	This denies women any choice about their reproductive roles in
society. Discrimination based on pregnancy has been prohibited by the
Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1987, but it is difficult to prove,
which leaves the Act not as effective as it needs to be. The issue of
pregnancy has far-reaching implications because it leads to
protectionist attitudes towards women not only during the time they
are pregnant but also concerning their capacity to become pregnant,
for example their choices regarding sterilization or birth control.
While women may be different from men because of their reproductive
capacities, deconstructing the binary categories of "equality" and
"difference" involves viewing women not as mothers-in-waiting, but as
individuals who have a choice to reproduce.	Society's perception
of women's sexuality includes a protectionist attitude as well.
Women's freedom to enter into contracts remains limited when it comes
to sex. Prostitution is illegal in most states and in general, women
are the ones who are vigorously prosecuted far more often than are the
"Johns" who solicit prostitutes. Surrogacy has been criticized on the
grounds that women are victimized or objectified by their choice to
rent their wombs. In both prostitution and surrogacy, women are
selling use of their bodies, for sex or for childbirth; however,
society finds this kind of capitalism rather distasteful. Women are
criticized if they sell their bodies, but men aren't criticized to the
same extent for buying. It's an obvious double-standard for women, a
"damned if you do, damned if you don't" approach which punishes women
for trying to be like men, by restricting their contractual autonomy.
A more equitable and realistic approach would be to decriminalize and
regulate these actions, making it easier for women to receive fair
treatment, better pay, and decrease the power differential, so
exploitation would be less likely. In this case, equality should
reflect the unique circumstances women are in, by allowing them the
same freedoms that men have in other areas.
	Women's choice to be sexual beings is further limited by the
fact that date rape still does not receive the attention that rape by
a stranger does, because the female victim may be blamed for her
sexually provocative conduct or clothing. A woman should not wear
clothing considered too sexy, flirt too openly, go home with men she
meets, or go out alone at night, otherwise people will think she was
"asking for it." Why should women have to choose between being openly
sexual (being called sluts, or "bad" women) and being virgins ("good"
women), when men are held to an entirely different standard? The
equality-versus-difference dichotomy is very apparent here: women can
try to be different, use their feminine "wiles" and be sexually
provocative, but when they are attacked they're often expected to
fight rapists off just like a man would fight (especially considering
that until not long ago, courts wrote that rape victims were
consenting to sex unless they struggled with all their might against
the rapist). They can try to be men's equals, but women's sexuality is
criticized far more harshly than men's and they're held to a different
standard (there is no male equivalent of "whore" or "slut", except
perhaps the word "stud", which definitely does not have the same
pejorative connotation). Among the broad spectrum of sexuality,
whether heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, monogamous or not, or any
combination, the choice should be open to both women and men.
	It is not necessary to view men and women as the same in order
for them to be treated equally. Women also do not need to be portrayed
as a homogenous group. Women have been discriminated against as women,
and thus form a unified group, but their differences must also be
taken into account to understand the variety that constitutes the
	One way to fight for choice is to stop buying into gender
stereotypes, see them for what they are, and tell people when they are
making assumptions about others based on gender. Explore the concept
of "gender," in other words, masculinity and femininity, and notice
how it is used to sell products, advertise movies, influence political
values, shape the concept of family, and shape what roles are
appropriate for people. If we can all read an article like the Womyn's
Success Formula [see the last issue of the Thistle] and laugh because
it doesn't accurately reflect reality by only allowing women two
choices about their lives, we'd be moving closer to a more egalitarian
society. Unfortunately, those two choices are often the norm of our
non-egalitarian society and that reality is not funny.

	Reference: Katharine T. Bartlett, Gender and Law: Theory,
Doctrine, Commentary, Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1993.

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