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Essay Competition Winner
Photo by Kristan Mouat

Winning Feminist Essay

Arnika Hazelwood —

Katharine Woolrych won the National Council of Women Otago essay competition this year.

She was presented with her prize at a ceremony at Dunedin Public Library in May. The topic for 2016 was "Does Feminism still Matter?" Entries from writers all around Dunedin and Otago were received. See the full version of her impressive essay below:

Post-Feminism and the Myth of Choice: Invisible Barriers to Equality

Logan Park High School

Essay: Does Feminism Still Matter?

Post-Feminism and the Myth of Choice: Invisible Barriers to Equality

Assertions that women have been liberated and feminism is now redundant pervade our society. The ‘post-feminist’ dogma that surrounds us insists that the age of feminism is over and that relative gender equality reigns supreme. This false and dangerous ideology is putting our rights at risk. Today, feminism matters more than ever before. Worldwide, women remain underrepresented in positions of power, underpaid for the work they do, burdened with domestic duties, subjected to female genital mutilation, child marriage, and the continual erosion of their reproductive rights. Archaic beliefs still dictate the roles women are permitted to take in society, and female appearance and behaviour is under scrutiny like never before.

The omnipresent ‘post-feminist’ doctrine is that today, men and women receive equal treatment, opportunity and rights. This is entirely untrue. The unavoidable fact is that women’s voices remain largely unheard (worldwide, only 22% of parliamentarians are female) and women still hold little of the world’s power or wealth [1]. Another unavoidable - but less-discussed - fact is that the prevalence of rape and violence against women indicates deep-seated misogyny still breeds beneath the surface of our communities.

The misleading ‘post-feminist’ mentality that has become mainstream was borne from the backlash against second-wave feminism. As the revolutionary women’s movement of the sixties faded from public consciousness, a smear campaign against feminism slowly gathered momentum through the eighties, undermining the progress of the previous decades. Feminism was twisted into something unappealing, with the sixties’ activists being depicted to the young generation as angry battleaxes with hairy armpits. This backlash created alarmingly widespread ignorance about what feminism is, with the word becoming synonymous with man-hating for some. We need feminists now more than ever to refute these unfair charges brought against our movement and foster awareness of how far there is to go before we reach equality.

This backlash of recent years has utilised the argument of ‘choice’ to oppress and silence women. ‘Post-feminism’ supposes that women are now free to make their own decisions about sex, power, careers and family, all without retribution. If a woman drops out of the workforce to care for her children, it’s her ‘choice’, despite the multitude external influences affecting her decision. These could include childcare costs, inflexible workplaces, lack of support, or the expectation that domestic duties are a female responsibility. This myth has gained such acceptance because it uses the versatile rebuttal of personal freedom. Feminism is needed to challenge this logic and spotlight the external influences that prevent women’s decisions from being entirely their own.

Critics claim that that the aim of the ‘women’s lib’ movement - for women to ‘have it all’ -, was a failure, as it seems modern women are simply burdened with two jobs. Women remain primarily responsible for household labour, care of children and relatives, and unpaid, unacknowledged work in the community, but are also expected to excel in the workplace. It’s not law that enforces this unfair division of labour, but the societal status quo. Part of the problem is also the continuing ignorance of institutions and governments to the challenges of juggling career and family. Post-feminist ‘choice’ dogma turns the blame on women. A woman complaining about her circumstances is ungrateful, because surely it was her decision? Post-feminism creates a situation where gender is discussed in terms of individuals, choices and freedom, instead of institutions, oppression and patriarchy.

Post-feminism is anti-feminism in disguise, sabotaging any argument that suggests barriers in our society prevent female success. It propagates the superficially empowering notion that women are now in control of their own destiny, but cunningly uses it to blame women for the discrimination they experience. Discussions about economic disadvantage, workplace sexism, harassment, sexual violence, occupational gender segregation, or the pay gap are undermined by critics implying that the woman, though actually the victim, is at fault.

For instance, the underrepresentation of women in engineering (where only 9% of the workforce is female) is frequently dismissed as being due to girls’ own lack of interest in science [2]. This response fails to account for gender stereotypes discouraging girls from ‘technical’ careers, or that just one percent of parents want their daughters to be engineers [3]. Rape culture is a more extreme example of this post-feminist technique of victim-blaming. Victims of sexual assault are ‘slut-shamed’ and interrogated nonsensically on their clothing choices, alcohol consumption, and sexual history. What was she wearing? Why was she out so late? Why was she out at all? Indeed, it seems women invite attacks on themselves simply by existing.

Of course, we must celebrate the progress achieved by our feminist foremothers in dismantling institutionalised discrimination. But we must also accept today’s world has new challenges, and ones which are arguably less straight-forward to overcome. Regrettably, it’s not the case that attitudes change as abruptly as laws do. Germaine Greer recently argued it’s harder being a woman in the twenty-first century than it was forty years ago [4]. This could well be true - entrenched beliefs about gender remain dominant, and the pressure is only growing for women to act, look, and behave in certain ways.

Feminism still matters because women are under scrutiny like never before. The patriarchal concept of the ‘ideal woman’ has been familiar for centuries, but nowadays due to the ubiquity of the media and advertising, she’s everywhere. She must be nurturing, caring, and dedicated to her family, but also sexualy appealling and complicit (yet neither ‘slutty’ nor ‘prudish’). The women celebrated by the media are either subservient supporters of men or those who flaunt their sexuality and play dumb. The dual obsession of women’s magazines with Kate, Duchess of Cambridge (the perfect wife and mother) and Kim Kardashian (who personifies society’s valuation of appearance over articulateness or intelligence) illustrates this. Meanwhile, powerful women are attacked for being ‘aggressive’ or ‘bossy’ as they don’t conform to these sanctioned feminine traits. Contradictory demands entrap women, insisting they be innocent and ‘pure’, but also sexually available for male lust.

Girls today face understandable internal conflict as they process the paradoxical information surrounding them on the version of femininity they must embody. The struggle to please everyone and adhere to these expectations leaves them insecure and confused, perhaps why adolescent girls are more than twice as likely as boys to be diagnosed with mood disorders [5]. Girls’ success is being sabotaged by dangerous self-criticism taught under the guise of striving for nothing less than excellence: perfectionism is oppressing our young generation of women. In my view, this is illustrated by the fact anorexia is ten times more common in girls than in boys [6]. Girls aren’t taught to be brave like their male peers, and aren’t becoming leaders or innovators for fear of the inevitable retribution they’ll face.

Feminists of the sixties hoped girls of the future could grow up to achieve whatever they aspired to. But despite girls outperforming boys throughout school, the annual average pay of women remains little more than half that of men [7][8]. Women make up only 4% of airline pilots, 8% of surgeons, and less than 10% of executive directors of FTSE 100 companies [9][10][11]. Feminism still matters, because the myth of ‘choice’ is creating an invisible obstacle to equality.

Proponents of ‘post-feminism’ argue that women are free to become pilots or surgeons if they choose, they’re just making different life decisions. But it’s just not that simple. Countless unacknowledged barriers prevent female advancement in male-dominated spheres. Women experience undeclared employment discrimination from all-male executives, are excluded from ‘old boys’ networks’, face sexism or harassment, are overlooked for promotion, are unable to balance inflexible jobs with the needs of family, or are discouraged by the lack of female role models. In our age of ‘equal opportunity’, the glass ceiling remains unseen, yet unbreakable, because again the blame is turned on women themselves.

Feminism matters because we must dispute the dangerous, false belief that we exist in a ‘post-feminist’ era. Gender equality is yet to be achieved, and the struggle is far from over. Only now, the enemy is no longer systematic oppression, but ingrained prejudices that are pervading both society and the minds of women themselves. Women’s choices are still not entirely their own. If we are to have any optimism about the future of gender equality, we need feminism to keep the creeping backlash at bay.