Privilege, Agency, and the Paradox of Feminism -Kyra Palage

In the fall of 2014, a video produced by the activist t-shirt company FCKH8 went viral, featuring young girls in princess outfits using all manner of swear words “for a good cause”: promoting feminism. The video, which generated a firestorm of controversy, was aptly titled “F-Bombs for Feminism.”

It’s difficult to see who would want to get on board with such a movement, but popular culture has taken to arguing that being a feminist is a foregone conclusion, the only morally redeemable position to take. A 2015 Buzzfeed “quiz” invited the participant to determine if they were a feminist by answering a single question: Do you believe in the equality of men and women? If you answered “Yes”, you were redirected to the quiz results. Congratulations, they said, you’re a feminist! Could it really be that simple?

Not quite. Other self-proclaimed feminists will give a different definition, claiming that feminism is about the advancement and empowerment of women. Individuals who subscribe to the social viewpoint of privilege and systematic inequality argue that equality and the advancement of women are one and the same. They claim that women experience inherent and embedded discrimination, and some corrective action must therefore be taken in order to raise the social status of women as a whole and bring about gender equality. But these two definitions of feminism are not synonymous, for they suggest vastly differing prescriptive measures and policy implications.

Let me be clear: there is no question that equal opportunity for men and women is a desirable and beneficial societal goal. What is in question is what “equality” means in a practical sense, and how our successes or failures to achieve that goal are measured. Gender equality means that men and women have the same opportunities to succeed or to fail; that no person is disenfranchised or refused on a measure other than his or her capability. The advancement of a particular gender does not specify boundaries or behaviors: it does not preclude discriminatory measures against the opposite sex; it does not imply that society is to rest on its laurels for a job well done once women and men enjoy equality of opportunity. Given that the feminist movement cannot appear to agree on its meaning or goals, it should be no surprise that it promotes contradictory messages to the public.

Feminism advances a notion of “girl power” but abdicates the assumption of responsibility and the realization of a woman’s own power to influence her outcomes, a sense of power that psychologists call “agency”. It is deeply related to another psychological concept, locus of control, which refers to a person’s beliefs that they either influence their circumstances (internal) or their circumstances influence them (external). At first glance, it would appear that feminism tries to advance women’s notion of agency. Feminism’s “girl power” mantra is ubiquitous in American culture; Beyoncé’s famous “(Run the World) Girls” track, Dove’s #LikeAGirl campaign, and underlying messages in many newer Disney/Pixar movies are just a few examples.

Yet in the same breath, those who extol the virtues of “the mighty girl” will claim that Western women continue to suffer from sexism – not individual, isolated events, but systematic, institutionalized sexism created by an unidentifiable entity known as “the patriarchy” to keep women subjugated. This is the essence of the idea of “privilege”. As long as the patriarchy is in power, Western women are oppressed, unable to achieve full equality with men. What happened to the limitless potential of girl power?

In a 2014 opinion piece for TIME, Christina Hoff Sommers cited the “77 cents” figure as one of the “5 Feminist Myths That Will Not Die”. It’s unclear exactly when the claim that a woman makes 77 cents for every dollar earned by a man originated, but the figure has been repeatedly trotted out over the years by politicians like Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders as evidence of systematic discrimination. The fanfare has continued, despite the fact that the 77 cents claim has been repeatedly disproven by statisticians who rightly point out that most of the supposed pay gap can be explained by largely different patterns in career and life choices between men and women. When these differences are corrected for, the pay gap all but disappears.

Men and women who willfully engage in the same type of work, with the same tenure and the same qualifications, command the same salary. Should this not be considered a victory? Feminists say no, arguing instead that the very idea that men and women might choose different career paths is evidence of systematic discrimination. Women, they claim, enter STEM and other lucrative fields at a lower rate than men because “society” “discourages” them, not because they chose to pursue careers with less monetary compensation but, presumably, which were more enjoyable and fulfilling. Once again, one must wonder what happened to “girl power”: if women are inherently intelligent and independent enough to make the best decisions for themselves, why then do they timidly avoid fields disproportionately populated by men? Could it be that we women do pursue the fields which will bring us the most satisfaction, and those of us who do not need to galvanize our own personal strength rather than seeking external affirmation for our choices?

This is the essential ideological flaw of feminism; indeed, any social movement: in order to be warriors, one must have a war to fight. Several years ago, when I was touring potential transfer colleges, I visited the economics department of a large public university in the Northeast. I was discussing my enthusiasm for the subject with the secretary when a female management professor, overhearing our conversation, broke in to inform me that economics was one of the most “sexist fields in academia” due to its high percentage of men and tried to dissuade me from majoring in it. Clearly nothing would correct the disproportionate gender distribution like avoiding the field altogether!

The disconnect between the feminist mantra of female empowerment and an utter lack of accepting the implications of one’s own agency continues beyond career choices into every realm of a woman’s life. Women can take care of themselves, but popular belief is that responsibility for ensuring a woman’s safety is shifted onto men when that woman becomes intoxicated. Parents tell children not to take candy from strangers or get into an unknown vehicle, because we as human beings accept that evil exists in the world. Why then is it so offensive to tell a woman – to tell anyone – not to accept alcoholic drinks they did not watch be made, or to refrain from going home with a person they just met? Under the guise of “making women safer”, we’ve actually done just the opposite: women will be safest when we accept full responsibility for ourselves, instead of relying on someone else.

Women who want to realize their full potential ought to abandon the notion that their abilities are irrevocably constrained in a society where men and women enjoy exactly the same rights and privileges. The best way to reaffirm ourselves as strong, independent, autonomous human beings is not to seek external affirmation or wait for encouragement, but to become the sole architects of our own futures, going confidently in the directions of our dreams – in whatever field those dreams may be.

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