Brittany Bowman: Why we still need to fight for women's liberation

Monday, September 9, 2019 - 2:49pm

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People often argue that Western societies have made great leaps in the struggle for equality between men and women. Women now outwardly have the same legal rights as men, and because of Title VII, discrimination in the workplace based on gender is illegal. Nonetheless, the battle for achieving gender equality continues, leaving some to wonder why it is necessary.  The standard that women strive to be equal to their traditionally male counterparts has always existed. It is an encapsulating and toxic ideal of the gender binary. It is important to consider reforming language as we know it in order to change societal thinking toward controversial topics. 

While it appears superficially that women have the same legal rights as men, there are still inherent biases present in both professional and private spheres. From medical environments to political stages, the systemic understanding of femininity and a gender binary creates heaps of issues. In Western culture, the concept of a gender binary exists almost everywhere and is especially apparent in the language we use, though one may easily pass over this construction if not actively searching for it. 

Detrimental binaries have been used for centuries, placing women as the inferior, subpart, second-in-line to the androgyny of society. In the Greek myth of Pandora, for instance, as well as many other classic works that frame modern psychologies, the text embodies phallocentric and androcentric anxieties of femininity, where women inherently lack something when compared to men. In “Pandora’s Tongues,  a feminist analysis essay of the Greek myth, Karin Littau boldly states that “it has always been the aim of Western philosophy to obliterate this foreignness or otherness in the quest for the return of the same.” In the long and slow march toward equality for women, the overbearing dominance of men throughout society’s most popular tales and history books has shrouded the importance of female and feminine characters. This has contributed to the idea that women are inferior, lacking, subordinate and unoriginal. The interpretations of classic literature over centuries has undoubtedly shaped the way Western civilization structures itself, and this is why analysis of our language now is so important when striving to fight the systemic oppression of women and confounding of gender binaries. 

In the past, the feminist movement has called for embracing womanness and attempting to reclaim femininity. Visibility has increased as women’s marches have occurred. T-shirts have been made with fronts espousing the words “Woman” or “I am woman” or “Human Woman.” However, with this trend of visibility, owning and wearing one own’s womanhood may only further solidify the construct of a gender binary. This isn’t to say that visibility of feminist movements is a bad or good thing. Perhaps this agenda to collectively claim womanhood can work to unify the movement by stirring up solidarity among its members. However, by emphasizing a homogenous “womanness” within the movement, we also diminish potential commonalities with those who do not necessarily identify with visibly extreme femininity. 

Equality for all human beings is incredibly important, but we need to consider just what equality means. Equality oftentimes neglects to address issues of diversity as well as failing to address differential impacts on individuals and populations. Using language such as “equality” means that women and femininity should strive to reach the standard of the male counterpart, which innately embodies a binary that men are inherently above women and women must work to lessen the space between the two. Using language such as “liberation” works to break down this system, as well as all other binate structures. The word liberation explicitly implies the dismemberment of complex systems to remove oppression of marginalized groups and individuals. 

Gender and women’s liberation are inherently different from gender and women’s equality. Women’s liberation encompasses the indiscriminate abolition of the classes of women and men and of the gender binary in general. The fight for gender and women’s equality today is thereby based on preserving the system of gender as we know it modernly — a system which serves to reinforce the social position of men as the standard to which we should aspire. Gender and women’s equality assumes gender as innate and the differences between genders as natural, whereas gender and women’s liberation negates wanting to be “just as good” as men. Using the term liberation instead of equality calls for freedom from the traditional gender binary, freedom from the suffocation of traditionally oppressive womanhood and freedom from the violence of manhood. Women’s liberation calls for nothing less than freedom from the burdensome gender binary, systemic discrimination and laws of difference that work to dictate our lives from birth to death.

Brittany Bowman can be reached at babowman@umich.edu.