Western Feminism in a Global Perspective
American women have struggled historically against certain paradigms of inferiority that all women experience. The female identity is different according to each culture and their customs, but many cultures are based on a patriarchal past where men wield more power than women. Women worldwide experience subjugation in the form of jobs, education, sexuality and reproductive choice. American women have strived to overcome these stereotypes and have gained a position of near equality in many societal constructs. In the United States today, men and women enjoy almost equal social standing. Women can and do vote, own businesses, hold political office and have a full spectrum of rights. They have reproductive and social rights to divorce, abortion and birth control. They can wear whatever they choose. Laws are in place protecting them from sexual assault and physical abuse. There are, however, media constructions of gender that portray clear stereotypes of men and women. Women are portrayed in the media as sexual objects: thin, large breasted, demure and flawless. Even though they hold powerful jobs and play valuable roles in a variety of social constructs, the paradigm of the American housewife prevails.
Western culture is prevalent worldwide and imposes both the positive feminist ideals and the conflicting negative media messages on third world and developing countries. This paper will explore the impacts of Western culture in the specific realm of feminism and female stereotypes globally and will seek to establish common goals and difficulties for all women. As a dominant culture, the United States must be aware of the media messages it shares with the rest of the world and the examples it promotes as not all are compliant with other cultures.
History & Overview of Issues
The United States has historically been a patriarchal society in which women’s rights were extremely limited. Given that the United States is also a country founded on freedom and equality, women have had the opportunity to rise beyond their limited rights to demand and establish change for themselves. Perhaps the earliest feminist was Susan B. Anthony who established the Women’s Suffrage Association in 1869. Although women were not granted the right to vote nationally until 1919, Anthony played a critical role in attaining this right for American women. Today, the right for women to vote is well established in America, however, not all women across the world have this right.
Margaret Sanger led the battle for reproductive rights, founding the American Birth Control League which would become Planned Parenthood in 1921. Sanger was a nurse working in New York City’s east side who witnessed many women either unable to care for their children or dying from failed abortions. She discovered that the poorest women who were most in need of a means to limit their reproduction were the least likely to have information about their options. She made it her life goal to provide contraception to all women and challenged the Comstock Law of 1873 banning the spread of information about contraception in the United States. Her work eventually resulted in the ability for physicians to prescribe contraceptives over the counter to women (Lind, 41). In many developing countries, contraception and reproductive choice are still not available to women. The poorest of women with the fewest resources who would benefit the most from contraceptives are those who are least likely to gain access to them.
It was not common for women to work outside of the home and most were subjugated to being housewives while their husbands earned all of the money. In 1963 Betty Freidan published a book entitled “The Feminine Mystique” in which she describes the plight of the American housewife and the unfairness of imposing a single role on women. In June of that year Congress passed the Equal Pay Act which forced employers to pay equal wages to both men and women for the same work. Concurrent to this breakthrough, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act banned employment discrimination based on race or sex. American women today fill almost all of the positions enjoyed by men in the workplace, however, the American housewife paradigm still exists and there is still a slight disparity between the wages women and men earn for the same positions. “Although gains have been made, pay differentials between men and women for equal work remain, women represent less than 20 percent of all federally elected senators and representatives, women are devalued as professional athletes, and women are still for the most part locked out of the highest levels of most professional endeavors, including corporate CEOs, engineers, surgeons, and architects” (Lind, xv).
Other monumental gains for women in the twentieth century include Title IX which banned sexual discrimination in schools. Following this amendment in 1973, the enrollment of women in professional schools increased. The right to attend schools and gain equal educations as their male counterparts was a huge step for women in this country. It allowed them to gain the skills necessary to enter the workplace on an equal playing field. Another crucial step forward was Roe v. Wade in 1973 which allowed women the right to have a safe and legal abortion. Prior to this decision, abortions were illegal in many states and women were forced to seek alternative methods if they did not want the baby. “Abortions have been regulated and administered sporadically throughout history and cross-culturally. Pregnancies have been and continue to be terminated through various techniques including the use of abortifacient [sic] herbs, turpentine, forced falls or impalements, sharp tools and the application of abdominal pressure, in addition to the common modern medical procedures” (Lind, 2). Legalizing abortion made it possible for women to make choices about their own bodies without endangering themselves.
American feminism has evolved over time based on the accrued rights established by feminists over time strictly within the boundaries of the United States. As an established democracy, the United States is liberal in its views of equality and as such women’s rights fit into this mantra of freedom for all. This kind of feminism is, perhaps, limiting because it does not extend globally to all women who do not enjoy the same rights as American women. Establishing international discourse will become increasingly important as globalization tightens the connections between countries and cultures. A concept called Third Wave Feminism has emerged which emulates feminism of women in developing countries who do not necessarily share the same identity and cultural goals as Western feminism outlines. “Questioning essentialist, monolithic western feminism, which ignores the heterogeneity of women in the third world, they have made clear how important it is to pay attention to difference. Their politics of difference contrasts the singular gender focus of western feminism with the need to integrate race, class, and imperialism into the debate on gender subordination among third world women” (Yu).
In addition to strengthening the discourse between women internationally, the impact of homogeneous Western media images of women as thin and white must be examined. Standardized images of Western female beauty are harmful to the identities of all women. In the United States both women within the dominant white society and the ethnic minorities who are less represented are impacted by the unrealistic and sexualized images prominently displayed all around them. These images are also projected internationally and may impact women beyond the borders of the United States. This impact must be understood and any negative results should be addressed.
Identification and Analysis
When a child is born, the determination of their sex is quickly determined by their physical genitalia. Sex is a biological determination of which anatomical piece of the reproductive puzzle a given individual is. As they grow, based on that determination of sex, the child will take on a societal identity which will govern what they wear, how they act, how they speak and how they feel about themselves in the context of their society. This identity is their gender, usually female or male, but also including transgender. Gender is more complex than sex because it has extreme societal implications which are engrained in us on a daily basis. The basic biological roles of sex do not extend to include the complex system of gender and identity. Since gender is learned, one can assume that the cultural constructs of each society propel certain understandings of gender roles. The United States provides a distinct cultural framework for feminism as well as the pervasive and ongoing struggles associated with being female that may or may not translate internationally. All countries have vastly differing histories, myths, socioeconomic frameworks and evolving social expectations that impact what it means to be male or female in each society and thus these issues may translate differently.
Western feminism is exclusive and may not even include all women who live in the United States. Some critics have pointed to this social construct as a way of distancing the relationships between women of different backgrounds even further because generally, white middle class women are the first to benefit from social change and advanced privilege. Advancement for some does not necessarily equate to advancement for all. “The increased labor force participation of white middle-class women has been accompanied, indeed made possible, by the increased availability outside the home of services formerly provided inside the home -- cleaning, food, health, and personal services. These jobs are disproportionately filled by women of color -- African American, Latina, Asian American” (Barkley). This disparity of experience leads to a flawed discourse in women’s studies because there is an inherent racism in the way American culture operates. Barkley continues, “We are likely to acknowledge that white middle-class women have had a different experience from African American, Latina, Asian American, and Native American women; but the fact that these histories exist simultaneously, in dialogue with each other, is seldom apparent in the studies we do. The overwhelming tendency now is to acknowledge and then ignore differences among women…The effect of this is that acknowledging difference becomes a way of reinforcing the notion that the experiences of white middle-class women are the norm; all others become deviant -- different from. ” This dialogue is disturbing because it emphasizes the disparity between women created by advancement for only the elite, even within the United States. Being white, thin, and affluent is becoming the only acceptable reality for women who want privilege in the world.
Barbie, the popular American girl’s doll, has been manufactured in more than 45 nationalities and sold in 150 nations, but the Mattel Company was not necessarily accurate in its production of multinational Barbie dolls. In fact, the dolls all appeared very similar to the original white Barbie doll. “A comparison of the classic Caucasian, blond-haired, blue-eyed doll to any one of her multiethnic counterparts reveals that the appearance of cultural or racial difference is used through the dye used to color the doll’s body, occasionally a slight modification of facial features (such as slightly slanted eyes for the Asian models of Barbie, or a slightly wider nose and thicker lips in her African versions), and a dramatic change in costume reflecting the Mattel Co.’s understanding of the particular country’s “traditional dress”. No modifications are made to the doll’s body shape and size, or general facial structure (Lind, 27).” This is a perfect example of how a company has projected Western ideals of beauty and homogeneity across the world without making an adequate attempt to create a product suited to each culture. The appeal of the Barbie doll and in fact the danger of it, is that it provides little girls with a concept of identity. This identity, even among white American girls, is unrealistic because the chances of having a body like Barbie is less than 1 in 100,000 (Lind,27). Beyond its unrealistic form, the Barbie doll from a feminist perspective has much deeper implications.
“Simply put, the feminist critique of the Barbie doll is grounded in the notion that dolls such as Barbie reinstill the oppressions of patriarchy and the detrimental aspects of capitalism in the most dangerous manner in the guise of child’s play. Feminist perspectives on beauty call attention to the high value that Western, patriarchal society places on attractiveness in women. Particularly in North American culture, the message to women and young girls is that beauty is a central feature of a woman’s identity and worth is constantly reinscribed through the ever present media” (Lind, 26).
If the company was not sensitive to real cultural differences internationally, they were possibly responsible for propagating an unrealistic image of Western beauty and perfection without carefully assessing the impact of their decisions. In fact, some governments resisted the sale of Barbie dolls for these reasons. Malaysia, for example, “…called for a nationwide ban on Barbie, citing an alarming increase in anorexia nervosa and plastic surgery since the doll’s introduction to the Malaysian market. Officials were quoted as saying that the doll promotes a Western ideal of beauty that does not include dark skin or hair, physical features characteristic of the Malaysian people” (Lind, 27).
The thin, white, blond American ideal of beauty according to the media is prevalent and harmful to both girls and women in the United States and globally. An in depth analysis of these issues was conducted by Lelwica et al. in an article entitled “Spreading the Religion of Thinness from California to Calcutta: A Critical Feminist Postcolonial Analysis”. Lelwica cites that 80% of ten year old girls in the United States have dieted and more than three quarters of healthy weight adult women believe they are too fat. She writes, “…the cultural mandate for women to be thin is a form of social control, and women's dissatisfaction with their bodies is rooted not primarily in biological or psychological imbalances, but in the oppressive gender norms many women internalize”. This argument would suggest that although American women have overcome many obstacles, they are still controlled by the media, and thus by their male oppressors. Beyond the problem with sexualizing women in the mass media is that the media is projecting a very specific image to all women as a norm they must aspire to which is problematic because almost no women fit the standard of this image. Lelwica et al. notes, “mass media images establish a seemingly universal standard for female body size—despite the fact that they represent a very particular cultural norm. More precisely, the tightly contoured female body delineates an elite white-Western vision of womanhood…This ideal of femininity is, to borrow an insight from postcolonial feminist Medya Yegenoglu, ‘a particular masquerading as a universal’”. According to Lelwica this image of beauty and perfection is damaging for not only white women and girls in the United States, but especially for minorities who are less represented in the media.
American media images of think white women are damaging globally and have been shown to cause an increase in concern about weight and subsequent increases in eating disorders. Lelwica et al notes several countries and regions that have been negatively affected. In China and Hong Kong, American media and fast food have resulted in both obesity and eating disorders where they previously did not exist. Lelwica cites a study which found that 78% of Chinese first year female students were concerned about their weight and that older Chinese women were abandoning traditional ideas of beauty for Western ones. A study in Fiji was also cited in which prior to the introduction of television in 1995 there was no record of eating disorders, however 3 years after being exposed to American media messages, two-thirds of women and girls reported that they had tried to lose weight and three-quarters felt overweight. Lelwica writes, “The globalizing reach of Western culture's narrow ideal is apparent in the growing body-discontent among women in India. Shikha Sharma is a medical doctor–turned–dietitian who runs a commercial weight-loss program in a district of south Delhi. Her clients range from young girls to women in their seventies—all seeking to reduce their size. An increasing number of them are already thin, and occasionally anorexic women come to her for help with losing more.” It is clear that these media messages are negatively impacting how women across the world feel about their bodies and how they perceive realistic female identity.
There are three waves of feminism to consider in the history and crises of feminism internationally. The first wave was distinguished by women of color “challenging white feminist assumptions on the primacy of ‘sex’ (Gurel, 86)”. The second wave of feminism is characterized by the international elements of feminism and culminated with the first UN Decade of women (1975-1985)w which “accentuated the divides between Western and non-Western feminisms (Gurel, 86)”. Finally, the third wave of feminism is driven by women from third world countries who criticize the largely Western assumption that the essence of being female is enough to unite women globally due to the cultural and socio-economical divide between Western women and women from developing countries. “Transnational feminism developed out of these cathartic crises as a feminism that strives to organize around issues, encourage complex analyses of how gender and sexuality intersect with other sites of power, and support local actors. However, students must not forget that feminism continues to be non-monolithic, contentious, and in flux” (Gurel, 86).
Third world feminism is an intriguing concept that appears to be driving more significant change globally than Western feminism ever could because it addresses the needs of women who are not represented in the global scene. Third world feminists take a radical approach that refutes the idea of a universal experience for all women. “While calling for attention to the hybridity and multiplicity of identities, they also embrace the diversity and differences in perspective among women. Acknowledging the necessity of recognizing multiple sources of domination in women's lives, they refute the universalization of women's experience and recognize instead the differences among women from different social locations. Taking into account the many differences that make up the category "women," they allow feminism to deal more adequately with the complex and myriad issues we face today (Yu).” This different approach is necessary because, “Western feminism, which ignores realities of women who are being confronted with diversities of values and religious lifestyle, has often been criticized of being essentialist, monolithic, and ethnocentric (Yu).” For many women, religious values are just as important as feminist ones, so they must find a balance between the two that works in their own cultures.
This is the case for Asian women, who have very different history and cultural ideals than Western women and have struggled with the stigma against feminism as a “Western intrusion incompatible with Asian traditions (Yu).” Their struggle for their own feminist identity is “inevitably pulled between Asian and western feminist values…they must learn to negotiate the differences across cultural divides. In their struggles with western feminism, however, they were informed by women's issues aligned with those of race, class, community, nation and religious identity as well as the simultaneous shaping of women's identities by all these discourses (Yu).” It becomes clear that Western feminism is not a cross cultural model of feminist identity and that while increased rights are a common goal for women globally, different cultures approach this progress differently and according to their own beliefs.
Feminism in Islamic countries is a rising theme, but feminists are careful how to identify their cause to reduce the stigma associated with rejecting traditional values. “Women who try to defend their rights in Muslim contexts often are accused of importing a foreign ideology whenever they ask for social justice. Thus, many Islamic feminists first try to demonstrate that they are truly and genuinely rooted in their culture, expending considerable energy to distinguish themselves from ‘Western feminists,’ as, for instance, ‘Third World feminists (Ahmadi)”. In the case of Iran, however, feminism has emerged in a different way which allows for both the traditional values and the feminist ideals. “In the Islamic world, an important historical trend has structured categories of the West and the East; modernism and Islam; and feminism and cultural authenticity as necessarily exclusive, forcing Muslim women to choose between claims to a cultural self and a feminist self. However, the new trend emerging among Islamic feminists in Iran is a radical break from this pattern. Iranian Islamic feminists now use theories and methodologies of both Islamic and secular schools (Ahmadi.” The allowance for this shift in feminism may be due to the fact that Iran has never been colonized, leaving it free from the imposition of Western ideals.
One proposed solution for the disconnection between feminists and women globally based on their different cultural backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses is to encourage networking online between transnational women’s NGOs. The internet is a driving force behind globalization, drawing people from all corners of the world together into a mutual, virtual space. This can be positive for global feminism because it allows women to speak for themselves to the issues they are most concerned by. “…global discourses are articulated by local actors. Even transnational organizations have a specific regional base and political purpose that reflect the conditions of their formation. As participants in this global discussion in the virtual space of the Web, feminist groups address the concerns that are most meaningful to them, given the political opportunity structure in which they are formed and through which they draw resources (Pudrovska).” This equal global space is important because it allows the “Third Wave Feminists” to speak to the Western Feminists about relevant or even shared problems. This kind of discourse could be helpful for establishing ways to support groups of women globally based on their exact needs and concerns without imposing cultural norms or expectations on that group.
A conceptual solution of uniting women across borders considers Taoism, a Chinese concept which “Presents a version of natural gender differences which glorifies women. Since nature itself is perceived as female, Taoism gives women their own natural power and thus a higher place than other religions (Fergusan).” This concept addresses the other side of cultural discourse which emphasizes the matriarchal position. Women as a naturally compelled force of beauty and power, a sort of goddess figure, could theoretically share a feminist identity in some cultural constructs.
Western feminism is an exclusive and convoluted model which does not apply to women globally. It imposes the idea that white, affluent women are the norm of perfection and that all women should be envious of them and cannot achieve the same status without the same appearance and privilege. Third world feminism appears to be a model which could encompass the goals and identities of not only women of the third world, but all women. Women who already enjoy the rights guaranteed to them by Western feminism could contribute their knowledge and efforts to supporting women who are just now learning how to self advocate and find a realm of feminist power in their own culture. Increased communication between women as globalization brings all people closer, could result in a true global discourse about women’s issues. This could result in global mandates that reject violence and subjugation against women in even the direst situations. The more voices are heard the better. The more different stories can be established the better. The more the gap between women of different colors, socioeconomic statuses and geographic locations is narrowed, the closer the world will come to true unity and peace.
The United States has a critical role to play in this discourse. The media messages we send across borders are harmful to women and young girls everywhere. We are promoting eating disorders and negative self esteem, rather than messages of acceptance and love. We have come to a time in history where wealth must become secondary to human compassion. We have our priorities in the wrong place, and it is driving us to even further distance between the richest and the poorest people on Earth. A small amount of progress for all women and people is better than a large amount of progress for only the most elite and privileged.
Appendix A: Key Terms
Gender and Identity: Gender is a learned social construct that will differ according to one’s individual cultural surroundings. Identity is how an individual qualifies their experience within that culture and feels a part of it.
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