I would like to talk toady about a topic that is very important to me, feminism. Some people hate the word, some people are afraid of the word, many people have a very different perception of feminism to me. Pat Robertson does a pretty good job of selling it to me actually…
I am going to share with you my perception of what feminism means in 2014 and why I think it is important.
‘One is not born a woman one becomes a woman’ Simone de Beauvoir
This is the quote, with which, many years ago I started my undergraduate dissertation, the title of which incidentally was ‘Who put the post in post feminism’. One of my good friends at the time was studying evolutionary psychology (he is now a doctor of evolutionary psychology at London School of Economics in the UK). He was helping me to proof read and immediately disagreed with this opening statement. You are born female, he said it’s biological. Evolutionary psychology if you don’t know much about it posits that our psychology is a result of evolutionary adaptations.
For example; the cult of youth and kawaii in Japan viewed through an evolutionary psychology lens, would be attributed to a desire to procreate with a female who is a virgin, therefore ensure paternity. So, women who resemble teenage girls are always going to be considered more sexually attractive to males, it’s biological, my friend Olly would tell me. He now has a wife and children and I think he has assured paternity of his daughter despite not marrying a woman who resembles a teenager. An alternative interpretation of Kawaii could be to see it as female rebellion against accepted gender roles and perceptions of the female role as the key adult caregiver. Fundamentally, as I see it, however you interpret Kawaii, it is not a ‘natural’ state for a female it is a cultural construction, the basis of this construction can have various origins but it is not a fixed state of being.
When I read Simone de Beauvoir back in 1995 I saw in that quote a reclamation of my gender, a recognition that femininity does not necessarily arise from differences in biology, psychology, or intellect. Rather, femininity is a construction of civilization, a reflection not of “essential” differences in men and women but of differences in their situation. Situation determines character, not the other way around. Woman is not born fully formed; she is gradually shaped by her upbringing. Biology does not determine what makes a woman a woman—a woman learns her role from man and others in society. Woman is not born passive, secondary, and nonessential, but the forces in the external world can conspire to make her feel so.
And that has always been very important to me in my understanding of feminism and gender studies. My version of feminism has always been based on a seeking an understanding of gender that to some extent transcends biological or evolutionary principles. Yes, there are biological differences between genders but the myriad of influence we encounter beyond our biological imprint labels us woman not the chromosomes we are born with.
Feminism is important because it is primarily about challenging perceptions. What are our perceptions of male and female? How do we exist culturally, individually within these norms, how does it feel to step outside them and how do we respond to those around us who also cross or push the boundaries of our perceptions of male and female. A boy who likes pink, a girl who is aggressive…
The reason feminism is called feminism is because it is about deconstructing the way our society considers femininity as a category to be lesser than masculinity as a category. That necessarily affects feminine-identified people first and foremost — that is, women and girls. But that also means gay men, trans men and women, but also men. Why? Because the characteristics we label and denigrate as “feminine” are also (and firstly) just human characteristics. Feminists value the feminine human qualities in all people.
I was influenced in my thinking around gender through the poststructuralist theories of deconstruction and ‘différance’ and reading poststructuralists like Derrida, Barthes, and feminist post-structuralists like Helene Cixous and Judith Butler. I was reading these theorists when I studied literary analysis in the 1990’s. Post-structuralists like Derrida were concerned with textual analysis and the assumptions, ideas and power relations inherent in language, Also the idea that text could have many meanings, not always intended by their writers, outlined in Barthes ‘The Death of the Author’.
Feminist post structuralists like Cixous wrote about l’ecrriture feminine and utilised post structuralism explore creativity as source of female expression. I apply these theories still to my own writing; I am currently working on a collection of poetry and thinking about ways to encourage the reader to read on curve. (ppt8)
Reading Cixous, Derrida and Bathes allowed me to start to see the constructions of the world around me. By studying literary theory my eyes were opened, what I thought I knew I really didn’t know.
This has been further compounded by my move to International schools. I have been exposed to an even greater sweeping away of my understanding of what is normal, my perceptions of the world. For example, I drink a lot of English tea, which you must make with boiling water (one of my most treasured possessions is my kettle). When I was leaving Brazil I gave my colleagues a gift of tea. ‘How do I make English tea?” my friend asked. “The milk must be cold, the water has to be boiling.” I told her, “Maybe I should buy a kettle then?” she said. I was surprised, I’d been in Brazil two years and still didn’t realize a kettle wasn’t a fixture in everyone’s kitchen, it was just my perception of what was normal.
So feminism is still important because the world is still full of repressive perceptions or misconceptions. Last week I was in Bali and saw this sign outside a temple. So in some places the perception is that menstruating women are unclean or unholy. There is a need here for cultural sensitivity but I also believe that perceptions of female reproductive systems as innately unclean leads to woman being attacked raped or mutilated in other parts of the world and closer to home in Japan, the US and the UK. I believe there is a place for feminism because what feminism does at it’s core is ask the world to challenge it’s perceptions of women, men, femininity and masculinity as cultural constructions not biologically fixed or absolute truths.
As I prepared for this talk, it struck me the depth of the legacy feminism has given me. Most of my career has been working in schools seeking to break down perceptions, I am still doing it here in NIS. I constantly ask of myself as teacher to look at each student as an individual, to confront my perceptions of what they should do or should be able to do, how they should behave, how they should respond or what they should value. In my own teaching I am only ever interested in motivating students to think for themselves, to challenge the world around them, to question their own and others perceptions, for me, whether you are a scientist, an artist, an athlete or business person, true intellect, true knowledge, resides in those who question. Feminism asks you to question your perceptions at a very basic levels, it asks you to question your perceptions at the core of who we are as human beings. What does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a man?
The world is an exciting ever-evolving ever-changing place. I am 41 years old and the changes I have seen I my life time have been enormous. Anyone who sticks to outdated perceptions of rigid biological based views of human beings is thinking reductively. We transcend our biology; we exist within a cultural, economic and psychological complexity, which cannot be explained by mere chromosomal difference. Men and woman are different yes, but more importantly people are different, we are individuals seeking our path through life and I believe we all deserve an equal opportunity to give this our best shot.
Feminism has a place in contemporary society because we need to continually challenge our perceptions of the world around us. Thank you.
- Alexander, Laura. “Helen Cixous and the rhetoric of feminine desire: re-writing the medusa.” Mode Journal(2013)