Feminism two


I am mindful that any position I take on this subject will likely have a number of holes in it. I am a male – the ‘other’ – in this respect, I am new to taking a considered position on this subject, though I have never thought of myself as anything other than a sympathizer to the cause, though I am also aware that that statement is steeped in issues in and of itself. So I shan’t take a position as such, other than to say that I feel that the position of women, though greatly improved over the previous half century is still woefully short than that of the man.

I have been reading some feminist literature, looking at women’s work that deal with these issues and am in the middle of a survey (non-scientific) of women’s feelings towards feminism and these all are starting to fuel the shifting of my perspectives on the subject.

Looking at the responses to my questioning of women that I have known, mostly for most of my life or theirs and some others whom I suspected might be able to provide considered responses I am not finding a universal acceptance that feminism is/was a wholly good thing, which surprised me. All of the women that have responded thus far have agreed that women’s position in society has improved, though feminism has brought with it, for some, some downsides.

This was offered by Tanya in New York as an expression of the normality of how things should/could be expected by the emancipated woman:

“…can your mother, wife, aunt, sister, daughter, friend…

go out without your permission?

can she get a job?

can she walk unmolested?

can she vote?

can she participate in the wider society?

can she study any subject at college?

can she work at any job she is qualified for?

can she marry who she likes?

can she choose when or if to have babies, contraception not just abortion?

can she sustain her own household should she wish to?

can she wear what she wants?

can she talk to who she wants?

can she do anything that  you can do?

can she look after herself  in her old age?

I can guarantee that even in our cushy western lifestyles all these things cannot be taken for granted.”

I don’t think this is an exhaustive list, nor a manifesto, but it serves as a stark reminder as to the norm’s that women have a right to expect and that these questions are asked is a testament to the distance yet to travel.

And from Sue:

“The development of feminism over the past few decades has been interesting to watch. There’s been quite an onslaught by the media I think, which has made it difficult to ‘admit’ to being a feminist. Most women see that as a term they don’t want to use about themselves. The ‘new’ feminism literature has focused more on the individual than the political I think – Naomi Wolf on The Beauty Myth and Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. This reflects a direction in society as a whole, I think, away from the collective/political to the individual. The good part I think is that there’s a reclaiming of the right to be ‘girly’ and wear high heels etc if we choose, which the old feminism tended to disapprove of. “Fifty Shades of Grey” is interesting too – on one level a terrible view of women’s sexuality being passive and masocistic, but on another showing a man taking a huge amount of interest in a women’s body and lavishing great attention on it.

Going back to your list of ways in which things have changed for women, I think clearly the pill and domestic labour-saving devices such as the hoover have had enormous impacts on women’s lives. Old-fashioned discrimination in the workplace has gone underground and is not so blatant, but is still there as I know from the stories I hear from women. The numbers of women in senior management is still dire and the debate about whether we should have quotas is still ongoing. So in some ways the striving for equality hasn’t got very far. On the personal level, there’s still a lot to be done in changing men’s attitudes to the women they live with, I think. 2 women each week are killed by their partners or ex-partners in the UK – I think that’s really shocking. And even this week in Delhi there is uproar over the rape and deaths of women. I’m heartened by the publicity given to sexual abuse scandals recently here as I hope that will make it ok for more women to come forward about these things and less of a blind eye will be turned. So maybe things are improving.”

And another view, which seems to both be anti and sympathetic to feminism in the same paragraph. I had heard from another source that feminism isn’t the cause that it once was, that it’s fight seemed to be over and that people (I suppose women) assumed that the message was implicit in their everyday lives.

“My view is that Feminism as a movement is irrelevant today and even in the past I am not convinced that it helped women. Feminists were, in my opinion, associated with do gooders and lesbians and was not easily associated with the real world of work. Having said this perhaps the antics of burning bras and chaining themselves to garden rails brought the issues to the forefront. Those that did really progress the rights of women to be treated equally in the workplace I would not call feminists and some, notably Thatcher, did a lot to hurt the sexism movement.

In terms of where we are today we only need to look at today’s pay inequalities and the number of women in top management positions to see that things have improved a bit but not enough.”

Catherine talks here of sexual politics:

“Have just remembered that I haven’t mentioned anything about ‘sexual politics’ which was what the Womens Lib movement spoke out about and also the influence of the birth control pill.  The pill has given women more sexual freedom but can this mean they might say ‘Yes’ more often and be less discriminating and selective in a sexual partner? Does/can that lower self-esteem somehow?”

I wonder and have wondered for some time about the notion that if women have more than a couple of sexual partners that somehow demeans them but if men do then that somehow elevates them. I had honestly thought that this notion was outdated, that the sexual emancipation of women, about fifty years ago, had overcome the notion that a one-man girl was the ideal wife and that the ‘slapper’ was what the man looked for on a Saturday night. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe in a generation or two’s time this notion will be completely overwritten, that the notion of sexual purity for women and sexual experience for men are twin – though mutually exclusive – ideals for humankind.

Which leads me to Angela Carter’s “The Sadeian Woman” where she contrasts the two sister heroines, Justine and Juliette. The one, Justine being the embodiment of classic feminity of obedience and compliance, of subservience and with no ability to enjoy the act of sex, other than for the gratification of her husband, who is never to be, her virginity is her gift to her husband and even though it is forcefuly taken from her, she still believes that she is pure for her future husband as she hasn’t ‘given it away’. Sade never has her enjoy a moments physical pleasure. Whereas her sister Juliette adopts the male role in a completely phallocentric society – the Sadeian world is one where the penis rules, every successful character has a penis, and the bigger the more successful they are – even the few women that succeed  – have larger and larger pricks or dildos. In the Sadeian world the cult of the penis is everything and the emancipation of the female, I think this is how Carter has it, is through the power of the penis, over and above that of the castrated woman.

Therefore Catherine’s notion that the ‘easy’ women is less of a person (to herself or to society) because the world is still phallocentric, still in awe of the power of the penis, set in stage by it’s historical ability to impregnate the women with a seed, rather than fertilize the already extant egg within the womb. History has it that women were bearers, of the egg/seed/life provided by the omniscience of the male and that the women’s function was to deliver him – preferably a male – to continue the line.

Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” also centres on the position of phallus’ centrality in the visual world, how the narrative of the media, explicitly in this essay about the cinema, has the female viewed as under the protection of, guardianship of, the male, that the male predicts the look of the hero (as opposed to the heroine) or the lens. This notion performs the act that the male is the controller of the way in which the female is portrayed is only ever attempted to be subverted by the “fallen” woman, very few challenges to that notion are delivered in the visual media, and a ghastly end for the heroine is the usual solution. Some would say that the image of “woman” has perhaps tripped backwards in these modern ‘enlightened’ times. I’m still trying to find out.

I remember looking at Helen Chadwick’s “One Flesh” and being mesmerized at the ‘other’ nature of what I can only describe as the exultation of the difference of “womanhood”. The physical imprint of the baby child into the picture; the redness of the blood of the womb and of childbirth; the umbilical cord with it’s resonance of life giver; the primacy and power of the vagina as expressed by the Madonna figure pointing explicitly at the newborns genitals. And above all the naked vagina, adorned with jewellery in an image which is designed as an alter piece with the vagina situated above all – life giver, life receiver and more powerful than the penis it receives or delivers.

I took the picture of my friend some time ago. I like it and I return to it regularly and like a lot of imagery it’s resonances move around with the development of ideas. What I like about it now, or rather what I see in it now is the femininity of the image as it provides the soft curves and breast but also the central space, which I have always enjoyed about this photograph, now seems to represent the womb and perhaps provides whatever power it has today.

To be continued.


“The Sadeian Woman” Angela Carter published by Virago ISBM 0-86068-055-X

“Visual PLeasure and Narrative Cinema” Laura Mulvey, “Film Theory & Criticism” seventh edition OUP ISBN 978-0-19-536562-7


8 thoughts on “Feminism two

  1. Pingback: Feminism three | John Umney - Gesture and Meaning

  2. The thing I’m most struck by in your exploration of the women’s movement/feminism/whatever label you want to apply is how much mention there is of sex, and how many of the illustrations involve naked women. I wouldn’t want to deny the importance of sex but women’s role in society isn’t just about who they have sex with or the consequences of sexual activity. This isn’t a criticism but an observation. It may be something you wish to explore – I do think it’s worth at least thinking about in terms of considering how women are represented in our culture. If I was to write a piece about the role of males in society and how that has changed in recent years I can’t imagine illustrating it primarily with pictures of naked males, and I suspect that would be true of most.

  3. Thanks for your comment Eileen. The references to sex that I explore here come from two text refrences provided, one by a first year photography student – my niece (the Angela Carter piece) and then she and Sharon suggested the Mulvey text – which led me to those thoughts – just noticed that Rob has suggested Mulvey in the student forum. Having very few suggestions from elsewhere, it is part of the journey I’ve set out on. However I do think sex has been a significant power tool in gender politics past and present – as you and others mentioned in your responses to me earlier, about the rape incident in Delhi. This being a visual image course it is the image of women that I’m most concerned about and so much of that is about the sexualised image of women, I didn’t think that my photograph was a sexual image – guided as it was by the sitter herself. But I am welcoming of any criticism.

  4. I really didn’t mean that as a criticism but simply an observation. It is natural that in any discussion of sexual politics Sex with a capital ‘S’ will be a significant part of the discussion, and natural also that it might be the first thing that springs to people’s minds when they consider the subject. However if one is doing an extended study it is worth I think looking closely at what one brings to the party and considering whether an approach is balanced (assuming balance is something that is important to the study). None of us can be truly neutral and arguably we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But understanding how your own view of the world colours what you see helps to give a better understanding – clearer of obvious prejudice – than going ahead without considering such points.

    In terms of my own reactions I am very tired of seeing endless sexualised images of women in the media and so am fairly sensitive to them. I don’t think the picture you put up in this post is sexualised in a negative sense but it is an attractive picture of a naked female focussing on the secondary sexual organs so I can’t see how it could be said not to be sexual. It is a sensitive and tender image. But it is reasonable to ask why it is illustrating a piece about feminism. Having asked the question, the answer might be that it is the perfect choice. My only real point is that it is important to ask the question.

  5. All questions then :).. I thought about the image after I had written the piece, the thought came from what I thought about the Chadwick piece which I found very moving, probably one of the most moving images I have ever seen. But I was aware that it might well bring a reaction/question similar to that which you bring.
    I agree of course we all have a view, my is partly informed by being surrounded by women all my life – six sisters, five of whom were born at home – hence maybe some of my reaction to Chadwick’s piece – not that I’m complaining! I did think, like you say, that this image was a picture of a naked woman and not a nude, and that comes from knowing the history – being part of it – of the image.

  6. Pingback: Feminism | John Umney - Documentary

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