In yoga class a few days ago, the teacher, a woman, began the class by saying that originally, yoga was a practice that only men were allowed to participate in. The young women in the class seemed baffled, especially a teenager whose father, the only man in the class, went on to ask if anyone in the group knew where the word “hysteria” came from. The teacher did, I did, but no one else seemed to and the young women in the class seemed a bit shocked when he explained. Their knowledge of how women were historically oppressed is extremely limited and we can argue whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. But the fact remains, those young women in the yoga class couldn’t have been there less than a century ago. Nor could they have gone to college, played sports or been liberated from societal constraints in a number of ways.
In my over forty years as a feminist and writer, I have been particularly interested in the ways, especially medical, in which women have been oppressed, like Silas Weir Mitchell’s rest cure. Women who spoke out, acted up, or just didn’t know their place were subjected to bed rest and force-feeding in order to quell their rebelliousness. Charlotte Perkins Gilman is, perhaps, the most famous woman treated with this method, and young women who read The Yellow Wallpaper today are as shocked by it today as I was. But institutionalizing women was, unfortunately, commonplace, and the treatment of often perfectly “normal” women — by today’s standards — is bloodcurdling: icy sheets, padded rooms, electroshock therapy, lobotomies. Those days may be long gone, but oppression remains in a myriad ways.
167 years after Seneca Falls and less than a hundred years after women got the vote, things are not as much changed as we might think, or like, them to be.
Marissa Mayer, the new 60-million-dollar, pregnant CEO of Yahoo is a case in point. So are the huge numbers of millennial women who balk at the kind of success Mayer has and really don’t want to be in charge of much of anything, let alone a billion-dollar company. And although the reasons both Mayer and the millenials hurt the cause of women is different, all the reasons speak to a huge disconnect in American society. When it comes to women, we still don’t seem to know their “place.”
On the one hand, Mayer exemplifies the very best of women’s ability to compete with men in the marketplace. But like Michelle Bachmann — a mother of five who is in Congress and made a run for the presidency — Mayer disavows the word “feminist.”
Mayer, like other very rich women, will likely turn over daily care of her baby to a nanny after taking a few short weeks off, a choice the huge majority of working mothers don’t have. But unlike Ann-Marie Slaughter, whose essay about “having it all” went viral and provoked a huge number of responses, I daresay we will never be privy to Mayer’s angst about whether she is working too much to care for her child. The problem is that women like Mayer and Slaughter and even Bachmann are aberrations, still. Nothing in their lives speaks to the real issues: How can society as a whole make sure that women can work and raise children? The fact that Mayer is such a huge news story supports the fact that, despite our gains as women, she is a novelty. The majority of women, working women, do not earn her kind of money or have her kind of power. Of course, nor do the majority of men. But men in Mayer’s position are not newsworthy in the same way.
The millennials, on the other hand, are still caught between what they wish for themselves and what society seems to still see as their place — being beautiful objects of desire. They are the women who, despite the increase in numbers of women in college and positions of importance, illustrate clearly and poignantly why Mayer is doing women a huge injustice. As one young writer tells it: “Young women today are bred to doubt ourselves, question our worth and view ourselves as improvable projects rather than embrace the imperfection of our humanity.”
The media blitz which still embraces the notion that women must be, have to be, thin, pretty and desirable is at odds with the idea that they must also be smart, educated and willing to have a career. Young women get mixed messages from the day they are born: Should they be princesses or doctors? They can’t do both. And any choice demands perfect breasts, beautiful bodies, clear skin and flowing hair.
Any day, anywhere on the Internet you can find trollish comments about feminists and how strident they are, how ugly they are, how no man could possibly want to f*ck them. So if they want to be f*ckable, women better be sweet, compliant, not too ambitious and very attractive. And God forbid they should make more money than a man.
In the middle of the feminist movement of the ’60s, Bella Abzug said: “Our struggle today is not to have a female Einstein get appointed as an assistant professor. It is for a woman schlemiel to get as quickly promoted as a male schlemiel”.
That still hasn’t happened. Women have to be better, smarter and nicer than the average schlub. They have to worry and wonder and balance a dozen balls in the air at once. And society isn’t doing much to help them with their struggles. And there is, of course, a huge group of women: poor, undereducated, disenfranchised, for whom a discussion of whether or not they are a feminist isn’t a priority at all. They are too busy, too harried and too overworked. All of this means feminism, for all its detractors, still hasn’t achieved its goals.
Of course things are better than they were a hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, but the stories of women marrying down are anecdotal enough to end up as stories in women’s magazines, alongside the stories of women who struggle with body issues, perfection, rape and abuse, alongside stories about men who are stay-at-home fathers, alongside the stories like Slaughter’s which argue against our having it all and the stories about Mayer, a pretty pregnant woman who is now running a huge company. When those stories don’t make news we will finally be somewhere.
(This essay was originally published in the Huffington Post)