Saturday, April 24, 2010

Is Feminism Still Relevant?

My sense is that some of the popular negativity towards the concept of feminism is generational. I was born in the waning months of the 1960s, was a child in the 1970s, but was a young adult in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Basically, I guess I missed the Women’s Movement. I dimly recall my mother being interested in the ERA, and being concerned with women’s rights. But the ERA never did get passed, and by the time I came of age, those issues seemed passé. As far as I could tell as a young adult, women seemed to be on fairly equal footing with men. Yeah, there weren’t a lot of them in leadership positions (e.g., principals, deans, politicians, law firm partners), but there weren’t a lot of men of color in those positions either. I vaguely figured it was just a matter of time, but both the Civil Rights and Women’s Movements were over because formal, legal barriers were removed.

In undergraduate school, in law school, and when I was a practicing lawyer, I often moved in circles with few women. At varying times, I seemed to have more male friends than female ones, and I never had the sense that my male friends treated me any differently due to my gender. They seemed to enjoy discussing coursework, politics, theology and various other topics with me. They seemed to value my opinions like anyone else’s.

But while I was in practice a variety of things began to happen subtly that led me to gradually realize that perhaps women had not made as much progress as I had previously thought. Certain comments were made by certain co-workers. Certain decisions were made about hiring, promotion and assignments. And certain patterns developed with respect to individuals’ workplace friendships. When I was in practice, for the most part I was blessed to have been placed under the authority of some very good human beings. And most of them were male. They were generous mentors, from whom I learned a lot, and to whom I continue to be very grateful. But there were a few other times when I was not as fortunate. And there were times when some male co-workers were frankly more hospitable than others.

Simultaneously while in practice, I developed a new-found respect for the value of female support systems. Prior to working as a lawyer, I had had so many male friends, perhaps in some ways I had undervalued the benefit of having a female network. In the eight years I was in practice, countless female colleagues reached out to me at various times to offer support at different milestones. It was really striking because there was such a gender imbalance in that context. Often women that I didn’t even know well would seek me out to offer congratulations, condolences or whatever was appropriate at those key times. For example, when an announcement was made about our family’s adoption of our first child, a normally stern woman I barely knew rushed to my office to give me an unexpected, speechless bear hug, and I received a slew of excited e-mails from other female co-workers.

Similarly, when my resignation was announced and word spread about my decision to enter academia, I had long, supportive discussions with so many female colleagues. And for days, different ladies took me out for congratulatory farewell lunches. I was excited at the new path my career was taking me, but I unexpectedly broke down into emotional sobs when I hugged my administrative assistant “good-bye.” For a long period, she was the only other woman in our work group. Her friendship and support had really helped me through some tough times; her camaraderie had made me feel less alone in the group. She and I couldn’t have been more different in so many ways. But it helped a lot just to have someone—another woman--to trade stories about our kids, to discuss the joys of mammograms and the fear of having to one day maintain a professional appearance while dealing with hot flashes!

I was recently asked by a law student about my experiences with “gender discrimination” while I was in practice. I reflected that it is typically very subtle these days. Obviously, American women in the twenty-first century don’t face the types of blatant gender discrimination that Sandra Day O’Connor and her generation faced. But in some ways such blatant discrimination would almost be preferable—it is easier to identify and fight. Subtle discrimination is insidious and can be much more difficult to overcome. This is particularly the case when many young folks are naive (as I once was) and don’t believe that gender discrimination still continues.

In light of these experiences, and these observations, I have come to the conclusion that yes, feminism is still relevant. Women haven’t achieved full equality in our society. There is still a need to work towards equality. Indeed, due to the subtleties of current discrimination, I think many of us need to be made aware that problems do continue to persist.

Psalm 45:4

In your majesty ride forth victoriously in the cause of truth, humility and justice; let your right hand achieve awesome deeds.

No comments:

Post a Comment