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Actually, women, you do need feminism

Women Against Feminism is not only ahistorical, but fundamentally misreads the nature of feminism and the current status of women.

A screenshot from the “Women Against Feminism” tumblr

Australian university campuses last week marked Bluestocking Week, a celebration that remembers the first women who entered English universities in the late 19th century.

Women in lecture halls were pioneering. Yet these trailblazers couldn’t sit exams or expect to graduate with an actual degree. Newnham College for women at Cambridge University was established in 1871, but it was not until 1948 that women could hold a full Cambridge degree.

This is merely one area of discrimination that restricted what women could do with their lives. The reality of how little choice women had only a century ago is nevertheless absent in contemporary manifestations of anti-feminism, such as “Women Against Feminism”.

The phenomenon began on Tumblr, with women taking photographs of themselves holding signs that explain their reasons for opposing feminism. The site has been online since July 2013, but it’s only in the last month that it’s really started to generate heat online. Women’s statements range from claims that men are now the true victims of discrimination, to homophobic categorisations of feminists as “man-haters” and “lesbians”.

Any social justice movement with a long history and diverse adherents will exhibit contradictions and problematic ideas. However, Women Against Feminism is not only ahistorical, but fundamentally misreads the nature of feminism and the current status of women.

Let’s work through some of the common assumptions made in these anti-feminist declarations.

(1) “Men and women already have equal rights where I live.”

It is indeed true that in many Western nations women enjoy formal equality, but substantive equality remains elusive. Any of these rights also has the potential to be revoked at any time. Abortion rights, in particular, are continually challenged and overturned. We cannot simply say that feminism has done its work and that women will enjoy the rights and freedoms it has helped to achieve indefinitely.

Also, people regularly travel and migrate. Things might be better “where you live”, but what if you want to go somewhere where women aren’t allowed to drive, gain an education, or report a rape?

(2) “I was raised to be an independent woman not a victim of anything.”

Prior to feminist activism, it would have been impossible for most women to be “independent”, regardless of their parents' intentions. At various points in history, women couldn’t inherit property, work outside the home, learn to read, or even walk down the street unaccompanied. The efforts of generations of feminists helped to give women a say in government, the right to be educated, and social and sexual freedoms.

An independent woman would want to pursue any path in life that she wishes. She’s the kind of woman who would speak up when informed that her job has been made redundant because she’s pregnant, or who would get angry when told that she can’t walk home alone because otherwise she’d be inviting sexual assault. Independence and refusal to be a victim are feminist qualities.

(3) “I am an abomination to feminists” (because I am a stay-at-home mother).

Many Women Against Feminism believe that feminism opposes women’s work at home and denigrates those who don’t pursue careers. Historically, most women had no choice but to remain within the home and care for their children. Until as late as 1966, Australian women had to resign from the public service as soon as they married.

Feminism has always sought rights for women as mothers. Early Australian feminists, for example, campaigned for the government to provide an income to all mothers to recognise that parenting was the equivalent of a job and that it benefited the country. Feminism did challenge the expectation that women have no vocation of her own and be solely focused on cleaning and cooking for her family. This does not mean that feminism derides women who choose to focus on raising children and maintain a traditional division of labour. Though feminists would argue that the reverse situation, in which a male partner cares for the home and children, should be equally possible.

(4) “Men have rights too.”

As the vast majority of the world’s government and business leaders and holders of its wealth, it’s bizarre to suggest that men now lack social and political power. Women Against Feminism, however, often propose that men’s rights have been eroded because they usually have less access to their children after separation or divorce.

The continuing perception in courts and the general community that women are better suited to raise children, while men are better equipped to be in the workforce, is not a “right” that women enjoy. In dozens of ways, this belief restricts and hampers women’s rights and capacity to earn. The one drawback that affects men is the only one that anti-feminists mention.

(5) “I don’t need feminism because…

It is impossible to extricate yourself from collective rights relating to gender, race, or sexuality. Unless you wish to withdraw from society, you will both benefit and suffer from political and social changes to what women can and cannot do. You may not want to need feminism, but you will benefit from its continued work toward maintaining basic rights and eliminating the kinds of sexism that cannot be legislated against regardless. It’s very easy for Women Against Feminism to declare that they don’t need feminism using the voice and powers that feminism made possible and which it continues to fight for.

The ConversationMichelle Smith has previously received funding from the Australian Research Council. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA