Expectations regarding the women of the new millennium are very high. The world envisages a radical change in lifestyles, a transformation that cocks a snook at traditional restrictions, a social environment encouraging the masculinization of women, a narcissistic self-love that hopes to demolish the last vestiges of patriarchy, and establish a new order of super women.
However, the world is in for a surprise. Womanism is on the come-back trail. It has been mercifully retrieved from the jaws of militant Feminism. Why have women become disillusioned by the latter? Because “Feminism has turned women into second class men,” according to writer Soheir Kasshogi. The type of Feminism doing the rounds over the last couple of decades is anything by complimentary to women. The post-Liberation ironies of a woman’s life, of free living and free love, abolition of marriage and family, have degraded time-honoured values of decency and sensitivity, of responsibility and relationship.
“Ms” the maritally ambiguous prefix dictates that the best interests of self must take precedence over husband and family. Feminism with its revolutionary rather than reformist agenda has set out to politicize women. The distasteful consequences are seen in the social, mental and spiritual tragedies enacted, wherever the long arm of the movement has reached.
And so, at the beginning of the new millennium, one must introspect over the better part of prophetic wisdom.
“Stand at the cross roads and look;
Ask for the ancient paths:
Ask where the good way is, and walk in it,
And you will find rest for your souls.”
What is Womanism? It is the celebration of being born a woman, a public declaration of one’s gender esteem. It is the dignity and status granted to us by a benevolent Creator. Feminity is woman’s greatest asset. Treading the militant path would only make us emotional cripples. Women must be beautiful “ on the inside and on the outside.”
This can only happen if women feel genuinely respected in their multiple roles of daughter, sister, wife or mother. Patriarchal systems and cultural aberrations may have twisted women’s lives into misshapen pretzels. But like the proverbial phoenix, Womanism refuses to die, and rises from the ashes of exploitation and domination, to enjoy the intoxicating joy of living.
When the Feminist movement was started in the 18 th century by women like Wollstonecraft et al , it was motivated by one burning desire – to effect change and mobilize employment for women. The right to vote was a basic demand. They thought this was necessary because decisions regarding society were made in the political arena, on matters of health, education, development and environment, and most of these were biased against women. Women wanted to share in the shaping of their own destiny, and eliminate discriminations. They were fighting for the “Vindication of the Rights of Women.”
“ I plead for my sex and not for myself,” said Mary Wollstonecraft. She was talking of social inequities effecting her gender, and the question of women’s suffrage. Women worked through legal channels to obtain equal pay for equal work, and new rights like maternity leave and loss of seniority.
From time to time there were women who drew attention to their problems by doing something which women were forbidden to do. The story is told of a Russian ambassador’s wife who attended a dinner at the White House in 1910, and had the audacity to ask President Taft for a cigarette. He complied with the lady’s wish but was not reelected because he had broken the Sullivan Ordinance of 1908, which forbade women to smoke in public. However, our tribal women have been known to smoke from childhood with no restrictions placed on them. Some even smoke with the lighted end inside the mouth. Does that make them more liberated than the rest of the world?
In 1782, a woman named Deborah Simpson dressed in male attire and enlisted in Washington ‘s Continental forces under the assumed name and sex of Robert Shurtleff. Though she fought valiantly, she was unceremoniously discharged a year and a half later, by General Know of WestPoint. And the Church excommunicated her for daring to dress like a man.
There were women like George Eliot and George Sands who dressed in men’s clothes and took up male identities. But these were fairly innocuous demonstrations of revolt against patriarchal systems that tended to suppress their creative urges on the basis of gender bias.
Unfortunately, a harsh and strident note of militancy crept into the 20 th century movement of Betty Freidan, Germaine Greer, Gloria Steinham and others. Catchy slogans were coined, conventional morality ridiculed, traditional sex roles and family concepts took a drubbing. Rights claimed on behalf of women outweighed their responsibilities. The meaning of liberation became too distorted for sane comprehension.
Women in the East watched with burning envy, their militant sisters in the West, and began to ape them shamelessly. Had they taken the time to study the background of these stalwarts, they would have discovered a common thread of unloved and unhappy childhoods or marriages gone hopelessly wrong. What worked to their advantage was their good education, a gift of the gab and a facile pen, by which an entire generation of women were brainwashed. Today, the grandmother of American Feminism finds herself isolated and overtaken by younger, more radical and sexier feminists. Those who have known her or met her in Women’s conferences can bear out that she was known to be rude and impatient with those who dared to contradict her, condescending to women of the Third World whom she called “pawns of male governments,” discriminating against lesbians, and treated her subordinates as slaves.
. Selfishness and self centeredness became their watchword. Husband, family, friends and society were expected to applaud these changes and make domestic, sexual and social adjustments to accommodate this new Devi – the liberated woman! The voices of sanity were drowned in the babble of women-libbers. At the risk of being called a ‘square’, Margaret Thatcher proudly proclaimed “ I’m feminine. I’ll dress like a woman but at the same time, I’m as good as any man.”
And Betty Ford revealed much wisdom when she said “ A liberated woman is one who feels confident in herself, and happy in what she is doing. A woman who is satisfied with her life at home is just as liberated as the woman with a career outside her home. What is important is that the person has an option to decide the direction of her own life, and that she makes the decision herself, without pressures restricting her choice.”
The much-flaunted Liberation has thrown up a large number of disgruntled women. There are others who are confused to such a degree that they can no more understand what is right or wrong, or what liberation is all about, and from whom they wish to be liberated. The arrogant and crude terminology (i.e, SCUM- Society for cutting up men, or WITCH – Women’s International and Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) and the boldness that goes with it, has even brought about changes in women’s physiology. Voices have become strident and have lost their softness, and hair has begun to sprout on some liberated chests.
With the insistence that their bodies are their own to do as they wish, groups of ‘ideological’ lesbians have sprung up. Marriages have been overtaken by ‘live-in’ relationships, and women have become “Lucy Loners.” (After Lucy Stone the first woman to retain her maiden name after her marriage to Henry Blackwell.)
But disenchantment has followed swiftly. Betty Freidan of the “Feminine Mystique” had to backtrack saying “ the period of rejecting motherhood and housework is over.” And others like Joanna Budde confessed that “women’s liberation leadership were wrong in making feminity a dirty word.”
Now it is left to the new young Puritans, the determined offspring of the ‘free love’ generation, to bring back a semblance of order in a movement gone awry.
What Womanism must do is to expose the emptiness of humanistic values. Women are neither pagan witches to be abhorred nor paragons of virtue to be put on a pedestal and worshipped, but human beings of flesh and blood with multiple roles of girl, woman, wife, lover, mother and friend compounded into one person – a WOMAN!
As we step into the new millennium, it is imperative that we define Womanism.
We need to appreciate that we are psychologically and physiologically different. Our gender distinctiveness is our strength. We need not usurp the male role. Both men and women should recognize that the sexes are complementary and not incompatible. George F. Guilder in his book
“Sexual Suicide,” says, “ When women deny their divergent sexuality, they reject their identity and commit sexual suicide.”
Biological and physiological research shows that we are stronger than men in some areas and weaker in others. Our reaction to disease, health, drugs may be different. Our hormones protect us against heart disease, Alzheimer’s etc, until they begin to decline. We are a valuable part of Nature’s gender diversity, created with a purpose and for a purpose. Not a ‘damaged man’ (Freud) nor afflicted with natural defectiveness (Aristotle.) It is man’s pride and moral perversion that has blinded us to our own self-worth.
Womanism stands for equal rights, equal worth and equal opportunity, but not necessarily identical roles. Feminism would have us think we are better than men. The slogan of the women’s movement in the seventies said “If you think equality is the goal…. Your standards are too low.”
Such hype-driven slogans against men don’t cut with the majority of Indian women, who still love their husbands and homes.
Feminism would love to restructure the world from the perspective of women. But woman-centeredness would probably be more destructive to the social order than patriarchy.
Womanism spurns anti-male, anti-marriage rhetoric but never loses sight of reality. The focus is not to control or reform but to relate to each other harmoniously – an inter-dependence born of mutual respect and need.
Regarding Marriage, while there should be no psychological or social pressure on women who wish to remain single, those who are housewives need not feel inferior. Homemaking is in itself a career. Even in the home of militant Feminism the USA , a poll conducted in 1990 showed that 51% of all women and 55% of married women with children preferred to stay at home. Naomi Wolfe, the “teenage beauty Ninja feminist,” once a vociferous champion of “Pro-choice” ideology, has mellowed after her experience of motherhood. She is no more willing to attest to their theory that “the unborn baby is merely foetal tissue.” She urges women to acknowledge that the “foetus is also valuable and has a fundamental right to live.”
Similarly, mothers who work outside the home should not be given a guilt complex but appreciated, because they are the ones who make a dual commitment to home and family. A career contributes tremendously to one’s identity and self esteem. What is not acceptable is the propagation of female superiority or the contempt shown for traditional roles.
The free sampling of sex and a reluctance to step into marriage has made it difficult to recognise immorality anymore. Womanism would prefer to revive chastity, and keep marriages intact and marital relationships satisfying. This is a life insurance against ruined families, unwanted pregnancies, indiscriminate abortions, STD and AIDS. At one Outlook-Mode survey, 42% of men and women didn’t approve of ‘live in’ relationships, and 66% preferred to have a ‘virgin’ mate. 61% believed that they should remain celibate till marriage.
Good parenting is also a tenet of Womanism. A mother’s love is a priceless gift to any child. It lays the foundation for a healthy personality. The feminist Jane Fonda had the humility to acknowledge
“ When you see what’s happening to kids, you can’t help but think that somebody should have been at home, minding the kids.”
Feminism would like to do away with men altogether. Alice Jagger who headed the department of Women’s Studies at the university of Cincinnati said “ When the miracle of science will allow us to alter human functions like insemination, lactation and gestation…..one woman can inseminate another……Men or non-parturitive women can lactate…..fertilized eggs can be transferred into women’s or men’s bodies.”
What a horrendous and bizarre situation that will be! We need to thank Nature that despite all feats of genetic engineering, the sperm is still needed for evolution.
Womanism calls for assurance of protection against molestation and rape, and freedom from all forms of harassment. Statistics show that in this country, one criminal offence takes place every 7 minutes, one rape every 53 minutes, one molestation every 26 minutes.
Womanism lives with the hope that literacy and healthcare will percolate down to the last woman in this country. Out of 13 million girls born every year 25% don’t live to see their 15 th year. 94% of selective abortions are of female foetuses. The male: female ratio is 1000: 927, which doesn’t compare favourably even with sub-Saharan Africa . One of every 37 women die of pregnancy-related complications, and the maternal mortality is as high as 110/ 1000 in Bihar and certain states, which is far above the national average of 70/1000. The literacy rate among women is only about 39%.
In this mad scramble for ‘space’ and ‘superiority,’ men and women are likely to destroy each other. Divorce is too painful and costly in terms of emotional stability. The divorce rates are already up by 43%.
Feminism has much to answer for vis-à-vis disintegration of society, troubled marriages, increased divorce rates and alternative life styles. Ironically, it is the men who have benefited. As constraints on traditional morality have been demolished, they are free to cohabit with whom they choose, with no strings attached. Rubin Carson defines sex today as “Nature’s way of saying ‘Hi’ “
Freedom is a dangerous gift if not combined with responsibility. It is like a two-edged sword, doubly dangerous if not properly used. Womanism claims freedom from tyranny, oppression and exploitation. The millennial woman will strongly object to battering, abuse and degradation. She will not be passive in the face of brutality. She will be pro-active, not reactive. But she doesn’t want freedom from discipline, duty or morality. A person’s worst problems begin when she can do as she pleases. One must bear in mind that everything we do, even the normal function of breathing, has an influence on others.
Womanism wants to safeguard our best values, and the new millennial woman will fight against all distorted forms of liberation. But she cannot do it alone. She needs the support of the new millennial man.
Simone de Beauvoire had eventually to concede, “We must discard vague notions of superiority, inferiority, equality which have corrupted every discussion on the subject, and start afresh.”
In their book “All we want to be,” Scanzoni and Hardesty have summed up what just might be the credo of the millennial woman “What are the basic issues of Women’s Lib? Do we want to become men? No. We simply want to be full human beings. We only want to be persons free to give the world all that our talents, minds and personalities can offer.”