While contestants in the 1968 Miss America pageant, held in Atlantic City, New Jersey, strutted around with their state-branded sashes, swimsuits and towering beehive hairdos, female protesters swarmed the boardwalk nearby.
The women were armed with signs bearing fiery slogans such as “Welcome to the Miss America cattle auction,” “Can makeup cover the wounds of our oppression?” and “If you want meat, go to the butcher.” They crowned a live sheep Miss America. They flung girdles, bras, curlers, tweezers, false eyelashes and high-heeled shoes into a bin brazenly boasting the words “Freedom trash can.” They auctioned off a colossal Miss America puppet wearing a suit akin to Wonder Woman’s, coupled with a belt of chains. Their voices rang in unison during chants like “Ain’t she sweet? Making profits off her meat.”
The counter-pageant, held by a group identifying itself as part of the Women’s Liberation Movement, epitomized a more radical strain of second-wave feminism, which spanned from the 1960s to the early 1990s. Those involved in the protest “aimed to parody what they saw as a degrading ‘cattle parade’ that reduced women to objects of beauty dominated by a patriarchy that sought to keep them in the home or in dull, low-paying jobs,” according to Martha Rampton, a professor of history and the director of the Center for Gender Equity at Pacific University. The second wave of feminism is now often criticized for being a relic of an antiquated age due to its homophobic, transphobic and anti-sex undertones, as well as its primary concern with the plight of middle-class white women to the exclusion of everyone else, Helen Lewis writes in New Statesman.
Despite such critiques, the women’s rights movement took massive strides over the following 50 years. In 1973, as a result of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court established a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion. In 1994, the Violence Against Women Act tightened federal penalties for sex offenders and funded services for victims of rape and domestic violence. And in 2009, President Obama signed the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which allowed victims of pay discrimination to file a complaint with the government against their employer within 180 days of their last paycheck. Previously, victims — mainly women — had only been allowed 180 days from the date of their first unfair paycheck to file such a complaint, according to a book entitled Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality.
So why, then, is feminism still shrouded in such a taboo?
As Emma Watson stated in a speech at the United Nations that went viral in September 2014, women are increasingly choosing to not identify as feminists.
“Their expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating and anti-men,” Watson said. “Unattractive, even.”
By definition, feminism is “the movement for social, political, and economic equality of men and women.” But the most extreme manifestations of feminist thought have led many to question the movement’s intentions. The stereotypical feminist falls along the lines of a man-hating, bra-burning, hairy, unhygienic intellectual. In other words, she has an uncouth, unpolished and thoroughly “unladylike” image.
But feminism and perceived femininity are not mutually exclusive. Neither, for that matter, are feminism and biological femininity.
The great concern is that men often feel uninvited or unwelcome to the feminist cause. Indeed, some feminists do view men as “the enemy.” But such women are a rarity, and feminist theory advocates for equality of the sexes at its core — not for a female advantage.
We simply have no hope of enacting gender-based change in the world when only half of the population feels able to participate. We need men to stand with women, not against them, and must stop perpetuating the idea of a battle of the sexes. Rather than alienating men, we — both women and other men — should encourage them to join the feminist cause. Feminist advocates need men who have the courage and the strength to start standing up for women’s rights.
Not greater rights, but equal rights.
The need to eradicate discrimination exists among the respective sexes, as well. We’re so quick to assert that women who regularly wear dresses and lipstick or become stay-at-home moms have been brainwashed to conform to the ideals of our society. But women who want to remain in the home, to exhibit sensitivity, to discuss their emotions, should feel free to do so without peer judgment — as should men.
Many question the use of the word “feminism” and suggest that instead, perhaps, feminists should adopt a term such as “equality” or “human rights.” But, as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes, “to use (such a) vague expression…is to deny the specific and particular problem of gender.”
We should no longer dilute or deny the problem, nor should we pretend that gender inequality is strictly a women’s issue.
Makeup will not cover the wounds of our oppression, but neither will anything a man can wear.