girl power

I can’t quite put my finger on why I don’t like this article, except that parts of it ring, just, well, wrong. For example, the first three sentences:

I WAS born in 1982 — about 20 years after the women’s rights movement began. Growing up in what many have called a post-feminist culture, I did not really experience institutional gender bias. “Girl power” was celebrated, and I felt that all doors were open to me.

Really? A couple of issues:

1. The “women’s rights movement” did not, could not, have began 20 years prior to 1982, i.e. 1962. I could understand if she at least took it back to the suffrage movement. That would then be the early 20th century, much farther back than 20 years pre-1982. But I think most would take it to 1848, the year of the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, NY.

2. I was born in 1981, a year earlier than this author. Who are these “many” that have called our culture a post-feminist culture? I still do not feel assured that I will forever have the right to control my reproductive abilities. I still earn less than comparable men for comparable work. I assume she got this phrase from somewhere, and I may be the only one who hadn’t heard it before, so I googled “post feminist culture” and came across a number of results on the first page. One of them came close to describing a post feminist culture without having too look too deep. In regard to the vilification of celebrity women:

“There is incredible ambivalence in a post-feminist culture towards women in the public sphere.”

In a nutshell, despite years of equal opportunities, the media – and the people who watch and read – prefer the stay-at-home mother over a woman who lives her life in public, particularly one who is overtly ambitious or successful in making money.

“Years of equal opportunity”? Goodness, the gender differences in the very decision to work or stay-at-home is but one example that opportunities are not equal between men and women.

3. Institutional gender bias. There is so much complexity in those three words, taken separately and taken together. The author seems to be saying that she never felt discriminated against due to her gender identification. That, however, is far removed from the absence of institutional gender bias. As I can gather from my quick read of my handy-dandy sociological dictionary, for some institutional bias is about opportunities and outcomes of groups. It seems that an individual can’t technically experience institutional bias except in so far that they are a member of an affected group. There is also a question of intent – I always learned that institutional racism, for example, differed from one-on-one racism in that because race prejudice was embedded in institutions that we could no longer think of racism as something that hinged on the intent of the individual. In the author’s case, where she states that “girl power was celebrated,” it seems that she conflates these two issues – the absence of institutional gender bias with the absence of blatant sexism.


I also can’t help but look at the picture of the author and shake my head at another white woman who claims to speak for all women. Granted, it seems she is talking about college-educated women, where the similarities may be stronger than when talking about women in general. But I remember – and note that I am only a year older than the author – having heated discussions with white women about how we are not the same, and the issues we face are different. One small issue, but so important for so many black women hitting the job market, is the issue of hair. When I graduated from college, I rocked a mean ‘fro. But I was so nervous to wear my hair in its natural state because I was perceived to be “militant”. Other styles I wore at the time, like twists or braids, were deemed to be “unprofessional.” Some gave me the advice to press my hair prior to interviewing. This is something that my white female peers did not have to deal with.

There are other things I object to within the article, but after so much is wrong with the first three sentences, I’m not really surprised by my reaction to the rest of it. What do you think, in particular about the rest of the article? Do you agree with my reactions to the first paragraph?

12 thoughts on “girl power

  1. I agree with everything you say about the inaccuracy of her comments re: “post-feminist culture” and “years of equal opportunity”. However, I certainly see where she is coming from. As a highly intelligent girl, involved in school activities, coming from a family who always expected me to achieve, I too thought sexism was basically dead when I was growing up. I never experienced any blantant sexism, was always encouraged by parents, teachers, etc. to do anything I wanted to do, and never expected to hit any sex-related barriers to my goals. It really wasn’t until I got to grad school that I started to realize sexism still exists. That despite the fact that the ratio of females to males in many psych programs is something like 4:1, there are still way more male professors in some departments – even among new assistant profs. That male profs often still make more than female ones. And it wasn’t until I became pregnant that I really realized all of the issues surrounding pregnancy, work, family-friendly spaces, etc. And I don’t think I’m alone in that experience, which is why I can’t be too critical of the author (although as you pointed out, this might be more common for white women who, not being used to experiencing other forms of discrimination, have a harder time recognizing it).

    Anyway, I’m not sure whether I think this is a good thing or a bad thing. On the one hand, it’s nice that it took me so long to realize the barriers I might face, because it might have kept me from unintentionally internalizing those barriers and allowing them to prevent me from striving for my goals. On the other hand, are we doing girls and young women a disservice by failing to educating them about these important issues? Perhaps we would be fighting harder to fix some problems if we were aware of them earlier?


  2. canuck_grad – did you really not think sexism was alive and well while growing up, or did you just ignore it? How about boys sports being more prominent? The lack of gender balance in high school teachers and elementary teachers? News stories about Roe v. Wade? Analysis of the sexual harassment trial of Clarence Thomas? Analysis of domestic violence in the OJ trial? Discussion of why girls are called sluts while boys are seen as sexual heroes?

    These are all things I remember discussing when I was growing up, especially in high school. Maybe my experience is an anomaly, but I went to school with white women and were having these discussions with them. I could better understand her experience if she said that she chose to ignore the signs of sexism, instead of claiming that they just didn’t exist. There may have been a feeling of, “that can’t happen to me” but I can’t believe that she looked critically and then decided that sexism didn’t exist anymore.

    I think you are right – I grew up discussing these issues, of all types of discrimination and prejudice. I don’t think it was bad for me, although I was an angry person for a while in college. My approach , even with my children, is to try to teach them about privilege, and in the process, make them aware of the ways in which they are discriminated against.


  3. I definitely see big changes in the level of overt sexism between the 1960s and the 1990s-2000s. I see a watershed at around 1970, when the EEOC started enforcing the law against gender discrimination. (I was in the first class in my graduate program that had been admitted without overt and intentional discrimination against women.) Which is not to say that things are wonderful, just that there have been clear changes. In college, I knew lots of women who had been overtly discriminated against and overtly blacklisted and punished when they complained about it. Today the discrimination is more subtle (See the Castilla article in the May AJS) and may be invisible to both perpetrator and victim.

    In school, young men are not doing as well as young women. This is especially true for Blacks, but also for Whites. And social environments differ, with some being relatively egalitarian and relatively non-sexist, while others are not. So it would not be entirely surprising that some young women in some environments would not experience a sense of disadvantage. It is in the workplace where most women feel the greatest disadvantage. And even at work, there is huge variation depending on how male-dominated a particular field is. Some fields are just about as bad today as they were in the 1960s (when virtually all were really bad), and others are not.


  4. OW – I agree with everything you are saying. But I still believe that as a young woman who grew up around the same time as the author, I did not have any allusions that the world was gender egalitarian, just as I realized that that world was not racially egalitarian, despite huge improvements from 20+ years before I was born. And maybe that is where race comes in – I was aware of my racial disadvantage so that made me more aware of my gender disadvantage. I was told a lot in my life, even before college, of the double whammy against me, and I think lots of women of color also had a similar experience. I just think the article was too simple and claimed to speak for all women.

    BTW, Is there evidence that “most” women feel the greatest disadvantage only beginning in the workplace? That would be interesting to read.


  5. I think it’s just blind spots. To her, sexism (and racism) is simply holding and acting on the belief that one sex or race is superior to another. And she didn’t see that in her upbringing, so she thinks it doesn’t exist anymore. This is a very common belief; I encounter it all the time.

    I perceive a hint of essentialist beliefs in her article, which indicates to me that those gender differences she likely did notice she probably attributed to inherent gendered preferences, not sexism. So more men were in sports because men like sports and women just don’t, more women teach because women are just nurturing by nature, Roe vs. Wade isn’t about feminism but rather about whether abortion is murder, Clarence Thomas was one person (and maybe she was asking for it/ lying) and O.J. was abusive, plain and simple.

    She clearly does not understand the meaning of institutional gender bias, so it’s not much of a leap to think that she also doesn’t understand the problem with talking about women as one homogeneous block of people. It’s a common blind spot, as I’m sure you’re aware.

    It is a similar blind spot that keeps her from realizing that the very fact that men – but not women – arrive on the job with the skills necessary to succeed is an indication that something is wrong with this purportedly non-gender-biased upbringing.


  6. I was not thinking so much about whether I personally agreed with it or not as I read it, I was thinking, I need every single Northwestern undergraduate (male and female) to read it.

    that reaction only underscores your point, gradmommy since you can guess the demographics of my institution.

    It also reminded me of one of my favorite books “Female Chauvinist Pig” which at its most interesting examines the Girls Gone Wild phenomenon and asks girls why they exposed themselves to sexual exploitation often in exchange for a trucker hat and they say things about “owning their sexuality” and the like with NOOOO understanding of what this could do to a career. Even when I jsut see the ads for a nano-second i think — what if she wants to be a judge later? or a doctor? a politician? a CEO? AND — what if she would be good at those jobs but for one drunken mistake during spring break when she had some WACKY idea of feminism that included flashing someone for a trucker hat?



  7. I think for the most part I really didn’t think it was alive and well! I did notice some things – boys sports being more prominent, for example – but I guess they just weren’t things I thought were really important, and I think I probably had a belief that if you were a girl who was good at a sport and tried really hard, you’d be able to succeed. I think I was just really raised with the “work hard and you shall succeed” mentality, and really thought it applied equally to everyone.

    Other things, like lack of gender balance in high school and elementary teachers I noticed, but just thought that was left over from old sexism lol – that it would even out once my generation got into the workforce.

    Also, I think anomie is right in that I didn’t have any sense of any kind of discrimination other than overt, direct things. I wouldn’t have even known what Roe v. Wade was until university (I am Canadian though), but like anomie said, I think I would have just interpreted it as being about “is abortion murder” – I wouldn’t have any sense of how it played into the larger issue of women’s rights.

    So I think overall I really just didn’t get it. Like I said, it’s not that I didn’t notice some things – it’s just that I had no sense of how they fit into an overall framework of institutional bias, and that I really believed as long as I worked hard enough I could overcome any bias that did exist.


  8. Ouch – reading this aricle was a realization that nothing has changed and in fact the state by state statisics on women’s advancement are either stil at the same level or have detriorated. I would be more than happy to send you web sites where you can read the most recent (two to four years old) information.


  9. (sorry-I was posting to quickly) E STILL IS A GLASS CEILING
    educate yourselves and if you agree that a fourteen year old girl has no business playing fottball – because she is female – if you have girls – you will contribute to the relavance that – THER


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