by Monica Smith
The article entitled "Womyn's Success Formula: Learning To Think and Act the 'MIT Way,'" in the last issue, joked that women should choose either the "put-up" or "shut-up" routine, or in other words, to act like one of the guys or to exploit their femininity. This is not just an issue for women at MIT, but has been a controversy within the women's movement as well: whether to fight for women's equality with men (easiest to do when women act like men), or to affirm women's differences from men (more likely when women act unlike men). Ultimately, either choice implies an acceptance of compartmentalization, or a dichotomy, because the choice between equality or non-equality is seen as an either-or/"us" versus "them" choice, when it actually ignores a multitude of choices in-between. Why shouldn't women demand equality with men, and at the same time, demand a recognition of the ways in which women are distinct from men? Women should have the choice of how to define themselves, not simply through a comparison to what "male" is. Historically, women were viewed as having inherent biological differences from men, being dependent on men, and in need of special care. Men and women inhabited separate spheres (public and private), and had different destinies, since women were seen as naturally best suited for bearing and rearing children. "God-given" differences between the sexes, both biological and emotional, were used to justify protectionist treatment for women, regulation of their occupational choices, and the environment they were allowed to work in. How could anyone argue against divine destiny? Some groups within the women's suffrage movement encouraged this view of women-as-different, for example the American Woman's Suffrage Association, which fought for the right to vote but did not advocate the "radical" idea of pressing for fundamental changes in institutions that subordinated women, like marriage or the family. They supported the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed blacks the right to vote, on the naive assumption that suffrage would then logically be extended to women as well. The more radical women's group of the time opposed the Amendment, precisely because it did not include women; their agenda also included broader social goals like women's rights to own property, make contracts, serve on juries, testify in court, receive an education, and achieve legal equality with husbands in marriage. These two main factions symbolize the depth of the equality-versus-difference dilemma; in this country it goes back at least to the time of the Civil War. Some prominent women in the suffrage movement (including Elizabeth Stanton and Susan B. Anthony) portrayed African American men as being quite different from white men in order to create a solidarity between white men and white women, and thus advance the rights of white women. To divert attention from the differences between the sexes, women exploited yet another "us" versus "them" battle, through racial discrimination. Elizabeth Stanton in her address to the Legislature of the State of New York, on February 14, 1854, was outraged that white male legislators "place the negro ... in a superior position to [their] own wives and mothers". She argued that since the vote was given to "negros, lunatics, and idiots", then certainly women deserved the right as well. A few scholars have argued that any comparison between the subordination of women and the institution of slavery is inherently racist, because women did not suffer in the same way as blacks did, and because the comparison shifts attention away from the racist tactics used by white women. At the time, the parallels may have seemed appropriate. Certainly, exploiting racist fears to advance the cause of white women buys into the equality-versus-difference dichotomy by exploiting difference to the detriment of overall equality. Even after the legal gains in the 1970s for gender equality, when courts no longer viewed women as belonging in the home, or having a more timid nature than men, the biological differences remained. "Once women began to be treated like men, people began to notice that women really are not like men. Women are most noticeably not like men when they are pregnant." (Cain, 1991) Biological differences between men and women have long been used as an excuse to promote "protective" measures for women and thus unequal treatment. For example, until the 1990s, fetal protection policies had been used to effectively exclude fertile women, whether pregnant or not, from jobs involving contact with potential hazards for fetuses, like lead. Men were not "protected" from such hazards, although some of the same substances that might cause damage to a fetus may also cause damage to sperm cells in men. Before the Supreme Court struck down the policy at one company, women were discriminated against because they were forced to choose between their jobs and their capacity to reproduce (the company would allow them to work if they underwent sterilization). After the policy was changed, women were still in a harmful position; they were able to choose to be exposed to potentially damaging substances, just like men were. A better resolution to the problem would have recognized the issue as one which concerns all people (environmental hazards in the workplace), without simple substituting technical equality (treatment like men) for distinct protectionism (treatment like mothers-to-be, or a womb with legs). This denies women any choice about their reproductive roles in society. Discrimination based on pregnancy has been prohibited by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act in 1987, but it is difficult to prove, which leaves the Act not as effective as it needs to be. The issue of pregnancy has far-reaching implications because it leads to protectionist attitudes towards women not only during the time they are pregnant but also concerning their capacity to become pregnant, for example their choices regarding sterilization or birth control. While women may be different from men because of their reproductive capacities, deconstructing the binary categories of "equality" and "difference" involves viewing women not as mothers-in-waiting, but as individuals who have a choice to reproduce. Society's perception of women's sexuality includes a protectionist attitude as well. Women's freedom to enter into contracts remains limited when it comes to sex. Prostitution is illegal in most states and in general, women are the ones who are vigorously prosecuted far more often than are the "Johns" who solicit prostitutes. Surrogacy has been criticized on the grounds that women are victimized or objectified by their choice to rent their wombs. In both prostitution and surrogacy, women are selling use of their bodies, for sex or for childbirth; however, society finds this kind of capitalism rather distasteful. Women are criticized if they sell their bodies, but men aren't criticized to the same extent for buying. It's an obvious double-standard for women, a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" approach which punishes women for trying to be like men, by restricting their contractual autonomy. A more equitable and realistic approach would be to decriminalize and regulate these actions, making it easier for women to receive fair treatment, better pay, and decrease the power differential, so exploitation would be less likely. In this case, equality should reflect the unique circumstances women are in, by allowing them the same freedoms that men have in other areas. Women's choice to be sexual beings is further limited by the fact that date rape still does not receive the attention that rape by a stranger does, because the female victim may be blamed for her sexually provocative conduct or clothing. A woman should not wear clothing considered too sexy, flirt too openly, go home with men she meets, or go out alone at night, otherwise people will think she was "asking for it." Why should women have to choose between being openly sexual (being called sluts, or "bad" women) and being virgins ("good" women), when men are held to an entirely different standard? The equality-versus-difference dichotomy is very apparent here: women can try to be different, use their feminine "wiles" and be sexually provocative, but when they are attacked they're often expected to fight rapists off just like a man would fight (especially considering that until not long ago, courts wrote that rape victims were consenting to sex unless they struggled with all their might against the rapist). They can try to be men's equals, but women's sexuality is criticized far more harshly than men's and they're held to a different standard (there is no male equivalent of "whore" or "slut", except perhaps the word "stud", which definitely does not have the same pejorative connotation). Among the broad spectrum of sexuality, whether heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, monogamous or not, or any combination, the choice should be open to both women and men. It is not necessary to view men and women as the same in order for them to be treated equally. Women also do not need to be portrayed as a homogenous group. Women have been discriminated against as women, and thus form a unified group, but their differences must also be taken into account to understand the variety that constitutes the group. One way to fight for choice is to stop buying into gender stereotypes, see them for what they are, and tell people when they are making assumptions about others based on gender. Explore the concept of "gender," in other words, masculinity and femininity, and notice how it is used to sell products, advertise movies, influence political values, shape the concept of family, and shape what roles are appropriate for people. If we can all read an article like the Womyn's Success Formula [see the last issue of the Thistle] and laugh because it doesn't accurately reflect reality by only allowing women two choices about their lives, we'd be moving closer to a more egalitarian society. Unfortunately, those two choices are often the norm of our non-egalitarian society and that reality is not funny. Reference: Katharine T. Bartlett, Gender and Law: Theory, Doctrine, Commentary, Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1993.