What great female writers of the past can teach us about feminism for the future

March 8th is International Women’s Day, when global attentions will focus on the achievements of women, and the steps that still need to be taken to accelerate gender parity. But what would four of the most influential female writers of the past make of the issues affecting women today?


1. Virginia Woolf on breaking the glass ceiling

What does it take to enjoy success on your own terms? In her 1929 essay A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf explores the issues affecting women’s creative independence, and argues that the lack of great female writers (at the time) was down to the everyday suppression of women rather than women’s inferiority.

Using the fictional story of Shakespeare’s sister—who lacks the privacy and financial security afforded to her brother thanks to the roles placed on her within the home—Woolf argues that true equality requires not just equal rights, but equality in everyday life.

What Virginia Woolf can teach us about the future for feminism:

Is the lack of women in top corporate positions a sign of our own ambition, or does the role of women in the home and the family unit still have a part to play, almost 90 years after A Room of One’s Own was published?

It’s not a radical notion, but we must keep asking questions. Questions like the one in this video from Ariel India, called #ShareTheLoad.

Woolf would presumably argue that—as long as women still hold the “housewife” role (controlled, for example, by laws on paternity leave for fathers, or lack of independent role models during childhood) and therefore lack the privacy (“a room of one’s own”) and financial freedom to fulfil their potential—society (and the boardroom) will never be equal.


2. Saba Mahmood on the meaning of freedom

Can feminism’s goals of gender equality and freedom be applied to all women? Should we consider the perspectives of women who do not share these ideals? In her controversial 2005 book Politics of Piety, Saba Mahmood challenges many of the West’s assumptions about Islamic women’s religious traditions; in choosing to embrace the norms of their faith, Mahmood argues, these pious Muslim women are not limiting, but rather affirming, themselves. They do not value the idea of “freedom” in the same way the liberal West does.

What Saba Mahmood can teach us about the future for feminism:

“Freedom” means different things to different women. If we are to allow all women the right to their own voice, we must accept and respect these differences.


3. Judith Butler on choosing your own identity

With her 1990 work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler gives each of us the power to define our gender. She argues that it’s not our sex organs that define us, but what actions we take. Sex and gender are not the same thing. For example, society defines the wearing trousers as masculine, but if a woman chooses to wear trousers, does that make her a “man”?

What Judith Butler can teach us about the future for feminism:

Is anyone really male or female? Masculine or feminine? Gay or straight? Following Butler’s argument, gender is an act we’re forced to adopt to be considered “normal” in our culture. Rethinking how and why society imposes such rigid categories on us, and refusing to conform, can only lead to more interesting, and ultimately fulfilling, lives.


4. Simone de Beauvoir on Barbie, beauty, and the male gaze

In her seminal work The Second Sex, iconic feminist Simone de Beauvoir argues that a woman’s identity is shaped by upbringing in a world ruled by men. “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman,” and this manifests itself in a deeply ingrained idea that a woman’s worth stems from male desire and approval. This battle for physical compliance robs a woman of her individuality and her voice, contributing to the suppression that will blight her progress throughout her life.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

“Children’s books, mythology, stories, tales, all reflect the myths born of the pride and the desires of men; thus it is that through the eyes of men the little girl discovers the world and reads therein her destiny,” argues de Beauvoir. Only by recognizing these myths as constructions built by men, can women reclaim their independence.

What Simone de Beauvoir can teach us about the future for feminism:

What would de Beauvoir make of Barbie’s recent transformation from an impossibly stick-thin, singular version of “a woman” to a variety of body shapes, skin tones, “face sculpts”, and entrepreneurial careers? In The Second Sex, the writer argues that a doll is a way to teach little girls to identify with the condition of being dressed up, made pretty, and preened over.

So is Barbie’s new look a major step in the right direction, or are we still missing a trick in the fight to encourage little girls to see themselves as more than a tool for the male gaze? Should girls be encouraged to play with dolls at all or, if Barbie’s popularity cannot be slowed (a Barbie doll is bought every three seconds somewhere in the world), then should we work with what we’ve got?

The initial reaction to the transformation one of the world’s most influential toys (second only to LEGO) has been largely positive, however the impact it will have on the self-worth of post-millennials remains to be seen. Barbie is, as The Atlantic notes, “in her highly limited way, trying to do a better job of representing the people who play with her. And a better job, at the same time, of affecting who those people will become.”

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