I’m sure many members of all genders would be quick to pointedly ask: why do we still need feminism? What are women lacking anyway? Allow me to provide my own answer to this question through two recent anecdotes.
The first involves a friend of a friend whom I met at a lunchtime gathering. She was stylishly dressed and seemed to have an open, congenial nature, so I struck up a conversation with the recent chemical engineering graduate. I was quickly initiated into the sexist world of the modern job search. My acquaintance was one of only a handful of females to have graduated from her program, and would often encounter people who questioned the veracity of her resume. During job interviews potential employers, all of whom have thus far been men, would often have a difficult time reconciling her striking manner of dress—high heels, a pencil skirt and blazer, red lipstick, and an oversized designer bag—with the qualifications on her resume, which presents her as someone desperately interested in, not to mention excelling at, all things math and science. The cognitive dissonance demonstrated by these men is clear as day: chemical engineers cannot perform expertly while dressing like supermodels. You can’t be both smart and girly; something has to give, and if you happen to have come from a country in the Middle East where no one bats an eyelid at women in serious professions dressing like Amal Clooney, well then, tough luck.
My second anecdote involves a good friend who works as a legal secretary at a reputable personal injury law firm. She also takes private ballroom and Latin dance classes. I was stunned when she told me that from now on we must pretend she has a long-distance boyfriend. I was against the idea and I asked her to explain her decision. She told me she wanted to prevent the various sexual innuendos, unpleasant propositions, and downright inappropriate remarks she frequently encounters both at work and at dance recitals. Her solution was to present herself as “already taken”. Dumbfounded and naïve, I volunteered the fact that nothing of the sort has ever happened to me, to which she replied: “As a private tutor you work with people younger than you. Try working with someone much, much older next time, and you’ll see what I mean.”
The other issue I have in mind is marriage, or rather our cultural worship of the institution. I’m turning 25 this week, and am slowly becoming aware of a cultural litmus test that categorizes women into two groups: those who are married or in relationships and those who aren’t. Despite what we tell ourselves in our supposedly sexually liberated society, if you’re a woman of a certain age and you have a ring on your finger, you have it more together than someone who doesn’t. It’s as simple as that. What I’m saying is that there’s more harm done to women by our collective obsession with the bride who’s found the happily-ever-after in her prince than just the fact that the average wedding in Canada costs about as much as an undergraduate degree.
By no means am I against marriage; I’m against my own socially conditioned reflex to meeting a new woman and taking a quick, covert glance at her left hand to see whether and what kind of a diamond is sitting there. The size of his wallet is supposed to be equated to the size of his love—jewellery stores have this measurement down to the hundredth of a carat—and by extension to her success in life.
I write this because more and more of my girlfriends—especially those nearing 30—are increasingly concerned about missing out on their fairytale day. As one friend put it, not having had a boyfriend in three years makes her feel “like a failure”. I remind her that divorce rates in the western world hover around 50%, but it’s a poor consolation; the heart wants what it wants. Unless it’s a phenomenon largely influenced by the mind, which has been moulded to believe that one needs the love of a man in order to be a complete woman.
Chimamanda Adichie was referencing her native Nigeria when she spoke the following words, but I believe they’re as applicable to North America and other parts of the world: “Our society teaches a woman at a certain age who is unmarried to see it as a personal failure, while a man at a certain age who is unmarried has just not come around to making his pick.”
Similarly, in her book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert researches the question of love and marriage, and thus details her friend’s experience: “Another single friend replied, ‘Wanting to get married, for me, is all about a desire to feel chosen.’ This friend’s desire for a wedding would ‘unequivocally prove to everyone, especially to [herself], that [she] is precious enough to have been selected by somebody forever.’ ”
Meanwhile, Nancy Leong, professor of law at the University of Denver, writes in The Huffington Post about the discrimination that western society has against those who remain single. She mentions one study by social psychologists Bella de Paulo and Wendy Morris, which revealed that “single people were viewed more negatively across a wide spectrum of personality traits”. This study concluded that members of the general public are more likely to use adjectives like “mature, stable, honest, happy, kind, and loving” to describe those who are married, while singles are likelier to be labelled as “immature, insecure, self-centred, unhappy, lonely, and ugly”. Almost 50% of the study’s respondents described married people as “caring, kind, and giving”, but only 2% said the same of single people.
All this eagerness to tie the knot, despite the fact that marriage continues to benefit men far more than it benefits women. Guardian columnist Louise Carpenter writes in “The myth of wedding bliss” about how sociologists have termed this the “Marriage Benefit Imbalance”, which is a broad name for the results of countless studies conducted over the years on singles and those who are married, all of which conclude that married men are wealthier, live longer, excel more at their careers, suffer less from alcohol, drug addiction, and depression, and generally report greater levels of happiness when compared with single men. For women, the statistics are reversed. Currently in America, married women do not live longer, do not accumulate more wealth, do not achieve as much or more professional success, are more likely to be depressed, and are more likely to die a violent death than single women. In fact, women on average are paid 7% less if they’re married, and as far as violent deaths are concerned, they are usually perpetrated by a husband, former boyfriend, or jilted lover, making a woman’s entering into a relation one of the most dangerous things she could do.
Another example of Leong’s is a series of studies that found that 80% of landlords would prefer to rent to married couples, and another study that found that “participants rated a male job applicant as more ‘suitable’ if he was married and rated a male employee as more dedicated if he was married” than if he was single. As you may guess, “[t]he opposite was true for women, which suggests that in some instances, perhaps due to stereotypes about gender and child-rearing, women suffer a marriage penalty,” writes Leong.
This is why we still need feminism, even today. As much I as love attending weddings and watching Tiffany & Co. commercials, it’s hard to keep reminding myself that one can be a happy, self-actualized woman who does not need a man, or a woman whose love of fashion and math will not be judged incompatible, when input from the outside world always seems to confirm the opposite.