gender: feminism/activism

For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012. Originally cross-posted at Ms.

Mojca P., Jason H., Larry H., and Cindy S. sent us a link to a story about a Saudi Arabian version of an IKEA catalog in which all of the women were erased.  Here is a single page of the American and Saudi Arabian magazines side-by-side:

After the outcry in response to this revelation began, IKEA responded by called the removal of women a “mistake” “in conflict with the IKEA Group values.”   IKEA seems to have agreed with its critics: erasing women capitulates to a sexist society and that is wrong.

But, there is a competing progressive value at play: cultural sensitivity.  Isn’t removing the women from the catalog the respectful and non-ethnocentric thing to do?

Susan Moller Okin wrote a paper that famously asked, “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?”  The question led to two decades of debate and an interrogating of the relationship between culture and power.  Who gets to decide what’s cultural?  Whose interests does cultural sensitivity serve?

The IKEA catalog suggests that (privileged) men get to decide what Saudi Arabian culture looks like (though many women likely endorse the cultural mandate to keep women out of view as well).  So, respecting culture entails endorsing sexism because men are in charge of the culture?

Well, it depends.  It certainly can go that way, and often does.  But there’s a feminist (and anti-colonialist) way to do this too.  Respecting culture entails endorsing sexism only if we demonize certain cultures as irredeemably sexist and unable to change.  In fact, most cultures have sexist traditions.  Since all of those cultures are internally-contested and changing, no culture is hopelessly sexist.  Ultimately, one can bridge their inclinations to be both culturally sensitive and feminist by seeking out the feminist strains in every culture and hoping to see those manifested as it evolves.

None of this is going to solve IKEA’s problem today, but it does illustrate one of difficult-to-solve paradoxes in contemporary progressive politics.


Lisa Wade has published extensively on the relationship between feminism and multiculturalism, using female genital cutting as a case.  You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook (where she keeps discussion of “mutilation” to a minimum).

Cross-posted at Jezebel.

This holiday season, a dollhouse may be a feminist gift for a little girl.

A tweet from Natalie Novik inspired me to look into the toy.  She had discovered a gender-neutral dollhouse being sold at Etsy.  Following up on her lead, I went over the Toys R Us website to see what gender messages dollhouses were sending.  Some of the results surprised me.

Among the 22 best selling dollhouses at Toys R Us, four came without people, six came with a preponderance of females, ten came with a male, female, and children, and there were two I couldn’t categorize.  (All humans were white — some dollhouses included non-human creatures — and just about everyone appears to be wealthy.)

The majority of dollhouses, then, came in two types.  The first was an explicitly family-themed toy.  The message of these was heteronormative, for sure, and also pro-coupling and pro-reproduction.   The Fisher-Price Loving Family Home for the Holidays Dollhouse is an example:

The second type of house, however, had themes of friendship and, dare I say, female-independence.  These houses had only women or, more often, a group of women and one man.  They gave the impression of female home-ownership and female-dominated social interaction.  The Exclusive Barbie Malibu Dreamhouse is an example:

Interestingly, most of the dollhouses that fell into this second type were Barbie affiliated.  People disagree as to whether Barbie is a good role model for young women.  She is roundly criticized for upholding a harmful standard of beauty, but she also tells women they can run for President and go to the moon.  In this case, Barbie is sending girls the message that they can have fulfilling lives and own homes without a husband.

As if to capture the paradox completely, the dollhouse featured above comes complete with a Barbie in a bikini doing astronomy:

Children, of course, play with toys both creatively and in resistance to the messages they send.  We’d be happy to hear your stories and observations in the comments.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

A while back, David Dismore posted about his archive of suffragist postcards, which appeared in the early 1900s as part of the campaign for women’s right to vote. The postcards got the messages of the movement across in short, clear, and often humorous ways.

Those opposed to women’s suffrage also used postcards to get their message out to the public. The Palczewski Postcard Archive at the University of Northern Iowa, sent to us by Katrin, has a number of great examples that illustrate the frames used to present women’s full political participation as threatening.

For instance, a 12-card series produced by Dunston-Weiler Lithographic Company presented suffrage as upending the gender order by masculinizing women and feminizing men. Suffragists, the postcards tell us, cause women to abandon their household duties and become aggressive and unladylike:

In an effort to win her own rights, then, women make their families suffer — a message complete with visuals that don’t seem out of place among stock images of crying babies and their working mothers today, as Katrin pointed out:

Equality in voting rights is clearly presented as female domination:

Postcards issued by other groups reflect these same themes. The clear message is that giving women the right to vote threatens men, the family, and the entire natural order of things:

The archive has a bunch more examples, categorized by various themes — including Cats and Suffrage, because lolcats are timeless.

Gwen Sharp is an associate professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter at @gwensharpnv.

Jarrah Hodge, the woman behind the Canadian feminist blog Gender Focus, has started a new video series called Feminism F.A.Q.s.  They’re short videos aimed at addressing myths about gender inequality and the people who care about it.  She’s already got 10 videos up, but here are a couple of my favs.

What Have Women Been Told They Can’t Do?

Ride bicycles (’cause of “bicycle face”), get a credit card, run marathons, and much more.

Did Feminists Burn Bras?

Answer: Nope!

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Thanks to YetAnotherGirl and Kari B., we can now feast our eyes on this ad from Unik (“unique”) Wax Center.  It’s a promotion offering 50% off hair waxing for girls “15 and younger.”  The Consumerist reports that all procedures are fair game, including bikini waxes.

The usual concerns regarding the sexualization of young girls apply here.  Why do girls this young need to be concerned about how they look in bikinis?

Perhaps more interesting is the frame for why such a girl might want to undergo waxing. According to the 4th of July-themed ad, it’s to “celebrate freedom and independence.”  Implicitly, hers. So, to follow the logic to its endpoint, a girl of 15 or younger can’t feel free unless she’s hairless.

The company, responding to criticism, gave arguments along these lines.  They framed waxing as a “regular activity” and a “process in life” that “goes along with our country.”  Moms are coming in to get waxed (as all women do), explained the corporate offices, they’re dragging their tweens along with them (obviously), and the girls “have questions” and “get bored,” so the next step is to initiate them into the ritual.

So, the whole process is “natural,” as the ad copy specifies.  It is just an inevitable step in a supposedly universal way of (female) life.  And one that liberates women from… um, I don’t know what… embarrassment, I guess.

The ad is reminiscent of many similar campaigns aimed at adult women, ones that frame consumption of clothes, make-up, jewelry, and cosmetic procedures as expression of freedoms.  In this way, it’s a capitalist appropriation of feminism/liberation ideology.  It’s also a naturalization of what is, in reality, a lifetime of compulsory, expensive, and sometimes harmful beauty practices.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

The Fourth Estate has found that the vast majority of people quoted in news coverage of the 2012 election are men.  The media research group collected a sample of election-related news stories from print newspapers and TV broadcasts, finding that 13% of print sources were women (79% were men and 8% were organizations) and 16% of TV sources were women (81% were men and 3% were organizations).

Male dominance was true in all outlets, though Meet the Press and Time Warner stand out as the least disproportionate:

This might be old (though still frustrating) news, except for the fact that the pattern held for issues traditionally considered “women’s”: abortion, birth control, Planned Parenthood, and women’s rights (blue is men, pink is women, grey is organizations):

This asymmetry is found across media.  See also our posts on gender and book reviewinggender and top billing at Paramount pictures, gender and top creatives for family movies, and women as news subjects.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Abortion is highly politicized in the U.S. (more so than in many other countries) and the fight between those who are in favor of and against available abortion occurs on two fronts.  One is familiar to just about everyone: the effort to overturn Roe v. Wade, the legislation Supreme Court decision that established the legality of abortion in 1973.

The second front, though, is less familiar.  It involves reducing the ease of access to legal abortion. Efforts to increase barriers to accessing legal abortion include passing laws that require minors to notify their parents of an abortion or get their consent, requiring mandatory counseling for abortion-seekers, instituting waiting periods, and discouraging medical schools from teaching abortion procedures.  Some of the issues of diminishing access are non-movement related; others are the direct result of pro-life activism.

I bring this up in order to focus on an additional barrier to access: a reduction in the number of clinics and hospitals that provide abortions.  The map below, based on data from the Guttmacher Institute and compiled by ANSIRH, shows how availability varies by state.  In the darkest states, up to 20% of women live in a county with no abortion provider; in the lightest states, between 81 and 100% percent do.

Living far from the nearest abortion provider is a problem especially for low-income women.  Such women are less likely to have an employer who will give her a day off to travel to the clinic, less likely to get a paid sick day, and less likely to be able to afford to lose even a single day’s wages.  She is also less likely to have a car, making it more difficult to get to a distant location, and less likely to have reliable day care for any existing children.  If the state requires in-person counseling and has a waiting period, it means that the woman must take two days off, travel to and from the clinic twice, and arrange for child care on multiple days.

Reduction in the availability of abortion does not necessarily reduce the number of abortions.  We recently posted global data showing that less liberal abortion laws actually correlate with higher rates of abortion.  The data below, also from Guttmacher, show that were abortion laws are less liberal (largely in developing countries), the rate of abortion is 34/1,000 women oer year, compared to 39/1,000 in developed countries (the difference may look significant here, but imagine how trivial it would look if the horizontal axis went all the way to it’s true maximum of 1,000):

Guttmacher explains that the relevant variable isn’t availability of abortion, but the unintended pregnancy rate (which is surprisingly high in the U.S.).

Barriers to accessing abortion, then, don’t lower the abortion rate.  They do, however, increase the likelihood that an abortion procedure will occur later in pregnancy and guarantee a greater logistic burden on the pregnant woman.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

In a collection of alcohol ads from the 1960s and ’70s, Retronaut included an ad that is a nice example of how marketers sometimes co-opt social movements.  In this case, the co-optation works against the movement, sending the opposite message that it intended.

“I never even thought of burning my bra until I discovered Smirnoff,” says a woman with bedroom eyes.   The message, of course, is not that a woman who drinks the vodka will become politicized; instead, it is that Smirnoff will “loosen her up” and facilitate seduction.

We’ve posted other examples of this phenomenon, including a series of Playboy illustrations that co-opted the feminist movement (“Male supremacy is all right — but I favor a different position”) as well as the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements.  We’ve also collected instances of feminist rhetoric being used to market a wide range of products and, of course, there’s always the remarkable “torches of freedom” pro-smoking campaigns.

The bra-burning story, incidentally, is a myth.  In 1968 feminists protested outside of the Miss America pageant; they threw many items deemed oppressive into a trash can: bras, yes, as well as cosmetics, high heels, etc.  They didn’t light the trash can on fire.  The idea that they burned bras was added later, in an effort to link the Women’s Movement to the Anti-War Movement (remember that draftees were burning their draft cards).  The Anti-War Movement was, at the time, being taken more seriously, so the link was meant to give feminism more credibility.  Instead, the idea of feminists burning bras became a humorous cultural trope, hence the ad above.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.