Monday, July 11, 2005

Feminism 101?

I recently heard a radio interview with people who commuted to work. In my anally compulsive way I automatically added up the number of men and women interviewed. The totals interviewed were six men and one woman. This is unlikely to reflect the actual numbers of men and women who commuted that day, but it's not uncommon to find in the media. There is something about us women that suffices in rather small doses to give the impression of gender balance. If you watch television sitcoms you frequently find similar gender ratios.

What was odd about this interview is that afterwards I remembered what the one woman had said extremely well and couldn't really separate the men's comments from each other. The woman stood out as a representative of a large group "women"; the men were interviewed as individuals and so what they said somehow didn't stick to my memory. It's easy to see how something like this could turn into a belief that "women" are fairly represented in all sorts of fields, perhaps even overrepresented, while the reality could be the very opposite, unless ones view of fair representation is to have one woman to stand for all.

I think this is what happens when a few women become famous in some field with lots of famous men. The few are now memorable as "women", whereas none of the men is specifically there as a representative of "men". The effect is that there are people who truly believe that women have the lion's share in all sorts of fields where they actually are rarer than hen's teeth. Or almost as rare.

Add to this the attempts to include more women in some reporting in the media. It's easiest to just keep on asking the same women to come to the shows and, presto, it looks like women are everywhere because their names become memorable and the names of the many men are harder to remember. But it's in reality a sign of the rarity of women in the public sector and our token status. Think of Hillary Clinton and how she is marshalled out all the time as an example of a successful female politician. Not that many others exist, actually, but the incessant bickering about Hillary makes it seem as if the world of politics is full of uppity women.

If my theory (which might well belong to someone else first, of course) is correct it would explain why so many anti-feminists are seriously convinced that we women are taking over the world and wrecking the Western Civilization. Counting the actual numbers here would be helpful. This theory also means that we don't have actual gender balance in a field until the gender of the women in it isn't the first thing we notice.

All this is part of a more general explanation I have about how women are viewed as an almost undifferentiated mass of "womanness" and how this makes women and men behave. Women are still defined by how they differ from men, on average, and a woman in any place where women are rare stands, first and foremost, for all women. Her behavior will be judged not as that of an individual but as representative of "womanness" consisting of fairly interchangeable parts.

This also explains why the mommy wars can be so vicious: if all mothers really are part of the same "motherness", then there is only one correct way to do the mothering and everyone not using it is failing.

I can't think of any examples outside the literary genre of romance where men are treated as specks of an amorphous mass. Women are treated this way much more often, even by other women, and the consequences are mostly not pretty. If we are all part of the total whole of "womanness", then whatever one of does will have an effect on the others. Hence the desire to police our sisters and the anger we feel when they appear to misbehave. And we are not wholly wrong in doing this: the media tends to see the deeds of individual women as applicable to all of us, and this is most common in cases where the individual woman did something wrong.

I believe similar patterns apply to some minorities in this country, though I haven't subjected my theory to a test with that data. What do you think about this? Am I ready to publish and become the successor of the famous feminist voices of the last thirty years or should I just stick to goddessing?