A Liberal View of Feminism

Women today have come a long way away from a history of slavery to men. The society has failed to keep them behind a successful man. Even women in India have moved out of the antarmahal, to occupy the world which was a man-only domain. Headed by a woman president and boasting of notable women in politics, business, literature and innumerable other fields, India is undoubtedly proud of her women. All of these developments, directly or indirectly, owe their origins to a nineteenth century movement called feminism. Feminism is a movement, a philosophy which aims at raising the status of women to the standing from which man has been ruling over her for centuries. It does not demand a role reversal or establishment of matriarchy, but the creation of a society where there is no discrimination on the basis of a gender difference. This is why feminism is a winner even in a society where everything is wrapped in thick, old blankets of patriarchal discourses.

The first wave feminism aimed at overcoming de juro inequalities, meaning, the inequalities practiced by law. The first law made primary target was the women’s exclusion from right to vote. There was also a time when of the Rule of Thumb wherein the law prohibited a man from using anything thicker than his thumb to beat his wife, implying how even the law (a handmaid of man ) was in favour of wife-beating, to keep the women ‘at bay’.

The second wave feminism made moves against the unofficial inequalities practiced unquestioned in the workplace and the family. The bravest fight was on the issue of women’s reproductive rights. One of the projections made by the second wave feminists was that ‘gender’ is a construct of the society (dominated, of course, by men). The third wave feminism has moved further to project that sex, too, is a construct, basing its claim on the view that language is a construct. It is important to understand the distinction between the terms female – a biological idea, femininity – a social idea, and feminism – which aims at overcoming the attributes imposed by the two former ideas.

The earliest work in feminism is A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) by Mary Wollstonecraft, who is known as the grandmother of British feminism.

J.S. Mill in his book-long essay titled “The Subjection of Women” (1869), has denounced the people who call the subjection of women as “natural”. Going back to history, he recalls how even the system of slavery was once lauded as the best form of governance. He also points out how the people praising slavery or the subjection of women, are never at the receiving end of the subjugation. The patriarchal system (a society headed and operated by man) must be the only two-tier system that was accepted by both the parties. Explaining why women agree to their being suppressed and “protected” by men, Mill says that none of the other systems employed education as a means for bringing about willful subjection. The patriarchal system of education taught young girls that their only means of survival was to be married to a provider. Always somebody’s daughter or wife, her life could be defined only by her relations to the men in her life.

Virginia Woolf, the twentieth century feminist writer, in her lectures, collected as “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), spelt the needs of a woman writer: money and a room to herself. She talks at length about the difficulties of female authorship in her time as well as in the times past. In this essay she explores how a student learning of eighteenth century England would be deceived into believing that women – owing to their complete absence from history books – were wonderful creatures as projected by fictional works. One can see the pun that Woolf aims at showing – how history has indeed been a ‘his story’.

The realization of feminism’s aims have come a long way but has a longer way to go. While a woman holding high posts is not a surprise today, the cases of dowry deaths, female foeticide and infanticide too are routine. On the one hand, woman is equated to an angel, holy and pure, and one who is to be kept away from the thoroughfare of the world, to keep her from being ‘tarnished’. She is not allowed human fallacies. A deviation on her part from the ideal image is her fall from the pedestal of Coventry Patmore’s “Angel in the House” to the Madwoman in The Attic.

According to radical feminist viewpoints there are ingrained in our society many problematic concepts. The social institution of marriage is seen as a creation of the patriarchal discourse. Based on a heterosexual relationship, marriage is the best example of the literal objectification of women. The word ‘matrimony’, sometimes parodied as ‘matter of money’ originally was a system of exchange of woman for a bride price, which has later drastically metamorphosed into dowry. Marriage can be likened to a change in ownership of the woman from the father to the husband; the change in the woman’s name only re-stresses the reality of the ‘transaction’.

The sanction or rather dominion of almost every religion over the phenomenon of marriage deems it the most divine course of life. Religion too is a strongly patriarchal institution and probably the one field where women have not acquired an equal standing with men. However there are a few happy instances where women, even those of a feminist standing to the extent of being publicly homosexual, hold influential positions in religion. One case in point is Reverend Winnie S. Varghese. She was made the Priest-in charge at St. Mark’s Church in-the-bowery. The parishioners at this church have whole-heartedly accepted her as their leader in their religious life despite her being a woman, a homosexual and a coloured one at that. She lives with her feminist partner and has her roots in Kerala, India.

In my view feminism aims at a world where the need for such an evolution/movement/idea no longer exists, where society accepts men and women as equals, abolishing the need for quotas and special considerations for women.

Deepa Sebastian

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