Gender inequality has been a hot issue thought history, and though we have certainly moved forward by leaps and bounds in terms of levelling the “playing field” for the sexes there is still some ways to go. Though women now have many more rights than before — among which the right to vote, own land, work and pursue a career — there are countless social stigmas against them which dictate how they their actions are perceived, and consequently their image within society as a whole.
At first, there wouldn’t appear to be a problem at all, I mean women should just be happy with this new freedom because it’s better for them than before… right? Unfortunately, this is not the case. In fact, in analysing a few concrete examples of the manifestations of these stigmas, it becomes clear that there is an enormous and unacceptable issue in our current society: a woman cannot truly be herself.
I ask that, as you read on, you keep in mind that though the following piece many statements and examples may come across as extremely stereotypical, and perhaps as though they are excessively playing into the ideals of gender inequality which cause the very problems this article aims to examine, those cases are purposely taking our reality to an extreme to highlight their point, and in no way intended as literally as they may come across.
Now, let’s start by examining something simple, for example how a woman dresses herself. In past a woman’s wardrobe was limited by certain rules, be it a measure of societally imposed modesty, or even the fact that women were not allowed to wear certain garments (such as trousers), whereas now a woman is technically “allowed” to dress in whatever manner she desires, with whatever garments she chooses to adorn herself with. This has not only been a great development, but one that has most certainly been appreciated by the gender as a whole. However, this new “freedom” does come at a price…
Let’s examine three scenarios: If a woman decided to wear elaborate, outlandish, and “girly” outfits, more likely than not, she is perceived as being vain or shallow. However, if a woman decides NOT to put thought into her outfit or “look”, and dresses sloppily or out of convenience, more likely than not, she is perceived as being careless or even “lesser” than other women (ironically those who are also perceived as vain and shallow). Further, if a woman decides to wear what is conventionally considered to be a menswear, with what is commonly referred to as a tom-boy aesthetic, she is can be considered to be rejecting her “sexuality”, and in some extreme cases considered to be less of a woman because of it. Overall, though the socially imposed wardrobe limitations have been lifted in terms of what garments one can adorn, women are now limited by a newly developed factor: the implication of their choices within that freedom.
Looking at it from a different aspect, careers and work, a similar pattern can be identified. In past women were seen as subsidiary to men, and their prescribed societal purpose was to bare children, keep the house clean and manage the family and household while the men were at work. Nowadays, a woman can work, and even decide to continue to work after she has given birth; which, again, is a great development and very much appreciated by our gender, but comes at a price.
Let’s examine three more scenarios: If a woman decides to take the newfound opportunity to work and pursue her career OVER marrying and starting a family, she is usually perceived as being either selfish, particularly for neglecting her biological calling, or the modern equivalent of a spinster. However, if a woman decides to reject the opportunity to work and start a career, instead opting for the what can be considered the “traditional” role of mother and home-maker, she will most likely be considered to be too passive for these modern times or even “ungrateful” for the developments in women’s rights; and in some extreme cases even be accused of being a “gold-digger” or ignorant of her gender’s struggles in past. Lastly, if a woman decides to take a middle rode, such as pursuing a career AND starting a family, but fails to perform her best in either or both scenarios, she’s seen as a failure (as illustrated in the recent film Bad Moms). There seems to be no way to win as a woman, whatever you choose, there seems to be a societally pre-defined reason that you are doing wrong. Especially when you consider that, in the many scenarios outlined above, men would not be subject to the same judgements, or at least to a lesser degree and in a more positive and complimentary way.
For some reason it seems as though a woman cannot be herself in modern society without her actions being perceived, at least in some part, as wrong or bad. In fact, if we take some of the examples above and elaborate on them with a few other factors, this becomes even more clear. For example, if a woman is dressed sloppily (in other words is not well put together) but is successfully working and manging a household, in most cases she will still be criticised for her inability to also be put together, rather than being lauded for her ability to juggle work and a family. In the opposite scenario, if a woman is always dressed to the nines, unmarried, career driven and lives alone with her pets, she is probably seen as being “bossy”, overzealous, or a “cat lady”.
Though it has to be mentioned that these societal perceptions are not true in 100% of cases, and there are many members of society who demonstrate productive, positive and supportive attitudes, those are vastly outnumbered by their counterparts, which is one of the main causes of the problems identified above. The biggest issue with society seems to be that though it strives to appear as though it is moving forward to facilitate and allow for equality of the sexes, it actually has just modified its methods of imposing gender limitations and stereotypes, masking them as progress. Furthermore, many individuals who play into contributing to the societally defined perceptions above (both male and female) do so under the belief that they are not being sexist or wrong in any way, most of the time mislead by the idea that they are acting in a progressive and “equal” mentality.
The only solution to the issue that a woman cannot be herself in modern society, is to raise awareness of the issues that are present in our society and be abreast of their impact on both genders. Educating yourself and those around you on the topic of equality is essential to move forward and fix this deep-rooted issue. After all, we cannot live in a Doll’s House forever… it’s time to break free.
Illustration by: Gabriella Azanu