Left Side-Issues With Objectification

The Need For A Woman’s Movement Is Not As Apparent As It Once Was, But It May Be More Necessary Than Ever



Left Side: The Objectification Of Women

My liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman. —Tony Porter, national speaker on the problem of domestic violence.

Every semester in the classes on American culture that I teach at Old Dominion University, I ask my students whether they regard themselves as feminists. Virtually no men—and very few women—do. When I ask the women, in particular, why they reject the label the typical response is, “because I don’t hate men.”

It’s clear that my students’ attitudes mirror the general public’s. A poll conducted last year by Huffington Post found that only 23 percent of women and 16 percent of men regarded themselves as feminists.

Many said they rejected the term because of its negative connotation. Others, simply because they no longer believe feminism is necessary.

I disagree on both counts. But before I elaborate, let’s acknowledge how far women have come over the last century. In 1920—two years before my mother was born—women earned the right to vote. Forty years later, the FDA approved birth control pills, thus paving the way for women’s sexual liberation. Seven years after that, President Johnson expanded his affirmative action policy to cover discrimination based on gender. And in 1972, Congress established Title IX, which prohibited discrimination in educational programs receiving federal funds.

The effects of Title IX are especially noteworthy because the law led to a dramatic increase in young women’s participation in college athletics. This in turn had a ripple effect across the culture as a whole. Indeed, when I look back on my own lifetime, the contrast is striking. When I was a boy in the 1960s, it was virtually a given that I would play Little League. It was assumed, by contrast, that my sister would not play organized sports—and if she’d wanted to, she would have had few if any options. By the time my daughter was growing up in the 1990s, girls’ participation in soccer, softball and other sports was widespread.

By the 1980s, meanwhile, women were making great strides in the workforce as well, earning the right to join fire and police departments and gaining more respect in the military.

So what’s the problem?

Well, let’s consider some statistics suggesting that women have yet to achieve equality. A number of national studies have found, for example, that women earn only 77 cents for every dollar that men earn—for doing the same jobs. Take a look at Congress as well. While women make up 51 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise only 20 percent of Congress. Moreover, only 3 percent of clout positions in the mainstream media are held by women, according to The Representation Project, a national organization devoted to raising awareness of gender inequity.

But these statistics tell only part of the story. The problem runs much deeper. The Representation Project—producers of a documentary called Miss Representation, which is well worth your time—lay much of the blame on the mass media, and the relentless stream of messages that tell women they are inadequate, and that their only power lies in their sexuality. 

The negative effects of these messages are incalculable. For example, according to the Representation website, 53 percent of 13-year-old girls are unhappy with their bodies—and the number increases to 78 percent by age 17.

Facts like these suggest that in spite of the strides women have made in winning equality under the law, sexist attitudes are still widespread in our culture. And this, to my mind, is what a new-millennium woman’s movement needs to focus on, even as it continues to address more tangible problems like pay inequity.

Let me give you an example of persistent sexism. About 10 years ago, I was chatting with two friends; all of us had daughters about the same age. One friend, Bob, said that while his daughter was doing well in school she often came out with “ditzy” remarks. “Don’t worry,” our friend Tim said. “The boys will love that.”

Several years later I asked the female students in my class if they ever played dumb as a way of flirting. Most admitted that they had.


Reflecting on this, I couldn’t help remembering something Margaret Fuller wrote in her 1843 masterpiece, Woman in the 19th Century. It is a widely held belief, she noted, that if a woman “knows too much, she will never find a husband.” Admittedly, this attitude has diminished. It just astonishes me that 170 years later this attitude is still widespread.

Let me emphasize this: I am not talking about millions of people of the radical right who argue that the woman’s movement destroyed the traditional family. I’m talking about persistent attitudes in mainstream culture and reflected in mainstream media: the idea that men should be dominant. The idea that men are by nature “logical” and women are “emotional.” The idea that there are “guy” movies and “chick flicks.” God forbid any self-respecting man ever admit that he watched The Notebook and cried.

In this sense, I’ve long argued that the women’s movement was just the beginning of a first step. What we really need is a gender-liberation movement: a revolution—a paradigm shift—in our collective thought about gender.

The trouble is, we still have not completed the first step. While men suffer emotionally and spiritually from having to subordinate whatever degree of feminine qualities they might have (and the mix obviously varies from person to person), women still suffer in more overt ways. If men are aggressive, they’re considered “strong”; if women are, they’re considered “bitches.” If men have lots of sexual “conquests” they get high fives from their buddies; if women do, they’re regarded as “sluts” by many other women as well as men. If women report that they were raped, they’re often blamed.

Alas, when I point this out to many people, the responses are often either hostile or apathetically dismissive.

But if you want an example of a persistent raging misogyny in this country, just look at the pervasiveness of domestic violence against women. According to the Department of Justice, nearly 40 percent of female homicide victims are domestic violence victims—as opposed to 3 percent of men.

This is intolerable to me, which is one reason I embrace the label of feminist. It’s a matter of justice—and a matter of humanity. But I also embrace it out of self interest, just as I embrace equality of races, ethnic groups and all sexual orientations. The bottom line is that if any group in society suffers discrimination—whether overt or subtle—then my own civil and human rights are potentially threatened as well. It’s time that all of us—but men, especially—acknowledge this.

Tom Robotham  is an award-winning writer and an adjunct professor of American studies at Old Dominion University. He was born and raised in New York City but has lived in Norfolk for the past 23 years. He can be reached at tomrobotham@gmail.com or at the Taphouse Grill in Ghent. 

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