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How Fear Handicaps Feminism

by Becca Stallings

The unequal status of women in our society is popularly blamed on men. Certainly men were responsible for much of the historical oppression of women, and some men continue to try to keep women down in order to make themselves feel better. Many men today, though, reject the idea of female inferiority and are happy to give women a fair chance in society. The struggle against sexism can't progress much further until we acknowledge that men's behavior is not the only obstacle. There are problems with women too.

I don't mean that there is anything innately, biologically wrong with women. I mean that there is something wrong with what females in our society are taught about themselves.

A girl is indoctrinated from an early age--by her family, the media, and/or other girls--with ideas that cripple her. She learns to believe that she is not safe on her own, that women's bodies are a source of shame, that a nice girl avoids achieving "too much," and that expressing her sexuality will ruin her life. She learns that males are "the opposite sex": incomprehensible, annoying, and probably dangerous.

Most women's magazines promote these ideas while giving lip service to gender equality and female pride. In order to maintain a market for their articles (and advertising), they need an audience of frightened women: women who are afraid that they are ugly, afraid that they smell bad, afraid that they can't cope with their many responsibilities, afraid that nobody will like them if they aren't perfect.

This adolescent self-consciousness and anxiety is something women can outgrow if we aren't over-protected as girls. If you tell a girl she's not safe on her own, if you tell her men are beasts, if you tell her being sexy is dangerous, she will believe you. Many women think, on an intellectual level, that the sexes are equal and should have the same rights, but deep down they feel inferior.

Women will not be equal until we are not afraid. Giving women options--making it possible for us to hold powerful jobs, to play sports, to exercise the same legal rights as men--is only part of the battle. The rest is getting women to feel that it's okay for us to do these things. The barriers we have to overcome are not only other people's prejudices but also our own. Listen to what you say to girls. Are you telling them to be afraid?

Copyright ©2004 by Becca Stallings.
Last update: 2004-01-08
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