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For some reason it is very rare to see the major issues I face as a woman reflected in the mainstream media. I find this quite sad, given that the feminist movement – which dates from Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 Vindication of the Rights of Women – is over 200 years old. The concept of feminism is based on the notion that women face unique difficulties based on their gender that aren’t faced by men. Over the past 3 ½ decades the term has been used to encompass of range of social conditions that prevent women from achieving their full potential as human beings. These include, among others, systemic inequality and discrimination in education, employment and the legal and criminal justice system; legal, economic and psychological pressure to conform to stereotyped gender roles and subordinate basic needs to those of men; and basic reproductive rights for all women regardless of income. The area of reproductive rights in itself covers a range of services that are readily available to upper income families but totally inaccessible to the 20 percent of American children (and their mom’s) who live in poverty. Affordable birth control, abortion and prenatal and child care and paid parental leave are all essential for women to function effectively in contemporary society.
Unfortunately the way mainstream media has covered feminism has not been conducive to rational dialogue about these fairly complex issues. In fact numerous social commentators – starting with J Kenneth Galbraith – believe the mainstream media has deliberately targeted women as consumers by creating a very narrow, stereotyped ideal of what modern women should look like, as well as what they should think, feel and value.
Targeting Women for the Hard Sell
Much as been written about the psychological underpinnings of the public relations and advertising industry – how sophisticated advertising deliberately plays on fundamental unconscious drives to pressure consumers to continually purchase products they can’t really afford and don’t really need. These powerful psychological messages can be broadly divided into two groups. The first includes messages that play on instant gratification as an entitlement. The advertising industry has been pumping out different versions of the slogan “You’re worth it” for several decades. The second group of messages play on basic human insecurities about being viewed as inferior and rejected by peers and/or the opposite sex.
When substantial numbers of women entered the work force, corporations and the advertising industry went after this new source of disposable income by launching the appearance industry. Whereas previously only women who belonged to the wealthy elite could afford to follow the dictates of fashion gurus, suddenly there was enormous pressure for minimum wage office workers to purchase a brand new wardrobe every season. This was immediately followed by a giant cosmetics industry that markets billions of dollars of make-up, hair, skin and nail products, teeth whiteners, breath fresheners by terrifying women - and increasing numbers of men – that without these products they will never attract the opposite sex.
Following the enormous success of the cosmetics industry, corporate America went on to launch the diet industry and ultimately the cosmetic surgery industry. In addition to marketing sexual attractiveness, these new ventures are even more aggressive in marketing thinness and fear of aging. Their success in convincing hundreds of millions of women world wide to hate their bodies is directly responsible for the epidemic of (often fatal) anorexia nervosa – a condition that is virtually unknown in the third world.
The Pressure to Play Happy Families
However I believe the mainstream media’s stereotyped view of women (as perpetually young, starvation thin and perfectly chiseled) serves a strategic purpose beyond the short term goal of selling cosmetics, hygiene and diet products and plastic surgery. This stuff is small change.
The big money comes from systematically pressuring women to believe they will be social outcasts if they fail to succeed at romantic love – in which the final exam is setting up housekeeping and starting a family. These messages drive the big ticket, usually non-discretionary sales: residential property, home renovation (aka DIY or the big R), major appliances, furniture and furnishings and most lucrative of all, the multimillion dollar industry producing and promoting baby and children’s products.
It is also the main reason that couples age 28-40 carry the highest debt load in industrialized society and are at the highest risk for personal bankruptcy.
What is Feminism Anyway?
The other major problem I have with media coverage and women’s rights is (I believe) a deliberate effort to confuse feminism and women’s rights with affirmative action.
As a consequence media coverage of women’s rights seems narrowly focused on issues that concern upper middle class women – for example progress in appointing more women to high status positions (for example the increase in women doctors, lawyers, judges, CEOs, etc).
In my mind true feminism seeks to address universal issues that affect all women regardless of social or economic status – as well as all children – as women (as mothers) are the natural advocates for children who are too young to advocate for themselves. Obviously there are differing perspectives in defining these universal issues. In the European Union, Canada, Australia and New Zealand many issues once viewed as “feminist” are now seen as sound social policy benefiting the welfare of society as a whole.
Feminism? Or Good Social Policy?
In fact over the last few decades most industrialized countries (the US being a notable exception) have enacted a raft of reproductive rights legislation – based on the premise that it’s cheaper to intervene early in life than pay for 20-30 years of medical costs and disability benefits (or 20-30 years of incarceration) for neglected or abused children who go on to develop chronic medical or mental health problems or an antisocial personality.
This trend relates largely to increasing evidence that the intrauterine milieu and first three years of life are the ultimate determinant of an adult’s health status, IQ and emotional well being.
The Growing Science of Epigenetics
While the early Freudians used to make similar claims about unfavourable “psychological” influences on infants and young children, it is now clear the effect is biological rather than psychological. That it relates to “epigenetics” – a term referring to changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than the underlying DNA sequence. Numerous studies show that environmental stress and hormones (particularly stress hormones) can cause genetic code to be transcripted (into proteins and enzymes) in such a way that negatively affects an individual’s immune response or even predisposes them to become mentally ill.
For some reason, even though most of these studies originate in the US, our own country seems to lag far behind other developed countries in translating these studies into public policy.
The highest on my list of urgent women’s rights issues our elected officials need to address are
Stronger pay equity legislation – despite 1963 federal legislation outlawing pay discrimination based on sex, full time female workers between 18-64 still earn around 80 percent of male workers with comparable qualifications and job descriptions.
Adequate and affordable prenatal care and nutritional support for all women regardless of income Safe, affordable pregnancy termination for all women unable to carry a pregnancy to term for health or psychological reasons (my grandfather turned his portrait of Richard Nixon to the wall when the Republicans deleted this item from their platform – he saw this as a way to save billions of dollars in welfare benefits). Quality, affordable childcare for all single parents of young children who wish to work or pursue education or training. A decent caregiver allowance for single parents of pre-school children to 1) allow women to leave abusive marriages without dooming themselves and their children to poverty and 2) reward single women (and men) for dedicating themselves to the oldest, hardest, most socially relevant profession in human history: namely childrearing. The cost of a six year caregiver allowance is ridiculously cheap when compared to the phenomenal cost of processing neglected and abused teenagers and young adults through the criminal justice system. Tougher prosecution of domestic and other violence against women
Reform of rape laws to ensure accused rapists receive a fair trial without re-victimizing their victims.
A reader has turned me onto MomsRising.org, a four year old organization that lobbies for a “more family friendly.” America – and for many of the above policies. Unfortunately at present they are squandering their hard earned political capital on ObamaCare – which is nothing more than a corporate welfare plan for insurance and drug companies. A nearly identical law in Massachusetts has been an absolute disaster.
In the US insurance companies are colossal unregulated finance companies (look at AIG – one of the major recipients of TARP money). They derive their profits from taking the premiums you pay them and investing them. They have no business whatsoever inserting themselves into the doctor-patient relationship. We are not talking about mortgages and home foreclosures here. If you or your doctor do anything that might possibly lose them money, they foreclose on you!
STUART JEANNE BRAMHALL is a child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee. She lives in New Zealand.