One of the complaints I often hear about feminism (on the bloggernacle and elsewhere) is that feminists say that women are superior to men, or that feminism is about advancing women above or ahead of men (etc.).
When I hear this I am confused, since in all women’s studies classes I’ve taught and in all the conversations I’ve had with fellow feminists, we have focused on men and women’s equality (and what that means, how best to achieve it, etc.).
Starting with the “Declaration of Sentiments” and the “Resolutions” that emerged from the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, feminists and suffragettes have been focused on attaining equality. The “Declaration of Sentiments” borrows the language of the “Declaration of Independence” in order to argue that women up to that point in time did not have the same kind of equality that men in America did: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” As we continue to read, the document explains the ways in which the women at the convention did not believe themselves to be treated equally by the laws of the land. The only section that even hints at language of “superiority” is the following resolution: “Resolved, that inasmuch as man, while claiming for himself intellectual superiority, does accord to woman moral superiority, it is preeminently his duty to encourage her to speak and teach, as she has an opportunity, in all religious assemblies.”
What’s interesting about this is that it does not say “we believe that men are intellectually superior and that women are morally superior.” It says that “inasmuch” or if men are going to argue that women are morally superior, doesn’t it make sense to allow her to speak and teach, especially in churches and religious settings? What’s interesting is that the resolution immediately following this one is: “Resolved, that the same amount of virtue, delicacy, and refinement of behavior that is required of woman in the social state also be required of man, and the same transgressions should be visited with equal severity on both man and woman.” After addressing a belief that society viewed women as morally superior, the document claims that men need to hold themselves to the same standards of morality (which to me, indicates that these women believed that men were every bit as capable of moral behavior as their female counterparts).
The language of women as morally superior actually didn’t come from the feminists–it came from those who were trying to uphold a patriarchal, middle-class structure. During the 19th century, the predominant idea of what a woman should be was that of “the angel in the house.” While this model of womanhood was that women should be meek and submissive to to their husbands, it also included a belief that women should be the caregivers of the children and remain at home because they were more pure, more innocent, etc. When the suffragettes started agitating for the vote, there were arguments that women should not have the vote because they were not capable of making rational decisions, but some of the reasons were the exact opposite (as Lynnette pointed out in her recent post on women’s suffrage): women should not have the vote because the intricacies and difficulties of the political sphere would sully their perfection. If feminists adopted the same kinds of assumptions, it usually was because, like the women who write the “Declaration of Sentiments,” they were trying to address the common assumptions about 19th century womanhood because that is how they would gain support for their cause.
In current day discourse (including in the church), I see similar kinds of patterns. Those who I hear most vociferously arguing for the perfection and superiority of women are people like President Hinckley: “Woman is God’s supreme creation. Only after the earth had been formed, after the day had been separated from the night, after the waters had been divided from the land, after vegetation and animal life had been created, and after man had been placed on the earth, was woman created; and only then was the work pronounced complete and good.” And as much as I love President Hinckley and believe that he loves the women of the church and has their best interests at heart, “feminist” is not a term I would use to describe him (or, I believe, a word that he would use to describe himself).
And while there may be the occasional feminist that will affirm a speech like the one given by President Hinckley (women who adopt the title of feminist are a diverse bunch), most feminists I know and associate with when confronted with speeches about their purity and superiority and goodness, want to run from the room. Most of the speeches I hear about women and their superiority usually come from those most invested in upholding a patriarchal structure with traditional gender roles.