The Plight of Feminism

As we greet the 50th anniversary of “the pill,” it seems apt to reinvigorate feminist discourse. 

Simone de Beauvoir proclaimed “one is not born a woman, but becomes one,” affirming Spinoza that we are not predetermined to act but rather that society determines how we act—effectively breaking the long-established explanation of female social inequality based upon biological grounds. In other words, while men and women may differ in sex from birth, the difference between male and “man” and female and “woman” is the difference between a human being born with a tabula rasa—a blank slate—and a human being after he has been molded by his social environment.

This, in itself, ushered huge strides in how we think of the role men and women play in society—that is, we are not biologically determined to act in a certain way. If it is society that mandates how “men” and “women” ought to act, then we may be critical of what society decrees.

Today, feminism is a huge global movement that involves the participation of both sexes in its discourse. However, feminism itself has many different varieties: American feminism differs greatly from French feminism and post-colonial feminism.

American feminism emphasizes equal social rights—in particular, equal political footing between the two sexes. This can be seen in how women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton had fought for women’s suffrage alongside Frederick Douglass, who fought for equal rights for African Americans.

In contrast, French feminism distances itself with American feminism and instead focuses on much more metaphysical questions, like what defines the difference between the “body” and the corporeal body.

Though American feminism and French feminism have made their marks in changing how society views gender inequalities, postcolonial feminism has been established in part as an antithesis to the aforementioned variants of the feminist movement.

Postcolonial feminism is a movement spearheaded by the unheard millions of voices of women in developing countries (I use the term “developing countries” here only because it shows the cartographic area I am referring to; in no way do I believe that “developing countries” are “backward.”) Women in the Southern hemisphere, who have long been denied equal footing with their male counterparts, found some homage in the succession of “traditional knowledge” from one generation of women to the next.

In other words, women in the Southern hemisphere, whose roles have largely been restricted to the household, sought both meaning and individual identity in “traditional knowledge”—knowledge that has allowed women to raise hundreds of varieties of crops in a small plot of land.

Yet the one bastion of strength these women have enjoyed has been increasingly been encroached upon by large agribusinesses such as Monsanto, an American multi-national company. As Vandana Shiva, a highly acclaimed Indian economist argues, in today’s corporate-led globalization, there is no room for true female empowerment. As a matter of fact, as agribusinesses plow away small fields and farms that have a diverse range of crops and replace them with large tracts of monoculture fields, “traditional knowledge,” the one source of power for women in the Southern hemisphere, is undermined and placed at risk.

Shiva argues that there must be a resurgence of feminism, one that is truly global and reflects the voices of all women. She criticizes American feminism and French feminism for establishing the Western image of women upon their counterparts in the Southern hemisphere, which is eminent in how some traditional customs of women in “developing countries” have been frowned upon by those in the North.

In place of male supremacists and religious conservativism, feminism faces new fronts against corporatocracy and MTV. The former puts “traditional knowledge” and postcolonial feminism in peril; the latter confuses the high ideals of feminism with overt sexual liberalism and the affirmation of promiscuity.

Speaking of which, feminism, as understood by the populist culture in Japan, is as denigrated as MTV’s image of women. As the late Masao Maruyama, a political theorist in Japan notes, Japan has always never reached the idealized vision of freedom envisioned by Locke and instead has been stuck swimming in the low-brow, trivial, sensational, and irrelevant freedom of Hobbes. Feminism in Japan has been tainted by the sexual promiscuity professed by MTV, and draws not the quill of the academic but the frills of sexy lingerie.

On the bright side, in recent decades feminism has grown as a field of study in Japan—providing fertile grounds for domestic public discourse on issues of gender in a country long plagued by a male-centered society.

The reason? A declining fertility rate (which bottomed at 1.26 in 2005) has made gender equality a central issue in Japan, particularly in Japanese politics.

There are already signs of conscious improvement: the Japanese government initiated the “Basic Law for a Gender-Equal Society” to try and help Japanese women tackle both child-rearing and retaining a career.

Whether or not reform towards true gender equality will be realized in Japan (and the rest of the world) remains to be seen, but it seems that true academic discourse towards the role of women in has finally begun after centuries of oppression.


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