Cultural and Racial Images and Ideas about Womanhood

Gender is argued as socially, biologically, and individually constructed, wherein womanhood or femininity is shaped by biological and sexual features, cultural norms and expectations, interpersonal relationships, media messages, and personal beliefs and experiences (Laqueur 206-207; Baker 2005 qtd. in Settles et al. 454).  These external forces can lead to both similar and highly dissimilar gendered experiences for different races (Settles et al. 454; Carter et al. 196). For instance, black, Hispanic, Asian, and white women can share experiences of gender discrimination, although they can also suffer from different forms of racial and class discrimination (Settles et al. 454; Carter et al. 196).  This essay explores how culture and race influence the notion and realities of womanhood.  Multiracial feminism challenges and reinforces different cultural and racial ideas and images about womanhood, which consequently shape various and perplexing conditions of power, privilege, and inferiority.

Cultural ideas and images can serve to disadvantage and subordinate women (Settles et al. 455).  Cultural images of women as subordinate to the male can be connected to the idea of binary opposition (Chanter 124; Laqueur 205). Binary opposition pertains to the clear and opposing differences between nature and nurture, and masculinity and femininity (Chanter 124; Laqueur 205). Being a man is opposite to being a woman, wherein women and men are defined biologically and ontologically (Chanter 124; Laqueur 205).  At the same time, women have been defined as the inferior of men, an idea that is embedded in social infrastructures, specifically the family, media, classroom, and workplace (Laqueur 205; Settles et al. 455).  In line with binary distinction, girls are molded to become women by their families and schools, through teaching the former what becoming a woman means. Though this is not assumed as a universal experience, “becoming” a woman remains a significantly socialization process that tends to reinforce patriarchal structures and beliefs (Settles et al. 455).  This concept of womanhood reflects the “nurturing” aspect of women. Girls are conditioned to fulfill their reproductive roles, while boys are told that they will fill “larger” productive roles in life. This kind of upbringing is an utter disadvantage to women, because they are being limited to particular jobs and life roles. For instance, many women are constrained to service and traditional female jobs, even when they are capable of and want to enter male-dominated industries, like engineering. At the same time, an interesting article, “The Facts of Fatherhood,” criticizes the idea of naturalizing women, as the only nurturers of the human race (Laqueur 207). The author of this article argues that being a father can also be a natural nurturing process, an equal and complement of motherhood (Laqueur 207). He asserts that womanhood also delimits manhood. This is a fascinating idea, because it also underscores that patriarchy harms men and women alike. As society shape womanhood, men are also affected unfairly, because of notions of manhood that also limit the latter’s possibilities. Thus, culture can also oppress women and men, though mostly, women suffer more, because of larger limitations set on them.

Women also face gender discrimination at work, because of evident pay differences and the existence of the glass ceiling in promotions and hiring practices (Lott, Asquith, & Doyon qtd. in Settles et al. 455). Women also suffer from sexist treatment, such as sexist remarks from their peers and superiors (Settles et al. 455).  Numerous women find it difficult to climb the company ladder, because of the chauvinist view that that they are tied to their maternal or female roles, which are constantly the priorities of women (Settles et al. 455).  As a result, when a male and female employee are candidates for promotion, the male one may be chosen, because he is perceived as “freer” to devote more time and loyalty to his job (Settles et al. 455).  Women also suffer from sexist treatment at work, wherein they are sexually harassed, implicitly or explicitly (Settles et al. 455). Gender discrimination at work can be explained by the cultural devaluation of women as sex objects, or the object of the male gaze (Real 189; Settles et al. 455).   By being a product of the male gaze (Real 189), women are not treated or seen as equals, even when they have the same, or even more, abilities and knowledge, as their male counterparts.

Women are also devalued in the media, when they are shown in the TV shows, movies, and advertisements, as occupying traditional female roles and exhibiting stereotyped attitudes. In commercials of liquor like beer, women are often portrayed as the sex object, which reinforces the view of women as the “acted upon” and the product of “the male gaze” (Real 189). These female models also act and speak sexually, as if they are the products being sold. Some movies and TV shows also illustrate women in stereotyped roles, wherein they are vain, materialistic, and sexually aggressive. They are also shown as having no or weak will, and filling traditional roles in life, such as being a full-time mother or being a full-time single career woman, who is not satisfied with her life. These cultural images of women are not that accurate, however, in including the diversity of experiences and developments of women as individual human beings. These portrayals of women also tend to underline them as inferior to the male intellect and abilities, by illustrating them as objects and not as active and rational players in society (Real 189).

Multiracial feminism challenges different cultural and racial ideas and images about womanhood. Feminism strives to empower women by erasing gender and its binary conditions and assumptions (Simien 2). Binary opposition is deconstructed as a sexual reductionism that says nothing about how women can also “become” men, or how men can also “become” women (Chanter 125). Binary opposition is also analyzed, as the product of cultural images and views of womanhood and manhood, because those who hold the binary as true also protects the hierarchical and normative order (Chanter 125).  Feminists assert that women should not be duly influenced by cultural and racial images that belittle their capacities and remove opportunities (Paechter 365). Women have historically fought patriarchal attitudes and beliefs, until they became victorious in lobbying for gender equality laws and changing many people’s ideas of womanhood. At present, women are now at an advantage, because being a woman can be a source of power. Women can use laws and their abilities to exert power and shape policymaking and individual and social experiences (Simien 2). Unlike centuries ago, modern women can openly express themselves as equals of men.

Women also find it a privilege to be part of their gender, because of the challenges that belong to it. They may feel that they have “something to prove” in society, so they work extra hard to advance themselves socially, politically, and economically. By fighting for their dreams, whatever cultural and racial limitations there may be, women are tapping the privilege of being a woman. This is the privilege attributed to their inner strength, which can also be called as “purely” woman. This strength emanates from their years of experiences of gender oppression, which distilled their inner power and faith (Settles et al. 455).  The so-called “woman’s intuition” is also a testament of this advantage. Mother’s instinct is also a well-known indication of the privilege of being a mother and a woman. Women’s intuition or mothers’ instinct delineate the extraordinary powers of women, because of their gender. These linguistic changes and attitudinal views about womanhood emphasize the powers that women hold nowadays, either as new or old gendered experiences. Women have cultured a new culture of their own- a culture of privilege, status, and power for their own sex.

Black feminism will be separately discussed in relation to multiracial feminism. Anna Julia Cooper, who is believed to be the earliest and manifest form of black feminism, wrote “A Voice from the South” in 1892, before even W.E.D Dubois complained of the “color line” (qtd. in Simien 2). She complained about the inability of the black male intelligentsia to articulate both the gender and race question: “while our men seem thoroughly abreast of the times on every other subject, when they strike the woman question, they drop back into sixteenth century logic” (Cooper 1995, 45 qtd. in Simien 2). This remark criticizes the cultural images of black women as “the matriarch,” “the jezebel,” and the “the welfare queen” (Feldstein 5; Simien 3). Cooper and other black feminist scholars, such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Patricia J. Williams, explore the notion of “dual consciousness,” which relegated black women feminism in the borders of the academe (Simien 3). They noted how black women struggled to put a stake in the political sphere, so that they can dispel the unfair and sexist images of their intellect and other abilities (Simien 3).

Indeed, women of different races may experience discrimination and challenges because of their gender, but colored women experience an additional form of subordination, which is articulated by the double jeopardy theory (Beal 1970; King 1988 qtd. in Settles et al. 454; Simien 22). As a consequence, black women experience the double burdens of sexism and racism, also called “double marginalization” (Hurtado, 1989; King, 1988; Perkins, 1983 qtd. in Settles et al. 454; Simien 22). This provides colored women with a unique space in expressing and understanding their concept of womanhood (Settles et al. 454). This space can be explained by “group consciousness,” wherein black women share the same experiences and goals in life (Simien 22).

The experiences of black women demonstrate double marginalization. Berdahl and Moore (2006), Bergman and Drasgow (2003), and Mecca and Rubin (1999) report that more black women suffer from sexual harassment than white women (qtd. in Settles et al. 454). Black women also experienced more gender discrimination at the workplace, according to Browne and Kennelly (1999) and Lopez and Ann-Yi (2006) (qtd. in Settles et al. 454). Black women also go through “greater disability and mortality due to health care disparities, even controlling for socioeconomic status,” based on the studies by Andresen and Brownson (2000) and Green et al. (2004) (qtd. in Settles et al. 454).

In the United States, there are historical factors that impacted the gender-role norms that affect black and white women (Settles et al. 454; Simien 22). These differences can be traced to the discourse of “true womanhood” (Perkins, 1983 qtd. in Settles et al. 454), which represents the idea of womanhood for the middle-class and white women of the middle 1800s (qtd. in Settles et al. 454). “True womanhood” stresses the idea of “modesty, purity, and domesticity for White women and identified wife and mother as their primary and most important roles” (Mullings 130; Settles et al. 454). Black women, on the other hand, were seen as the opposite of the norm, wherein they were argued as not being “true women,” but “animalistic and hypersexed, which was then used to justify their enslavement and rape” (Settles et al. 454). Historical evidence demonstrated that black and white women were differentiated, wherein the latter were stressed as nurturing, domestic, and compliant (Settles et al. 454). This notion of white women serves the purpose of the white male as the ideal response to men’s sexual and social needs (Settles et al. 454). On the other hand, stereotyping black women as Jezebel or Mammy reinforces the hypersexual woman that contrasts with the white woman as the norm (Bell 2004; Collins 2000 qtd. in Settles et al. 454). Class statuses are also preserved in this kind of distinction (Settles et al. 454).

The cultural idea of the black matriarch, however, is not entirely negatively viewed (Carter et al. 198; Collins 176). There are many black women who see power in the matriarch system; because it presents them the opportunity to focus on their children and to help them attain greater social and political development, by having sound family and community bases (Carter et al. 198). Several movies depict black mothers, who are dominant family and social symbols. These mothers hold great influence in their families and communities, which provide them the chance to positively shape family and community conditions. Literature also supports the positive view of the black matriarch as an evident force in the social and political development of the black community (Carter et al. 198; Collins 176). Through motherhood, black women communicate and interpret self-definition and find black womanhood, as a foundation for community organizing and action (Collins 176).

Motherhood represents a particular female function that both empowers and disadvantages women (Feldstein 2; Lewin 106). For many cultures, motherhood has a special social significance, because it supports reproduction and nurturing functions. Motherhood has been critical to the development of feminism in the nineteenth century and the Second Wave (Lewin 104). During this time, motherhood is either glorified as a naturally empowering aspect of being a woman, or as an obstacle to gender equality (Lewin 104).  Motherhood can be seen as an opportunity to be a woman, according to one’s wishes. It will not be accurate to say that feminism totally disagrees with motherhood, in the sense that all feminists do not want to be, and are not mothers too. Motherhood provides a special chance for women who want to start a family of their own, and mold the citizenry of the future (Feldstein 2). In the 1930s and twenty more years after that, mothers were increasingly pressured to be “responsible for raising physically and psychologically fit future citizens” (Feldstein 2). Mothers from all races were accountable for shaping a healthy and stable democracy (Feldstein 2). This view, however, has a patriarchal undertone, because mothers were expected to produce national strength, in terms of producing more men, as well as women who knew their misogynistic right place in society (Feldstein 5). If this contention will be undermined, however, motherhood can be described as an individual choice, a choice to have one’s family, whether in the traditional or non-traditional sense.

Other feminists, however, view motherhood as a source of disadvantage to women (Lewin 104). Mothers are often dedicated to their maternal roles that they no longer have the time and energy to pursue higher political, social, and economic positions (Lewin 104). Mothers are burdened by their parental functions, which completely dispel any form of real autonomy that they can have over their lives (Lewin 104). Many mothers, for instance, cannot aim for promotion, because they know that they cannot give the time and energy needed to fulfill more demanding and larger job positions. This belief about the limitations that motherhood set on gender empowerment has been used to support the birth control pill movement, so that women’s number of children can be controlled (Lewin 104). With fewer or no children, women are believed to have more time and opportunity to participate in the public domain like men do (Lewin 104).

On the other hand, there is a view of motherhood as a dialectical process (Collins 176). In this sense, motherhood interacts with race, class, and gender issues and experiences (Collins 177). Motherhood becomes a complex idea of women fighting for different ideals.  The different views on motherhood depict the dialectical process that shapes and changes motherhood, as a woman’s experience and choice (Collins 176). The interaction of diverse and conflicting views enable women the voice to ascertain how they also think of and experience (or not) motherhood. The autonomy of choice presents the opportunity to select motherhood according to one’s beliefs and needs.

Feminism, on the contrary, can also reinforce gender disadvantages. This occurs when womanhood is defined in certain terms, which by defining it, it limits womanhood (Paechter 365). Multiracial feminism, for instance, can differentiate between black and white feminism, while ascribing negative and positive attributes to both, or more of negative to one kind of feminism (Simien 2). Black feminism asserts that white feminism is different because it commonly supports middle and upper class white women, whose lives and experiences are strikingly different from the lower-class working black women (Simien 2). White feminism can also see black feminism as an underdeveloped class of feminism that withdraws from the realities of other races (Simien 2). These contentions, however, demarcate femininities in a disparaging manner. Feminists themselves also commonly negatively criticize each other, by asserting superiority in assumptions or analyses (Paechter 365). For them, there is only way of feminism and the rest are feminism-lings (Paechter 365).  It is a personal view that bashing different forms of feminisms is not productive to the lot of women. Instead, it only creates walls of boundaries that can be useful in differentiating racial and class values, aspirations, and experiences, but can also represent obstacles to embracing femininities in the pluralistic sense (Paechter 365).

Cultural images of womanhood have traditionally impaired the utmost potential of women, because of sexist assumptions, beliefs, and practices. Women’s movements, however, changed many laws and conditions to empower women. Women have also redefined their gender as a source of advantage and power. The literature also shows conflicting images and ideas of motherhood, and a personal assessment is that none of them is superior. Furthermore, womanhood should not be defined by one approach, but embrace all notions and practices of womanhood. Femininity is not meant to be singular, but a compound of femininities. Femininity should embrace all femininities, all notions of becoming a woman. It should not exclude any kind of femininity. It should not make inferior other notions of womanhood. In fact, there should be no “other” at all in feminism. Multicultural feminism is also not concerned of single feminism. It reflects the diversity that integrates and responds to the diversity of women too. When this happens, feminism can unleash more centers of power and privilege for all women, whoever they might be and whatever they want to do with their lives. There is nothing wrong with having a spectrum of femininities. But there might be something wrong with believing that there is a single strand of femininity.

Works cited

Carter, J. Scott, Corra, Mamadi, and Shannon K. Carter. “The Interaction of Race and Gender: Changing Gender-Role Attitudes, 1974–2006.” Social Science Quarterly 90.1 (2009): 196-211.

Chanter, Tina. Gender: Key Concepts in Philosophy. New York, NY: Continuum, 2006.

Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed.  New York, NY: Routledge, 2000.

Feldstein, Ruth. Motherhood in Black and White: Race and Sex in American Liberalism, 1930-1965. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 2000.

Laqueur, Thomas W. “The Facts of Fatherhood.” Conflicts in Feminism. Eds. Marianne Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller. New York, NY: Routledge, 1990. 205-221.

Lewin, Ellen. “On the Outside Looking In: The Politics of Lesbian Motherhood.” Conceiving The New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Eds. Faye D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1995. 103-121.

Mullings, Leith. “Households Headed by Women: The Politics of Race, Class, and Gender.” Conceiving the New World Order: The Global Politics of Reproduction. Eds. Faye D. Ginsburg and Rayna Rapp. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press, 1995. 122-139.

Paechter, Carrie. “Constructing Femininity/ Constructing Femininities.” The Sage Handbook of Gender and Education. Eds. Christine Skelton, Becky Francis, and Lisa Smulyan. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2006. 365-377.

Real, Michael R. Exploring Media Culture: A Guide. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1996.

Settles, Isis H., Pratt-Hyatt, Jennifer S., and Nicole T. Buchanan. “Through the Lens of Race: Black and White Women’s Perceptions of Womanhood.” Psychology of Women Quarterly 32.4 (2008): 454-468.

Simien, Evelyn M. Black Feminist Voices in Politics. Albany, NY: State University of New York, 2006.

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