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Despite Significant Gains, Women Still Victims of Sexism

Lecture on Nov. 16 to focus on impact of feminism's 'second wave'

Release Date: November 6, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- A University at Buffalo researcher says that regardless of claims that feminism is passe and unnecessary, women still are being victimized by a self-generating, patriarchal social system. We just don't recognize it.

Carine M. Mardorossian, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of English in the UB College of Arts and Sciences, argues against theorists who for years have lambasted the "second wave" of feminism (1963-89), launched in the U.S. by Betty Friedan, for insisting that women are "victims."

Writers and pundits like Ann Coulter, Laura Ingram and a host of bloggers and picketers calling themselves "anti-feminist Christians" claim that feminism is not relevant to today's society and has actually hurt women. On the other hand, "third-wave" feminists, many of them women of color, challenged the "second-wave" paradigm as to what is, or is not, good for females, calling instead for a new subjectivity – analysis of individual personal impressions, feelings and opinions -- in a feminist voice.

Mardorossian maintains, however, that the "second wave" produced profound social, political and economic changes that continue to be of great value to women and that her research supports this. She will discuss her current work at 4 p.m. Nov. 16 in a talk sponsored by the UB Institute for Research and Education on Women and Gender as part of its new speaker series, "Theorizing Gender."

The lecture in 216 Harriman Hall on UB's South (Main Street) Campus, will be free and open to the public.

"The goal of the 'second wave' of feminists was nothing less than the economic and personal independence of women," says Mardorossian, who also is affiliated the UB Department of Women's Studies. "These women considered their own personal lives as deeply politicized, and reflective of a sexist structure of power.

"It was through intense and sustained political action that their effort to improve women's financial, legal, educational and personal rights was successful," she says. "We take their accomplishments for granted, and some dismiss them, but there are many rights we would not have except for the work of these women,"

She points to the extension of civil rights laws to cover employment discrimination against women, anti-rape legislation, sexual harassment legislation and enforcement, the establishment and enforcement of domestic violence laws, recognition of women's role in the home, changes in unfair insurance laws, admission to professional schools in engineering, law and medicine, and Title IX of the Education Act, which gives girls equal access to athletics.

Mardorossian also cites as victories the recognition of the authority of women's voices in history, anthropology, science, law, medicine, ecology and culture; multiple women's health initiatives; greater roles for women in politics, law, business and religion, the latter resulting in the first female rabbis, Episcopal priests, Protestant ministers, Catholic Eucharistic ministers, altar girls, and a new wave of activist religious women.

Although far too young to recall that era personally, she has spent years conducting research this period of feminist history for a book she is writing about the legacies of Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Bella Abzug, Germaine Greer and the thousands of other feminist leaders and writers of that era.

"The women of the 'second wave,'" she says, "had few professionally run organizations to turn to for assistance. They had to work together closely to personally assist one another with serious problems posed by a very sexist system.

"It was necessary for them to take matters into their own hands and to personally attack and change sexist practices," she says. "Women need to realize that what we would today consider the most extreme sexism was at that time accepted, celebrated and defended. These women fought back hard, changed attitudes and behavior, and attained victories that deeply color today's women's lives in very positive ways."

There were many years of intense lobbying and law-writing," she says, "extensive efforts to establish and staff hotlines for victims of sex abuse, domestic violence and employment and judicial discrimination; to identify and promote women-friendly lawyers, doctors and therapists; to sue businesses for discriminatory salary, promotion and hiring practices. There was picketing on behalf of women's health and education and workers' rights. It was a lot of work.

"They went to court with rape victims; taught women assertive behavior; ran consciousness-raising groups, demanded and established day care facilities; personally established and staffed shelters for women, forced their concerns into newspapers, radio and television, and challenged sexist language, practice and assumptions at every turn."

Today, she says, women's services have been professionalized. Women no longer limited to turning to other women for help because access programs and agencies offering services once only provided by activist women.

"The co-optation of their work extended women's rights, but has weakened the powerful personal and political bonds forged during the 'second wave' that made these hard-fought changes possible. As a result, fewer women today 'get' how sexism is practiced," says Mardorossian.

"This is unfortunate," she notes, "because although sexism is less the obvious and 'proud' practice it once was, it has only gone underground. It remains an invidious and destructive institutionalized and personal practice of which women continue to be victims in meaningful and significant ways."

Mardorossian specializes in postcolonial and feminist studies and is the author of the "Reclaiming Difference: Caribbean Women Rewrite Postcolonialism" (University of Virginia Press, 2005), which examines post colonialism through the eyes of Caribbean women writers. 

She is the author of the study, "Laboring Women, Coaching Men: Masculinity and Childbirth Education in the Contemporary United States." Her articles have appeared in the journals Gender Studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society , College Literature, Hypatia and Callaloo.

Mardorossian, a fellow of UB's Humanities Institute, is vice president of the Northeast Modern Languages Association.

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