The new terms we use to define what it means to be a successful woman risk becoming new discriminatory stereotypes or unrealistic standards, particularly for ethnic minority or working-class women.
Women are reclaiming the narrative and defining for themselves what it means to be a woman in the 21st century, whether single or married, childless or as a parent, as a career professional or a stay-at-home parent. These examples do, however, show the inherent conflict between the realities of the desired lifestyles of many women and girls, and some of society’s ideas of what a ‘liberated successful woman’ should be.
For many, COVID-19 and lockdown have prompted a re-evaluation of how we live our lives and whether some of the impromptu changes made for the pandemic should be made permanent. This comes at the same time as the norms of social activism and equality are being reshaped to require intersectional inclusivity and an introspective analysis of whether our notions of what equality means are actually reinforcing inequality.
One example is the popular hashtag #girlboss, generally used to describe a woman at the top of their professional game. Casira Copes, a Black feminist writer, argues that the term is counterproductive for equality if usage is not accompanied with analysis of the world in which a ‘girl boss’ functions. Just as it is important to discuss how a professional woman behaves with other people and what she does with her success and money, it is also worth unpicking the judgements implicit in the concept itself.
Some argue that #girlboss is essentially just a perpetuation of a hierarchy created by White men, into which a woman appears; a #girlboss stands up to the ruthlessness of those around her and seemingly overcomes all of the gender stereotypes imposed upon her, but there are many examples of powerful women being known for apparently ruthless or self-centred behaviours towards their employees and colleagues to emphasise their positions of power. Whilst there is nothing wrong with encouraging a successful hard-working woman as a #girlboss, we should remain careful of the contexts in which we use the word and what we imply.
Similarly, ask someone for a definition of an empowered successful woman and you will likely receive a description of a woman who lives separately from her parents, is married with children, and has a secure, well-paid job. In many ways, this imposes expectations upon women that limit their right to choose their own lifestyle, particularly upon ethnic minority women — who may live in multigenerational households with caring responsibilities for both children and parents, and suffer the consequences of both racial and gender discrimination in education and employment.
The expectation of a constant ‘grind’ also results in an enormous amount of pressure on women, who must seemingly silently overcome all obstacles in a very White-male-dominated world whilst overcoming many obstacles that men do not have — such as less pay for the same work, discrimination, and balancing a job with childcare. Minority women face an intersectionality of additional hurdles of not only being more likely to have unstable jobs or poor working conditions, but also the internalisation of microaggressions that make them less likely to speak up when they are being wronged — choosing to ‘suffer in silence’ rather than risk the emotional impact of once more being disregarded or gaslighted.
COVID-19 and the multiple extended lockdowns have exposed how, fundamentally, women still exist in a patriarchal society with many of the same stereotypes with which their mothers and grandmothers had to contend. Traditionally doing most of the household chores — including grocery shopping which occasionally proved to be a serious ordeal with the consequences of panic buying — and taking responsibility for most of the childcare, which now involves home-schooling, many women simply did not have the time and energy to manage everything and suffered from burnout.
The pandemic has also revealed an interesting hypocritical juxtaposition of long-standing Islamophobic attitudes against Muslim women wearing headscarves and people wearing face masks or other face coverings for safety. Some Muslim women have found that they face less judgement for their choice of dress, which is indeed a positive, but COVID-19 has shown us that there fundamentally is no justification for perceiving a person with most — or even just part — of their face covered as dangerous.
The right of women to wear revealing clothing if they so wish without judgement or suggestions that they are inviting assault has unfortunately been co-opted to use against women who choose to dress more conservatively. This is particularly obvious in the Western — if not ethnocentric — paternalistic attitude held by some suggesting that Muslim women are being oppressed by headscarves, which therefore necessitates burqa bans, when instead they are by and large freely chosen expressions of religious identity. There is no reason to impose judgements upon women’s sartorial choices simply because the mainstream has generally moved in the opposite direction.
Feminism has made great strides towards gender equality and increased liberty for women, but we must be wary of entrenching any monolithic conceptions of a ‘free’ or ‘successful’ woman, as perpetuating stereotypes risks simply creating more unattainable standards to which women are held.
At JAN Trust, we work to empower marginalised minority women to reach their full potential and reintegrate into society however they wish. Our beneficiaries — many of whom are Muslim women who suffer from Islamophobic abuse — may not be successful in the ‘conventional’ sense but we see them as great successes in their own right for surviving and choosing to seek assistance to improve their lives. We take a fundamentally holistic approach to our work, so we believe that, as feminists, we do not need to agree with other women’s personal choices to empower them to be free to make their own decisions without judgement.