Dress for Success or Change the Definition of Success?

on 08/16/2015 - 10:46 am

by Quenby Wilcox

In the past years, one of the hardest things to deal with during my divorce has been the attitude – the attitude, as one woman put it – that stay-at-home moms should be ashamed of staying home to raise children and not gone out and gotten ‘real’ jobs. As I have learned the hard way, the shame game for women has not disappeared; the shoe has just been put on the other foot.

The idea that a woman can only be ‘successful’ and ‘valuable’ in her role as an employee, a revenue-generating source for her family and the economy, is so ingrained in western cultures and mentalities that this premise is not even questioned. The idea that a woman might be of social worth, possess an identity, and totally fulfilled in her role as a mother, wife, family-manager, and all of the jobs that go with them – and very happy not being part of ‘the rat race’ – is totally foreign to the politically-correct mindset of today. 

After all, how do societies judge a person’s worth or value? Is it determined by what we do? Or how much we are paid to do it? Unfortunately, in terms of political expediency, and within the political arena, the answer is crystal clear; you are as valuable as your bank account is big -- no bones about it.

While this attitude has its roots in western feudalism and industrialized societies, it has been perpetuated – rather than challenged – by the feminist movement of the past 50 years.  As Ellen Goodman wrote in the Washington Post in 1980: –

“Through the 1970’s, we argued about what kind of equality we wanted. Did we want equal access to the same system or the power to change it? Can you change the system only by becoming a part of it? Once you are in it, does it change you instead?

We discovered that it is easier to fit in than to restructure. When the “male” standard is regarded as the “higher” one, the one with the most tangible rewards, it is easier for women to reach “up” than to convince men of the virtues of simultaneously reaching “down.”

It has proved simpler – though not simple, God knows – for women to begin traveling traditional (male) routes than to change those routes. It is simpler to dress for success than to change the definition of success…” 

The feminist movement of the past decades, all too willingly jumped on the proverbial wagon of political expediency, perpetuating and encouraging a dysfunctional system, and the social norms which sustain its dysfunctionality, by concentrating almost exclusively on rights that enable and empower women to work outside of the home (reproductive and labor rights). But, amongst all of the rhetoric, speeches and campaigns, the movement has remained all too silent on women’s rights within the home and marriage – and the rampant violation of those rights within the courts and societies at large.

In 1981, Betty Friedan in her book, The Second Stage, was already questioning the path of the feminist movement, warning of the dangers that lay ahead. 

“There is a danger today in feminist rhetoric, rigidified in reaction against the past, harping on the same old problems in the same old way, leaving unsaid what’s really bothering women and men in and beyond the new urgencies of personal economic survival. For these is a real backlash against the equality and the personhood of women – in America, as in Islam and the Vatican…            

Dangerous reactionary forces are playing to those unadmitted fears and yearnings with the aim of wiping out the gains of equality, turning women back to the old dependence, silencing women’s new voice and stifling women’s active energy that threatens their own power in ways we do not yet clearly understand. In the name of the family, they would destroy the new equality that gives the family strength to resist dehumanizing forces that are emerging in the seeming impotence of capitalist America, in the resurgence of fundamentalist religion, in neofascism...

We must ask new questions or we could lose, in the economic and emotional turbulence, the measure of equality that is essential to strengthen human life – and the future of the family.”

The forewarnings of Friedan have gone largely unheeded for the past 30 years, and in part are responsible for the present state of affairs in economies around the world. It is high time that women and the women’s rights movement move beyond their fixation with women filling men’s shoes and dressing for success in the work-force, and concentrate on remaking and redefining the rules of the game – a game which for centuries entrapped us all, men and women, in a world built on stratified social roles, oppression, domination, corruption, prejudice, and chaos. 

Article originally posted on Quenby Wilcox's blog 'Having It All' on Womenalia.com