An 'Implicit' Battle: Women in the 21st Century

by Vanessa Smiley | 1/24/18 2:25am

The 21st century woman. Strong, fierce, relentless. She no longer has to embrace docility and softness as the markers of femininity. She no longer has to confine her identity to the confines of domesticity ­— the workforce awaits her with open arms. In fact, even her body has become her own: she can flaunt it outside the context of marriage and for purposes other than reproduction ...

In theory. 

Yes, the 21st century woman has entered the corporate world. Yes, the 21st century woman may not face overt checks on her freedom. However, the same societal norms and beliefs that once denied women the right to vote have not vanished. They have merely assumed a different form, intangible, implicit, yet no less suffocating, oppressing women as ideologies that package themselves as progressive and become entrenched through modes of self-discipline and self-surveillance. 

Mila Escajadillo ’21, who spent most of her childhood in Latin America and her last two years of high school in Connecticut, intuits the implicit nature of 21st century pressures. 

“In theory, it’s all available to me,” Escajadillo said. “I don’t think anyone would stop me from interacting with certain people or taking on a certain job because I’m a woman, but I think there definitely could be situations where my gender could inhibit me from doing certain things ... Someone may not choose me for some job based on an unconscious prejudice.”

Our culture has defined the categories of “male” and “female” and with this expects people to embrace the gender binary as an inevitable reality. Yet, the same culture that categorizes people on the basis of gender trumpets equality regardless of gender. “Women can do anything men can do”  has become part of our social script, reflexive but prosaic. Ironic really: categories presuppose difference, equality presupposes sameness.

For Deborah Feifer ’21 this irony has paved the way for unspoken prejudice, her passion for women’s rights stemming from personal encounters with inequality. 

“Technically, yes, I have the freedom to do most things,” she said. “In theory, anything a man can do I can do too, but I’m going to be judged for it in a way that a man wouldn’t be ... Not in a fair way, because we usually get the shorter end of the stick on that one.”

Inequality, then, is embedded in norms and expectations that in turn manifest themselves as stares, as whispers and side-comments, as the prejudice conveyed in a single gesture. Women today must therefore fight the battle for equality on a new “implicit” terrain, affirming their worth not through violence but through an equally-charged counter-gesture. 

“I grew up very privileged,” Feifer said. “I went to a Connecticut prep school, and in many ways Dartmouth is just an extension of that. I was always encouraged to do the things that I wanted to do.” 

However, Feifer’s previlege did not eliminate an unspoken bias against women. 

“There were situations where I was the only girl in science and math classes,” Feifer said. “Sometimes you feel like you have to prove yourself in a way that other people don’t have to.” 

For Feifer, this counter-gesture meant proving that her abilities equaled those of her male counterparts.

Escajadillo echoes Feifer’s sentiments. 

“I’m in a privileged enough situation that I’m not disenfranchised [for] being a women or [for] my socioeconomic status,” Escajadillo said. “But I can imagine in the future that I’ll definitely encounter them. And I’ve definitely been in situations where I’m aware that I’m the only girl.”

Zachary Jaynes ’21, who served as a U.S Army Ranger before coming to Dartmouth, said he witnessed gendered inequality first hand. 

“My unit in the army was one of the last all-male units so we had this whole debate: should women be allowed in special operations? Would women be able to do the same mission, physically, emotionally, mentally?” he said.

Despite these discussions, “women weren’t allowed to do [the] job,” he said. 

Though it’s safe to assume that most women at Dartmouth are not pursuing a combat role in the army, their challenge is no less formidable. Sure, Escajadillo and Feifer did not have to march the streets in pursuit of freedom and equality, nor did they have to remain voiceless as their male counterparts took the stage, but they did have to prove their worth and capabilities in ways unique to women. They did have to endure the pressure of being the only girl in a room — a fact that points to the norms and inequalities that underlie our gender binary.

Unfortunately, this binary has not only entangled 21st century women in an ideological battle that unfolds at the implicit level but also imposed a newfound pressure on women — to both be and do it all.

“I think having it all is different for any woman,” Escajadillo said. “Someone may feel like they have it all when they have a lovely family, and that doesn’t mean that they aren’t feminist or that they aren’t strong. But I also think that women who forego that by trying to make it big in their job can absolutely have it all. I think that a balance exists but it’s so hard to achieve. You have to make sacrifices, you have to make compromises.”

Feifer expressed a similar feeling. 

“I think it’s impossible to have it all, even though everyone is constantly trying to reach that,” she said. “It’s okay for women to say, ‘I want to focus on this or that,’ but there’s always the fear of being judged by the rest of society.” 

She points to the double bind that women today find themselves in. 

“If you’re only pursuing your career then all of a sudden you are cold and unfeeling,” she said. “But if you are only with your family, other people will judge you. Other women will judge you and say you aren’t motivated at all.”

Categories, by their very nature, preserve stereotypes — among these the image of women as loving wives and doting mothers. Yet, the 21st century has introduced a new expectation: women should “make it big” in the working world. The result? Women must know how to conform to traditional stereotypes of femininity while keeping pace with the demands of the 21st century. They must be caring and aggressive, breadwinners and caretakers, and a failure to fulfill both roles will, as Feifer remarks, provoke criticism from women themselves.

The pressure women put on each other has extended to matters of body image. Although Escajadillo acknowledges that there is evidence that society is progressing with the birth of initiatives such as the body positive movement, society still has ways to go. 

“A lot of women put the pressure on each other, more so than men put it on women,” she said. “I put that pressure on myself. My mom, my sisters and other women who are important in my life also put it on themselves.”

Feifer believes that this phenomenon finds its origins in the male gaze. 

“I think that it originated in the ways men would portray women in the media and in magazines, but it has come to the point where women are enforcing those standards,” she said.

It appears as if women have internalized the male attention to such an extent that they now embrace the size-0, toned-abs body ideals as their own, achieved through calorie counting, calculated clothing choices and other modes of self-discipline. This adds a new dimension to the fight for equality in the 21st century: the battle is not just implicit — it is inward, ingrained into the norms and standards to which women hold themselves and other women accountable.

Reframe.

The 21st century woman: strong enough to brave the workforce, but docile enough to nurture children. Appreciative of her freedom, yet embroiled in a pantomimic war of gestures and counter-gestures. Free (seemingly) from the restraints of society, but enslaved to her own.