A Piece by Natalie Doan-Dunnum
Since 1986, March has been declared as National Women’s History Month, where we honor the achievements of women. Women have accomplished a multitude of things in history that range from uncovering extraordinary discoveries in science, becoming Olympic athletes, to becoming activists that have inspired and led entire movements that have shaped the face of society. Feminism is the range of movements and ideologies that focus on advocating for women’s rights. However, despite the basis for gender equality, it’s important to understand that the history of feminism in the United States has primarily focused on the struggles of white women and has willfully ignored the oppression of minority women that lack those same privileges. 1920 was the year where only white women gained voting rights whereas Native-American women were not given voting privileges until 1947, Asian-American women in 1952, and finally in 1963, were extended to Black women (source).
In order to fully embrace Women’s History Month, we must celebrate all types of women, as well as all the hardships and adversity women have faced where they were never given the same opportunity as men or were held to a different standard. While we may use March as a time to celebrate the successes of women, it is more critical to understand that oppressive institutions such as the patriarchy are tools maintained by white supremacy. The patriarchy is still deeply rooted into our society when women continue to get paid less in the workplace, when women do not have equal representation in elected positions, when women’s bodies are openly objectified and disenfranchised, and when women are always expected to keep quiet and smile in the face of this open discrimination. In order for positive social change to take full affect with women being equal, individuals must look at interactions on a personal level. For example a common interactions such as: “Smile. You look nice when you smile.”
In many ways, this comment can easily look like a compliment. Smiling is typically a signifier of someone’s happiness or simple amusement but, ultimately, that expression belongs to the individual. So why is it that so many people tell women to smile? Women are constantly being directed to smile, or to cheer up if their expressions betray from the expected norm and show any hint of neutrality as demonstrated in this article published by The Atlantic. This comment is heard in the most mundane instances: walking on the street, or checking out at the grocery stores where a man thinks it’s appropriate to tell a woman, who he has never met, to smile.
There has been a long history of female politicians being nitpicked for not smiling enough, according to CNN, from Nancy Pelosi, Carly Fiorina, and most notably, Hillary Clinton. What do these women have in common? The endeavor to represent and fight for the rights of a body of people, otherwise known as leadership. This right has formerly only been exercised and known to men because of societal gender norms that disenfranchise women from leadership roles. In Hillary Clinton’s case, a researcher explains in a Vox article, that women politicians expect a double bind. A double bind is different from a double standard, meaning there are two mutually exclusive demands, and anything you do to satisfy one violates the other. A woman in power experiences a double bind because the demands of being a woman violates the demands of being a strong leader. Hilary states, “I’ll go to these events and there will be men speaking before me, and they’ll be pounding the message, and screaming about how we need to win the election. And people will love it. And I want to do the same thing. Because I care about this stuff. But I’ve learned that I can’t be quite so passionate in my presentation. I love to wave my arms, but apparently that’s a little bit scary to people. And I can’t yell too much. It comes across as ‘too loud’ or ‘too shrill’ or ‘too this’ or ‘too that.’” Anything but a smile or light laugher automatically categorizes the female in question as too much.
Strangers on the street do not casually tell men to smile or relax because societal standards do not expect men to smile. The issue is how we perceive women as a whole: pleasant, warm, and friendly. There is an emotional labor that comes with being a woman that also seeps into the workplace. Jessica Collett, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, explains to The Guardian, that both men and women are expected to provide some extent of emotional labor, but women are expected to provide extra emotional labor. This is echoed by Robin Simon, a sociology professor at Wake Forest University, who revealed that she was expected to be more emotionally aware and available than her male colleagues. Flight attendants have to sell emotional experiences to customers in order for them to feel safe, therefore, they have to hold back feelings of irritation or anger. Women are always expected to have feminine emotions as well as express them so the context of constantly being nurturing becomes a requirement for every job. Women’s feelings of anger or discomfort are so often times policed by their surroundings despite the fact that their anger can be a justified response. Society expects women to forfeit emotions that deviate from happiness and to always exhibit inviting warmth. Not only are women’s bodies constantly objectified and policed on a day-to-day basis, their emotions have to be curated so that they don’t make men feel uncomfortable. Women lose ownership of their bodies when men catcall them on the street, jeer at women when they don’t respond, and then get absolutely violent when they do stand up for themselves. When their bosses tell them to smile more, when their expressions get reduced to “resting bitch face”, or when their justified anger gets written off as “hysteric,” women lose ownership of their emotions.
Tying these social constraints, for Asian women, it is extremely difficult to navigate this area affecting many aspects of life. If they are not smiling, they are immediately placed into the “Dragon Lady” caricature. The “Dragon Lady” trope carries a negative connotation and is often used to describe Asian women in power who are viewed as a combination of cold, abrasive, and villainous such as Soong Mei-ling or Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu. The broader term “resting bitch face” is constantly thrown around in daily conversations, and although it may be used colloquially in innocent conversations, the problem is that the expression is almost always attached to women. Studies have shown that both men and women exhibit the same contempt-like expression in equal amounts yet women are much more often criticized. Another stereotype that Asian women are thrown into is the “Geisha”, “China Doll”, or “Lotus Flower” archetype. If not the extreme of a “Dragon Lady”, it’s the opposite: passive, docile, obedient, and subservient women. A stereotype dangerous since its “based on western male fantasies, a product of colonial and military powers interwoven with sexual domination, stated by Celeste Fowles Nguyen in Asian American Women Faculty: Stereotypes and Triumphs. This personality type also doesn’t have to give consent and displays “the hard to get” mentality. Often displayed in many past to modern day depiction of Asian women in films, television, and porn. These depictions, both Dragon Ladies, and Lotus Flowers lead to objectification and sexualization.
Why are women always expected to be composed? Why do women have to smile so men don’t feel uncomfortable? When are women allowed to express their own discomfort, or anger when it comes to their own oppression? Which leads to the bigger question of: How can we help and support women?
Today, women are still being discriminated and discredited. Today, Asian-American women still only make $0.85 for a dollar that every white man makes. Today, less than 10% of the Fortune 500 companies are led by female CEOs and the number for women of color is even worse; less than 1%. Today, men are still creating laws and regulations over women’s bodies where they reduce women’s identities to promote their own preconceived notions of reproductive rights. Today, it’s still reported that 1 in 5 women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime. These statistics are figures on paper, but knowing these numbers are alarming considering coworkers, friends, or family members could very well be part of those statistics. It takes men and women from all backgrounds speaking up to these injustices and also stopping to look at our own actions. It’s hard to see oneself part of the problem if violence isn’t perpetrated. Violence and oppression of women starts with small actions such as jokes, and stereotyping, which leads to narrowed, strong beliefs, and then people acting on those beliefs. How often has one witnessed catcalling, but not called out the perpetrator. How often does one witness individuals coercing, pressuring, and taking advantage women in situations, but not say anything?
Women’s History Month has to go beyond merely congratulating all the amazing women in history; it is also a time to reflect and step forward towards gender equality. We, at UNAVSA, have to recognize all of the forms of oppression that intertwine and still occur today in order to dismantle the framework that hold us back, and collectively rebuild one that will restore the agency of all women. We must disrupt the paradigm that forces women to endure social constructs while staying complicit in their own suffering, whether it is from laws or microinteractions. Women’s bodies have always been the centerpieces of political battles, and their emotions have always been invalidated but women should be able to reclaim them as a form of resistance. After all women are human too, with very diverse skills and dynamic experiences that goes beyond a blanket stereotype. UNAVSA hopes all our members reflect on interpersonal interactions, as well as, the major societal shifts all over the world as women continue to fight for equality. April is dedicated as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and we hope to continue to bring awareness to a pressing issue many of our members, and females within our community experience.