Ch. 23: Final comments on my discovery of the oppression of policing

Is there any point, then, to asking what feminism is? Given thecontroversies over the term and the politics of circumscribing theboundaries of a social movement, it is sometimes tempting to thinkthat the best we can do is to articulate a set of disjuncts thatcapture a range of feminist beliefs. However, at the same time it canbe both intellectually and politically valuable to have a schematicframework that enables us to map at least some of our points ofagreement and disagreement. We'll begin here by considering some ofthe basic elements of feminism as a political position or set ofbeliefs. For a survey of different philosophical approaches tofeminism, see “Feminism, approaches to”.

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Ancient China’s highest goddess, Hsi Huang Mu (Queen Mother of the West), found in the classic tale Journey to the West, also expresses aspects of yin/yang beliefs. As yin, this goddess is compassionate, promising immortality; as yang, she is a force who had the power to disrupt the cosmic yin/yang harmony. This pervasive fear that women could bring chaos by upsetting the cosmic harmony was an obstacle for women who aspired to male political leadership. Those who succeeded were accused of breaking one of nature’s laws, of becoming “like a hen crowing.” Years after her reign, this derogatory term was applied to China’s only female emperor, (Tang dynasty, 625-705 C.E.).

, Princeton University Press, 1990.

Fear of poverty keeps many Muslim women locked in bad marriages, as does the prospect of losing their children. Typically, fathers win custody of boys over the age of six and girls after the onset of puberty. Maryam, an Iranian woman, says she has stayed married for 20 years to a philandering opium addict she does not love because she fears losing guardianship of her teenage daughter. "Islam supposedly gives me the right to divorce," she says. "But what about my rights afterward?"

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An alternative, however, would be to grant that in practice unityamong feminists cannot be taken for granted, but to begin with atheoretical common-ground among feminist views that does not assumethat sexism appears in the same form or for the same reasons in allcontexts. We saw above that one promising strategy for distinguishingsexism from racism, classism, and other forms of injustice is to focuson the idea that if an individual is suffering sexist oppression, thenan important part of the explanation why she is subject to theinjustice is that she is or appears to be a woman. This includes casesin which women as a group are explicitly targeted by a policy or apractice, but also includes cases where the policy or practice affectswomen due to a history of sexism, even if they are not explicitlytargeted. For example, if women are deprived an education and so are,on the whole, illiterate. And if under these circumstances only thosewho are literate are entitled to vote. Then we can say that women as agroup are being disenfranchised and that this is a form of sexistoppression because part of the explanation of why women cannot vote isthat they are women, and women are deprived an education. Thecommonality among the cases is to be found in the role of gender inthe explanation of the injustice rather than the specific form theinjustice takes. Building on this we could unify a broad range offeminist views by seeing them as committed to the (very abstract)claims that:

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Family law in Islamic countries generally follows the prescriptions of scripture. This is so even in a country like Egypt, where much of the legal code has been secularized. In Islam, women can have only one spouse, while men are permitted four. The legal age for girls to marry tends to be very young. Muhammad's favorite wife, A'isha, according to her biographer, was six when they wed, nine when the marriage was consummated. In Iran the legal age for marriage is nine for girls, 14 for boys. The law has occasionally been exploited by pedophiles, who marry poor young girls from the provinces, use and then abandon them. In 2000 the Iranian Parliament voted to raise the minimum age for girls to 14, but this year, a legislative oversight body dominated by traditional clerics vetoed the move. An attempt by conservatives to abolish Yemen's legal minimum age of 15 for girls failed, but local experts say it is rarely enforced anyway. (The onset of puberty is considered an appropriate time for a marriage to be consummated.)

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In the Song dynasty (960-1279 C.E), a reinterpretation of Confucian teaching called NeoConfucianism stratified the position of women even more. Augmented by ideas of wife fidelity and husband worship brought by the Mongols, NeoConfucian beliefs led to the egregious practices of footbinding, insistence on widow chastity, and the selling of unwanted daughters. Although footbinding illustrates the perceived need to limit female mobility, the practice did not appear until the Song Dynasty and was not universally followed. Women of most ethnic minorities, including Hakka and Manchu women, did not practice it, nor did some peasants who had to work in the fields, nor did women in Japan.