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Is feminism outdated?

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It was only in 1978 that Canadian flight attendants (at the time, entirely female) won the right to continue working after they married or passed 32 years of age.

Consider for a moment the reality of a job in which being unmarried and under 32 were requirements, along with maintaining a certain weight and appearance. The primary qualification for the job was physical attractiveness, and changing the rules of employment represented a significant shift: Women could not officially be hired and fired on the basis of appearance. Their value as employees had to be measured by ability.

March 8 is celebrated in many countries as International Women's Day and provides an opportunity to reflect on the history of women's struggles and contributions.

Yet the commitment to women's rights, usually called feminism, seems to be viewed as outdated. In a CBC interview on Sept. 28, actress Kim Cattrall -- famous for playing Samantha Jones in Sex and the City -- told host Jian Ghomeshi we live in the "post-feminist" era.

Cattrall was echoing a widely held sentiment among younger women. They are more likely to think of feminism as belonging in a history course, or at best as relevant to women in more benighted corners of the planet.

True, second-class citizenship is the status "enjoyed" by millions of women in many countries -- whether officially under state laws, or more frequently, in demeaning social customs. But have Canadian women really achieved equality beyond the letter of the law?

The RCMP has employed women since 1974, but it was only last November that a number of female officers came forward with accounts of years of sexual harassment on the job. The freedom to work as police officers did not mean they were treated like other members of the force. Women have access to higher education, but men with doctoral degrees are twice as likely to hold tenure positions.

Perhaps the most obvious gap is in political representation. As of 2011 in Canada, women hold 24.8 per cent of the seats in Parliament. That puts us behind Uganda (35 per cent) and even Afghanistan (27.7 per cent). It seems we don't practise gender equality so well at home.

Consider the images of women that leap out from the front pages of popular magazines -- or the way they appear in music videos. Women in movies, on TV, or in video games are much more likely than men to be dressed in revealing clothing or portrayed in ways that emphasize their sexual appeal. It is not enough to be able to sing: To become successful in the world of popular music, a woman has to sell herself as a sex object as well. From Madonna to Rihanna, a sexual image is at least as important as their sound -- perhaps much more.

The sexualization of women and girls begins early. Underwear and bathing suits for prepubescent girls might now include padded "bras." Makeup for pre-teens is no longer uncommon.

Girls learn quickly their cup size is more important than their intelligence. We don't seem to grow out of it either, as the burgeoning cosmetic surgery industry reveals. The message is clear: Physical attractiveness is the measure of a woman's value.

Consider the fact we have grey-haired male news anchors like Peter Mansbridge, but female anchors are usually much younger -- or doing their best to fake it. It is the difference between being respected for ability rather than appearance.

A 2007 study by the American Psychological Association on the sexualization of girls documents that popular magazines consistently encourage girls to focus on becoming objects of desire for males. Recent television shows like Toddlers and Tiaras feature girls as young as three competing in beauty pageants, complete with fake eyelashes and padded "breasts."

Getting out of this mindset was supposed to be what feminism was about. The idea women were not simply sexual objects or useful domestic labour took decades of struggle to gain ground. Women have ideas and ambitions worth valuing on their own terms. Yet today, feminists are parodied as shrill and angry females who hate men, and are always overreacting to "harmless" behaviour.

Empowerment in the post-feminist era is supposedly about being sexually available and uninhibited. Perhaps that was the ideal of female behaviour airlines implied when they required their flight attendants to be attractive and unmarried (therefore "available"). It is not surprising then that Pan Am, a new television series about flight attendants in the days before 1978, has achieved popularity. Perhaps we haven't come so far after all.

Eva Sajoo is a research associate with the centre for the comparative study of Muslim societies and cultures at Simon Fraser University.

--Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 8, 2012 A10

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