What Went Wrong? Feminism and Freedom from the Prison of Gender Roles

By Gross, Rita M. | Cross Currents, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

What Went Wrong? Feminism and Freedom from the Prison of Gender Roles


Gross, Rita M., Cross Currents


In his novel The Town Beyond the Wall, Elie Wiesel tells the story of a time when God and humans changed places and the human, now God, refused to revert to the original order. But after infinite amounts of time, "The past for one, and the present for the other, were too heavy to be borne." He continues, "As the liberation of the one was bound to the liberation of the other, they renewed the dialogue whose echoes come to us in the night, charged with hatred, with remorse, and most of all with infinite yearning. (1)

After thirty years of feminism, I look at the society in which I live. What has gone wrong? I ask myself. Though I wouldn't want to return to the situation women were placed in before this current feminist movement, it is also clear to me that many conditions of our lives have gotten worse, not better, since the onset of feminism. After thirty years of feminism, the culture is much speedier, much more materialistic, competitive, and aggressive. More people work longer hours in more isolating and alienating conditions and friendship has become a major casualty of our lifestyle; no one has time for it. Women participate in this mad materialistic dash completely, fully. Women can do anything men can do. We can earn high salaries, work sixty or eighty hours a week, fly military airplanes, fight in the army with men. Sometimes it seems that all feminism has gotten us is that now women can be "men" too, can do just about everything that was once defined as the male gender role. But what about the virtues that go wi th what was once defined as the female gender role? Who takes care of them? Instead of freedom from the prison of gender roles, we have gained freedom from both the virtues and the defects of the female gender role while we-- both women and men as well as the entire culture--have become ever more enamored of the male gender role--and a fairly unsatisfying version of that role.

One day some years ago, as I contemplated my frustration with this situation, the phrase "the liberation of the one is bound to the liberation of the other" seared itself into my consciousness. It expresses very beautifully a Mahayana understanding of emptiness and interdependence. The whole Bodhisattva path is built on the insight that if any one person is not free, then no one is free, that individual liberation is impossible. Either women and men are both free of the prison of gender roles or neither is free. That realization is followed by the recognition that dialogue, however painful it maybe, is the only way out.

I now use the word "feminism" less and less, not because I have given up on its ideals but because at present it seems better skillful means to use other words to convey its message. Nevertheless, my definition of feminism has remained the same for many years--"freedom from the prison of gender roles." I contend that most of the unnecessary suffering in human life, the suffering due to clinging, aggression, and bewilderment rather to birth, aging, sickness, and death, is due to the prison of gender roles, which is why freedom from that prison, not new reformed gender roles, is what we need. Clearly, my proposed definition of feminism is gender neutral and pertains to men as much as it does to women, but that vision has not been pursued in the same way by men as it has by women. Therefore, since liberation for all has not been achieved, liberation is quite limited. It is time to renew, or perhaps to start, a real dialogue about the prison of gender roles in which we discuss the reality that both the male and f emale gender roles are imprisoning and ask what we can do to free ourselves as a culture from an obsolete and dysfunctional definition of the male gender role that has become dangerous to human survival even as it has become more entrenched as a cultural ideal for both men and women.

However, I most adamantly am not advocating that the human variety which expresses itself in varying and multiple concepts of masculine and feminine gender be replaced by a monolithic unisexual human norm. …

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