Differing Ideals of Feminism

October 8th, 2007

A semester in Ghana shows what U.S. feminism is missing

By Kendra Sundal

I‘ve spent much of my life buying into the role American feminism has designated for women of my generation. I was raised, by both a feminist mother and a feminist father, to believe that a strong woman was one who could compete on an even keel with any man. I was taught that I had a right – perhaps even an obligation – to be an independent and confident woman, as educated, capable, creative, talented, skilled and intellectual as any man I meet. Meanwhile, men, I was told, should be as capable of parenting, cooking and cleaning as any female.

Yet experience has taught me that role I willingly accepted as an American woman is far from universal. A semester in Ghana introduced me to women who were strong and respected yet rejected the American feminist paradigm. While Americans, and possibly American feminists specifically, champion their work towards closing the gender gap, Ghanaian women manage to maintain their femininity while retaining a level of respect that American women rarely find. Nevertheless, Americans, especially women, tend to view African women as oppressed and endangered.

I grew up believing that being a strong woman meant, in a way, being a man. As I got older, it seemed that masculinity – not femininity – was what made you a powerful and capable competitor in the “world of men,” and masculinity meant strength, intellect, common sense, emotional toughness and driving ambition. In all that I did I sought to succeed, and in doing so, exceed the expectations that had been assigned to me as a woman. In turn, I sacrificed many of the stereotypically feminine qualities that I saw as hindrances to my career goals and my desire to be seen as an equal by my male peers.

Most of all, I taught myself to see motherhood as the antipathy to success. While I believed that my grandmother, mother, and sister had all done what they wanted, I also thought that the sacrifice they had made for their children – giving up a high powered, high stress occupation and, more importantly, financial, social, and political independence – was far too great. For years I believed that these three women, who are also three of the most important people in my life, were crazy for giving up their independence for motherhood.

It was Comfort, my first host mother during my semester abroad in Ghana, who taught me what a woman really is: strong, entitled to everything and anything she wants and sometimes more capable of getting it than a man. This capability, however, is not dependent on her ability to compete with men in education or in the business world; instead, the Ghanaian woman is taught how to be resourceful and creative, mastering her own areas of expertise. Every woman in my village had a skill to offer, and they cooperated to make sure all their needs were met. They sold at a discount or bartered when necessary to help each other out while still making money.

By the end of the second week in Ghana I was washing my clothes by hand and sometimes washing others’ because, knowing full well they would likely never use the skill, none of my American classmates wanted to spend their time in Ghana learning to hand wash clothes. I felt amazing pride in my work when I finally was able to make the whites white, and I felt a sense of loss that I had never even considered such tasks before.

Along with the hand washing, I learned to eat with my hands, to wash 30 people’s dishes with water I collected from the well (and, eventually, balanced on my head), to dance and sing with a baby tied to my back, to sew without a pattern and to gossip with the best of them. Never in my life had I experienced the kind of strength that came from being a capable and respected member of such a tightly knit group of women. Now, one of my greatest fears is that I never will find that community again.

Comfort taught me how to do things I had never before known how to do, in part because I had never needed to, but in part because I never wanted to. My disinterest had grown directly from a belief that such feminine activities would somehow weaken my resolve and suggest resignation to domesticity.

My opinions did not spring out of thin air. These degrading views of mothers as somehow less successful, less driven and less capable than their male or female business world counterparts seem to be fairly widespread in American thought. Women as homemakers evoke imagery from the 1950s’ “The Stepford Wives” and their scarily submissive robotic existence. With the Second Wave of feminism came a shedding of that image. Femininity and power, it was assumed, could not go hand in hand. No longer was the housewife a respected position in society (if it ever had been in America).

To be sure, there were and are women who choose to stay home, raise children and pamper their husbands by completing all of the household chores in a timely and organized fashion. Yet these duties have been shunned by feminists as submissive, degrading and self-depreciating. A divide grew between traditionalist women and feminists. No longer could housewives be feminists, because, though equality was still the goal, the terms of equality changed. Women had to become men in order to attain equality.

American thought, including feminism, has tended to support the assumption that the adoption of masculine and aggressive traits by women is the precursor to gender equality. For the most part, American feminism presupposes inherent inequality in domesticity, forcing women who seek equality to abandon “nature and nurture” in exchange for tailored suits and stilettos. In doing so Americans have made a grave error: rather than seeing the value and respect reserved for femininity in some other cultures, Americans see domestic women as sub-human. Today, “traditional” gender roles only exist in America behind closed doors and screened in porches in suburbia.

In Africa, American feminists’ ideals of gender equality have combined with their stereotypes of African women as submissive and oppressed. At times they exploit these ideas in promoting activism and aid programs. Imagine: poor women, wearing little more than rags, helpless to save themselves or their children from starvation, genital mutilation, genocide or AIDS. The imagery is not unfamiliar, and worse, it is fodder for the belief that African women cannot help themselves and are in constant danger, because they are not strong enough to stand up for themselves or speak out for their rights. Shameful and despondent, African women are victims waiting for feminist American women to speak out against genital cutting and to stand up for the rights of African women.

Interestingly enough, these activists rarely stop to consider cultural context. In doing so, they appear to care less about representing the African women they claim to champion and more about spreading a gender ideology and feminist ideology that are not, and should not necessarily be, shared by African women themselves.

Author Martha Grise describes the effects of misrepresentation and culturally insensitive journalism on cross-cultural gender issues, stating that it “exacerbates tensions between Western and African feminists,” and furthermore “encourages clumsy intervention in African affairs, and thus exacerbates Africans’ sense that their culture is under siege and deepens resistance to change.”

Rarely do people who are misunderstood seek to adapt so as to make it easier for outsiders to relate. The case of African identities, specifically in regards to gender, should not be any different. African women have a right to stay silent or speak out, whichever suits their needs best, without being spoken for by Western women who cannot relate to the complexity of African gender relations.

Ghanaian women have self-respect, and are revered by their husbands and children. If a woman is a single mother, the community assists her in raising her child, but they also raise the mother in many ways. Women run the markets, they have credit unions in place, they care for each others’ stores and regulate prices to maintain fair competition. Women look out for one another around men; they discuss health issues; they warn each other about AIDS, STDs and pregnancy; they care for one another’s children and help each other through pregnancy. I witnessed all this during my stay, and it was clear that these were all staple aspects of women’s lives, with or without my presence.

Never have I been so jealous of other women in my entire life, and yet there I was, smack in the middle of various communities of women who all valued their femininity and embraced their womanhood in ways I’d never even considered during my quest for male respect. What about female respect? What about the security and comfort granted by having a community of women who are so capable, so intelligent, so strong that men don’t dare to interfere with their business?

Americans balk at the idea that they have much to learn from the rest of the world, but we have deprived ourselves in our ideas about gender equality. We could be living in a world with women who are three dimensional and valuable and admirable in their femaleness, and with men who are confident in themselves, because they are confident in their female counterparts. There is a give and take that allows for full humanity within both men and women, a kind of humanity we have denied ourselves by turning a complex issue into a black and white one.

Kendra Sundal is a junior politics major who takes her feminism like she takes her coffee. Email her at ksundal[at]ithaca.edu.

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