09 March 2013

Gender equality. Right here, right now?

I originally wanted to post this on the 8th of March, being International Women's Day, but something known as 'real life' got in way. Anyway, I would like to grab the occasion to take a look at how all that feminism* and gender equality is working out. Right here, right now. I have talked about it before, in Spain, and I gave an overview of the situation on the streets of Denmark. But really, where are we?

Denmark is, according to studies the 7th best place in the world to be a woman. By simple logic, everybody can't be number 1, so I guess that's good, and even on Iceland, there are men who hate women. I wonder if the Icelandic tumblr reflects a continuation or a backlash? A lack of communication? In USA feminists are aka “evil femi-nazis” – I don't think that's a general opinion over here, thank goodness (and that our parents taught us better!)

Quantitative studies on access to studies, maternal healthcare etc. etc. are all well and good, yet they're only part of the picture. What about the small actions in everyday life? On to my anecdotal evidence! ('Cause my life is so exciting.)

Exhibit A: Door-holding

This is a typical manifestation of chivalry, and at the same time sort of a symbol of a feminist position of don't-treat-me-like-a-porcelain-doll. I am personally very clearly positioned on this. I am not made of porcelain. Don't treat me as if I were. I am fully capable of opening a door. And I can't stand it when people go all “must hold door for the lady” and in their eagerness to hold it open end up standing right there in the door so as to block passage both for the lady and for everyone else. Move it, buddy.
However, this does not mean that I'm against the practice of holding doors for others as such. If seven people have to go through the same door, it is by far easiest if one person does door duty and lets the others through. Same thing about holding the door for the next person so person can grab it and not get it in person's face. It's really just about basic human decency. My point is that it should not be gendered; do it because I'm a person, not because I'm a girl.
This point seems to be lost to many people. In Denmark it seems to have been interpreted as “must not hold door for female person at any cost so as not to offend her”. (Polite foreign men tell stories about women freaking out when they offer to carry her groceries out of decency. So maybe this idea comes from somewhere? Heh.) While the respect for my door-opening capabilities is admirable, there's a reason why the idea not strictly efficient. Take last summer. I was visiting a friend and helped her carry stuff from the basement upstairs. There I was, walking with two chairs, a box and a bag, needing to open a door with a key while not dropping anything. A young man waited respectfully behind me, while I struggled with this. It was only when I was simultaneously using my elbow and my head to not have the door slamming into me that he intervened with his two free arms and helped me out, holding the door open for the moment I needed. He was clearly trying not to offend me, and I appreciate that. It was just gender equality gone one step too far, or rather, being misunderstood. My femaleness doesn't mean you're not allowed to help me at all, ever – just treat me like you would any other normal person, and help when needed and don't when not.

Exhibit B: Giving up your seat for a lady

Fast forward to New Year's Eve, late at night. I'm sitting with a group of (male) friends waiting for the night bus, and at some point declare my need to stand so as not to puke (too much alcohol does that to you.. ahem). My friends very quickly get me on my feet and as I stand and they sit, random young woman comes over and starts criticising their lack of gentlemanly behaviour for letting me stand while they're sitting. We tell her to get lost and I loudly declare my not being made of porcelain while her friends whisk her away.
While I naturally think me & friends did well in treating me as any of them, I think the young woman had profoundly gotten something wrong. She wanted them to treat me with respect and seemed to think that gender equality does not include that girls get to stand, too. With freedom comes responsibility. And why on earth did 'treating people properly' suddenly become about reversing to the gender roles our foremothers struggled to get us rid of? Luckily, it seems to be getting less of an issue here.

Exhibit C: Paying for drinks

A late Friday night I was cruising through the centre with a friend and our bikes (walking, not biking – 1. traffic law, 2. it's important for the story). At some point we're stopped by some young men, one of whom starts hitting obviously on my friend. It's cold and we were going somewhere and this is boring, so I cut to the chase and tell him she has a boyfriend so he should just forget about it. My friend politely confirms the information, and next thing we know he freaks out. He starts shouting like crazy and walks down the street away from us, yelling something long the lines of “Fuck you! I would have paid your drinks, but you obviously don't care, fuck you. You could have gotten a free night out, but since you don't want to, fuck you!” Being the polite, yet empowered, person I am, I yell back, in essence, “Fuck you! We pay our own drinks!” (Kind of like this!)
Now, that a drunk guy should start yelling at strangers in the street doesn't surprise me particularly. Male privilege and such. But why the “I would have paid your drinks” part? I mean, what? People I would not ever want to meet seem to think that paying a drink for a woman means she owes you a sexual favour – was something similar at play here? (That would be messed up, I would like to think better of people.) Paying drinks apparently still means taking care of the lady, and is apparently still expected? Theory of a friend: paying drinks shows you have money, so you're more of a man, so rejection of drinks = rejection of manhood. I have a feeling that this guy was not aiming at respecting our personal economy and self-determination, and was expressing a backlash. Too many independent women around here.
The problem with which I fail too see. Is it not nicer for you, too, if people around you take care of themselves so you don't have to? Then again, even if symbolic power carries responsibility (and the cost of drinks), ultimately humans strive power, or rather, are taught to strive it. Here is an excellent breakdown of what this guy is likely used to, and I would argue that the high heels extend to drinks. Which is then used to keep up his pride in the face of the symbolic rejection of his manhood.

Exhibit D: High heels

They're just all over the place. And getting higher. It pains me to see 16 year old girls stumble around in them because “that's what grown up women do”; because why is hurting your feet still what adult women do? This really needs a separate post [upcoming!]

But again, apart from maybe the heels, these are small things. They stand out because they're the worst that happens when dealing with Denmark. I dare say tolerance has come a long way when I can show up for class in brown pants, green t-shirt, shoes with different-coloured shoelaces, different earrings and green mascara and still be taken seriously. I worry not for me, and while I do worry for Denmark, I have faith that my fellow Danettes can deal with it (we just need to get it together).

The entire 8th of March circus had me worrying about something else, though. You see, here, it's a day of fight. It's the day we as women go to the barricades and ask for our right to vote, our free abortion, our equal pay for equal work.
In other places, it's just Women's Day. Celebrate the women around you (as if they were not women and important the rest of the year?) and keep them happy with this. Facebook was a genuine flood of pictures of flowers and teddybears and cute rabbits yesterday – I was more or less spared, because people know me and what reaction to expect, but my goodness. Such stereotyped so-called feminine symbols. (Ok, I did receive a photo of red roses all over a white bed, see the illustration for the post, but the sender evidently has no idea who he's dealing with. Let's just say it will not happen again.)

As I see it, it comes down to this, and I would like this to be a more or less standard answer: “Don't give me flowers. Give me equal rights.” And I intend to celebrate my gains any day on the year by going out there and pay my own drinks.

*This term is being used with a certain reluctance. Post explaining why is on its way.


  1. I do agree with pretty much everything taht you say in the post, yet I need to defend the tradition of giving flowers for the Women's day and why I actually do appreciate it (only flowers and candy, I do not understand the purpose of teddy bears or pink elephants). Well in the Soviet Union (later years) Women's day was rather perceived as a day to break up with the routine every-day life and work (especially work) where all men and all women looked similar (teher were simply no nice clothed around) and called each other comrades, or didn't notice each other at all. During that day it was time to appreciate things you saw around you, notice taht there were women in your collective, and call women something else than a comrade (maybe just Maria). Receiving flowers made your day a bit nicer. And of course there was also a Men's day, that was celebrated quite similarly, and yes, women could also bring flowers to a man. Well taht was then, and now even in Estonia Women's day has changed and only flowers have remained. I still love to get flowers, I like flowers in general, they make a shitty day much better, so if once in a year I get flowers I am happy. So for me that distant logic is still working. Additionally most of the time I wear jeans and a T-shirt, talk to people without noticing their gender, and my own gender (I think that's how it should be), so if one day I get flowers while looking not attractive at all, it feels actually nice. I don't think that denying gender would be the way to go either, there must be equality, yet there must also be a more of a mystical day, when you get flowers and maybe take a time to reflect on the roles of gender. Accepting a flower on a women's day should be like accepting a drink from a friend who's offering it without any implications of what so ever.

  2. Being in Italy these days gives me the chance to make some comparison between the situation here and the one you describe.
    Here we're no doubt at the give-a-flower-women's-day (yellow mimosa is the choice), and only few people think about any fight for gender equality on this day. Italy is 82nd in the ranking you mention, any connection?

    I think the point you make about chivalry and the first two anecdotes you report are quite interesting: it looks like, at least in Denmark and in places that are high enough on that ranking, we are stuck somewhere between chivalry and the attempt of getting over it but maybe not in the right way. I find it actually a bit extreme that in anecdote one you write that you appreciated that the guy didn't hold the door not to be offensive. Wasn't he actually showing that he misunderstood the issue and didn't really know how to handle the situation, when he switched off any action (and even common sense) to avoid doing something that might have appeared offensive?
    The interesting thing is that at the same time other people would like to see chivalry, as in the second anecdote, maybe because they grew up with it and they see it traditionally as something nice and needed/required.

    I like holding doors, and I like when people hold doors for me. This goes regardless of the gender of the other person involved. I live in a building with a bike-basement, and to bring your bike there you need to enter the main door. To do this one needs one hand to turn the key, one to hold the bike, and at this point people usually run out of hands, so they have to push the door with a shoulder or maybe with their bike. It's a slightly tricky sequence of actions, so, if I don't have my bike with me and I'm trying to enter this door at the same time of a person who is pushing a bike, I hold the door to let him or her pass. It's simply the way to make the process faster for everybody, besides being a nice action towards another human being, which can potentially improve by a tiny bit the quality of the day for both. I don't really care if the other person is a guy or a girl when I do this, and I'm very happy when the roles are switched and somebody holds the door for me and my bike.
    In my naiveness I've never really considered that women might be offended by this kind of action, and I hope this never was the case. But I see the general issue and how this action could be seen as unsolicited chivalry after reading your post. But the point is that sometimes chivalry gets mixed up with general niceness (or even common sense). There is also another aspect: sometimes the other person doesn't really need any help, and getting assistance is just annoying. For instance, I find it quite annoying when I'm parking a car and somebody who's walking by (yes, almost always a man) feels the urge to help by waving hands to direct me. Relax buddy, I (think I) know what I'm doing.

    So now we get to a question: how do we get over all this chivalry mess, without becoming so scared of making a nice polite action towards another human being who seems to need it, even in the case this is a woman? I think the result we might aim for in the long run would be a society where everybody can be nice and polite to others, irrespectively of gender or other factors.

  3. I see you like the picture :) Have a great week, my dear and lots of fun! ;-) N. V.

  4. But the sort of celebration you talk about Helika doesn't change anything. It's like mothers or fathers day. It doesn't call for reflection, it doesn't do anything. It doesn't make a difference. Give me equal pay and I'll buy my own flowers.

    The car parking problem you talk about Paolo - I've had my licence for about seven years and that has never ever happened to me. It must be a "foreign" phenomenon, which is interesting. But I agree that it seems to be some sort of macho trip.

    Even though we obviously have some way to go foreign men have said things that have absolutely shocked me like "Are women allowed to weld?" Are you kidding me?? And a friend of mine said "But theres no one here to help me move it" with me in the room! Not that Danish men and women don't say crazy things. In Turkey a man working at a spa asked me "How can I help my darling?" -?!- to which I answered "I don't know but you can help ME by.." It's disrespectful. (A bit like "my dear" *cough*)

  5. Thanks for comments to everybody.
    Again, Helika, I see your point, and sometimes it only takes a tiny thing to make someone's day. My objection is to the ritualisation of it, as if giving flowers this one day means you get to treat people badly the rest of the year (see here for a view from Russia: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-03-09/russias-women-want-more/4563104) Moreover, I heard stories from Russia that there these days are used for stereotypisation, so obv. it differs in different places. I would say, if you want to make someone's day with flowers, do it any day, not this particular day, because that gives it less meaning, rather than more. The mother of a friend of mine said, "I'm a women every day of the year, not just today" in refusing flowers from someone, and I think she was spot on.

    Thanks, Paolo, for the point about ranking. I was thinking of saying something similar (but sticking to the point etc.) I DO think there's a connection, a Lithuanian friend even stated it explicitly; it's as if a great passivity is produced by this haze of flowers and teddybears.

    I think I was not clear enough in my door-speech, though. I meant to say that I appreciate his wish for being respectful, not that I think he did in fact show it adequately. Inaction is not always respectful, and that needs to be addressed more clearly in society in general.
    Your doorholding illustrates more or less where I would want us to arrive. No one would likely consider it offensive that you help them with the door when they have a bike; it's rather if you go out of your way to run back and hold it open because someone is carrying a grocery bag, and then expect them to be thankful because you're standing in their way. Seriously, people can normally handle their own doors in these cases, so it's all about the situation.
    To answer your final question, I think a simple step would be: talk about it. People offend you inadvertedly? Let them know. Someone says you offended them? Relax and take note. It oughtn't be rocket science.
    It's like what Marie says. Tell people when they're saying stupid things, and fight back against the porcelain-treatment. It only gets better through a million tiny steps

  6. På et natløb, hvor vi skulle gå enkeltvis gennem nogle tætte buske,sagde min spejderven engang "Pigerne først, så kan I fjerne edderkoppespindene"