Saturday, February 23, 2013

Is Feminism Elegant?

When the status of women is uniformly sub-optimal, with exceptions of relatively few women in substantial control of their lives (mostly because they began from privileged vantage-points), one needs to examine the driving forces behind female empowerment with renewed scrutiny. This is not to simply criticize these forces, but rather, to ascertain whether there are inherent limitations and road-blocks built into these efforts, and if so, to re-frame and rectify. The larger purpose of such examination is therefore to arrive at better ways to meet the goal of having the “average woman,” whoever she may be, of whatever ethnicity, education and economic background, have a larger say in what direction she would like her life to go.

The attribute of ‘elegance’ is widely used by disciplines both in the so-called hard and soft sciences to describe their own principles and theories in terms of aesthetics. Elegance as an aesthetic criterion is not trivial, nor superficial, for theories can be summarily dismissed because they are “not elegant.” The physiologist Ian Glynn, who wrote an entire book on the aesthetics of theory, titled Elegance in Science: The Beauty of Simplicity, described elegance as follows, in an interview on Inside Higher Ed: “…elegant proofs or theories or experiments possess most or all of the following features: they are simple, ingenious, concise and persuasive; they often have an unexpected quality, and they are very satisfying….. Perhaps the most surprising member in this list of features is the "unexpected quality"; so let me give an example. When Thomas Henry Huxley read Darwin’s account of his theory of evolution by natural selection his comment was "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!"

What constitutes elegance in a theory? The hallmark of an elegant theory is one that explains the maximum evidence with minimum effort. Newton’s Laws of Motion, for example, explain a wealth of phenomena both on earth and extra-terrestrially by invoking a mere three laws. Good linguistic theories account for grammatical phenomena in all or most of the world’s known or studied languages. In addition, while doing so, they employ the fewest principles or rules. Elegant theories, in other words, have high explanatory power. However, while explaining, they must also be parsimonious. An elegant theory must therefore be compact, yet all-encompassing. Einstein is believed to have said: “The grand aim of all science…is to cover the greatest possible number of empirical facts by logical deductions from the smallest possible number of hypotheses or axioms…”

I have always found a major goal of the feminist movement, namely, the right of women to equal work and pay to be lacking in something fundamental. But defining what it is has been a challenge. Applying aesthetics of theory to feminist ideology is an attempt at unraveling my objections. Let’s consider parsimony and explanatory adequacy.

    In applying the concept of explanatory power to feminist theory, the goal of a good theory would be to have feminist principles that can be applied to the maximum number of members of the group the theory purports to represent. By the average person’s understanding of the term ‘feminism,’ it applies to all women. Therefore, major principles of feminism must aim to be applicable to all women. A useful yardstick is to check if the tenet would be useful to you, your mother and your grandmother, or you, your boss and your household help. If the principle is hard to apply to any one, it suffers from explanatory inadequacy. It has low explanatory power. This inadequacy may be a result of shoddy language, where imprecise terminology and wording exclude certain demographics, or it may be deep-rooted.

The education of women and the rights of women to equal access to gainful employment are worthy goals of the feminist movement. This is not a critique of those goals, but a critique of the value placed on them. It is well established that education and employment are strongly co-related with the preservation of personal freedoms. This applies equally to both men and women. Financial vulnerability is gender-neutral. The point is that while this gender-neutral mode of personal empowerment may improve the status of the individual (man or woman), it is inadequate in raising the overall status of ‘the beleaguered woman.’

    Gainful employment outside the home is portrayed and perceived as the prime modus operandi of female empowerment. Understandably, in a male-dominated world, where the locus of monetary power resides overwhelmingly in the hands of men, it is natural for parity measures to begin with the assumption that if women were equally prevalent and represented in the workforce as men are, there would be fewer gender-based inequities. This assumption may turn out to be accurate. We will only know when the numbers are equally distributed.

In the meantime, the beaten path to gender equality seems to be overwhelmingly focused on following men blindly down the path of monetarily compensated occupations. If having one’s own remuneration guarantees a woman a way to break free of many areas of subordination, (in a world where power, knowledge and money are so intrinsically related), what’s the problem with it?

Let’s look at it in terms of the criteria for theoretical adequacy. Any “good” method of improving the status of women should theoretically work for women of all socio-economic backgrounds, of all races, and for women from both developed and developing countries - much like how a good linguistic theory accounts for the data in all or most known languages. Gainful, remunerative employment would not apply to many of our mothers and most of our grandmothers. It would not apply to cultures that have mutually exclusive gender roles, where the woman assumes the entire burden of domestic tasks. Gainful employment is too specific to a certain section of women from a certain time-period. One could rectify this by proposing many different principles/methods of operation that applied to women of differing times and backgrounds. However, this would violate the requirement of parsimony. This does not mean that education and lucrative careers are invalid as pathways to empowerment; it indicates, rather, that instead of being a principle of empowerment, it should be viewed as one expression or one parameter of a higher inclusive principle. This higher, inclusive principle would apply to a larger cohort of women, thereby demonstrating greater explanatory power.

Whether an effort is viewed as stemming from a principle or a parameter is not just a matter of labeling and semantics. How something is perceived can and does have far-reaching consequences. If the presence of women in the workforce is perceived as the result of following a principle of empowerment (as opposed to a parameter), those who do not practice it, and do not enter the mainstream workforce are viewed as somehow not sipping from the cup of empowerment. They are viewed as ideologically indifferent to the general feminist agenda, or worse, ideologically underdeveloped! Ask any woman who has chosen to not work outside the home about subtle and sometimes blatant attitudes of superiority from the “working woman.”

    By solely viewing women’s work outside the home as gainful employment, we have gravely undermined the value of women’s work inside the home, and by extension, the value of the woman herself. If you’re a woman with a regular pay-cheque, think about whether you consider yourself slightly superior to a woman who chose to not have a traditional career. If your answer is ‘Yes,’ then you contribute, however subtly, to female oppression.

    So how do we revise our perception? We ought to view women’s work, domestic or otherwise, as having monetary value. More on this issue on another day and another essay. But, I'd like to end with the opening lines from Vivien Leone’s 1970 essay titled ‘Domestics.’

The day I suddenly found out I was a lawful domestic servant I was flat on my back in a hospital bed with 47 stitches in my face and a broken arm in traction, as a result of an auto accident from which my then-husband, the driver, emerged unmarked. A lawyer was telling us that in addition to my own massive suit, hubby would be able to sue for loss of services during my hospitalization and convalescence, although these services, on which a monetary value was being placed, had been performed free of charge throughout a decade of marriage.
That was when it hit me: when you do it for free, you’re a wife; when you do it for money, you’re a maid.


  1. Your most elegant piece on feminism and women. Enjoyed reading this. As usual I have one point of disagreement - Financial vulnerability is gender-neutral. More later on why I disagree.

    Your point towards the end about "By solely viewing women’s work outside the home as gainful employment ....If your answer is ‘Yes,’ then you contribute, however subtly, to female oppression " I completely agree. In fact in a mathematics educators meet, this was the very point I was making.

  2. Thanks Bindu! Your input is always thought-provoking, and I look forward to your opinion on financial vulnerability....Also, I'm interested in knowing the specifics of your point in the math ed meet. Since math is a male-dominated field, I'm sure there are a lot of (hidden) parallels waiting to be discovered....