What’s with the ‘F’ word?

If you want to confuse a conversation, you only need to bring up the “F” word and watch as brows become furrowed and eyes begin to dart about faster than in a talk about the “G-Spot.” Whether we like it or not, in the 21st century much of what feminism stood for in terms of real values and a definitive set of actions has given way to fashionable lip service and politically correct jargon.

It’s easy to understand why. As I am writing this right now, men are reeling from the fact that the global credit crunch has hit male jobs more than female and, where men have kept their jobs, they have had to take a more severe pay reduction than their partners. Online statistics released by Omniture, a web trends organization, reveal that women online business owners outnumber men by almost two to one and the picture is not much better in the offline world either.
Mention the word feminist then in any 21st-century crowd and you will, quite rightly, get perplexed looks, a fuzzy awareness that it should mean something significant and the need to sound knowledgeable about it, hip and somehow in the picture. The question, of course, is how. How can we reconcile the bra-burning, placard waving feminists of the 60s and 70s with the empowered, in-control, opportunity-rich women of today and still make sense? The very thought of burning our wonder-bras and La Perla padded bras today is enough to send shivers down our spines.

Feminism, I admit, is far from dead as an issue. In its time it was necessary both as a word and a concept. Women were struggling to break through the glass ceiling at work, to get the same money as men, to be taken seriously, to be given a chance, to break free of the shackles imposed by the marriage-kids-home syndrome that seemed designed to enslave them. Today we have it all. Or, at least, so it seems.

Yet the issues afflicting women have not entirely gone away. They have, instead, morphed into something different. It was women’s feminity that seemed to be the issue at the time. Women, the argument went, despite their ability to have kids, were destined for more than just raising a family and running a home. Women battled hard to gain this recognition. You could argue that we have now won the battle, we can call it a day and move on. You’d be wrong.

The issues facing women today are just as stark, just as pressing and just as challenging as anything that faced our sisters back in the day when burning a bra was a visual statement which send a message to all who saw it. At a time when Alexandra Shulman, editor of Vogue, and one of the most powerful figures in the fashion writing world, finds it necessary to send an letter (which was later leaked to the Press) to the fashion houses of Europe and America accusing them of sending dresses too small to fit on anyone who is not size zero, we begin to see that the shackles we fight against today are both more refined and harder to break free from than anything in the past.

Women’s empowerment has enabled us to command six figure fees whether posing for fashion or running large companies, but it also has created the myth of the superwoman of which we constantly have to meet. Women need to be feminine, sexy, alluring, ready for anything, great in bed, capable of rustling up a morning breakfast that would make a Tiffany’s chef dizzy with envy and still holding down a career and a baby. Juggling motherhood and entrepreneurial zest, business acumen and the need to sometimes be just a woman, has succeeded in confusing the picture not just for men but also for ourselves.

Take for instance a very recent study released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the United Kingdom, which shows that childlessness amongst women who are educated and have a career has grown to be 20 percent because they choose to have a career over raising a family. And then take the fact that there is a growing trend amongst women to tackle marriage, traditionally an emotional issue tinged with romanticism, as a business transaction governed by marriage contracts, prenupts and mutual-service agreements.

Understandably then the “F” word confuses both sexes. Today, it is men who feel they are beleaguered, plagued by insecurities and fighting a losing battle as the bastions of traditional male domains collapse one after the other. Yet women also feel trapped. Locked in a trajectory that loads us with more responsibilities and makes more demands upon us without relinquishing the traditional chores. As a result we have ended up in a gender-reversal situation where men are feminized and women masculinized, each beginning to assume the responsibilities of the other, with women ending up as the main bread-winner and men, often, assuming the role of the house-husband.

At face value this may seem enlightened, it may also seem progressive and very 21st century, but it also appears to be at the heart of the sense of disillusionment and disenchantment reported by members of both sexes. So, we have moved on, it seems, but it has not made us any happier. The trend to go back to “traditional values” espoused by successful women authors such as Terry Martin Hekker who actually lived through the 70s and embraced the feminist movement and whose books, based on her own experiences, cover both sides of the argument seems to be a reaction to the confusion and a search for certainty rather than a considered intellectual stance.

Where does all this leave us? Do we really need to abandon everything we have achieved as women and return to the “struggle” of early feminism in order to re-define our gender identity? Do we need to move forward looking for some kind of clarity, which will help us understand what the new feminism should be? I would suggest that instead of being rebels looking for a cause our situation would be much better served by redefining the “F” word to stand for femininity instead of feminism. Yes, we are equal to almost every task that men can do but we are also women, capable of using our looks to launch a thousand ships and make heads turn everywhere we pass. We can run corporations and launch start-ups and we also like to sometimes curl in front of the TV with a tub of Haagen-Dazs being seeking solace in our capacity to feel rather than think.

Being feminine is no less a tricky balancing act than being a feminist ever used to be. In the 21st century however, for women, this is closer and truer to our search of identity than anything else we might want to do, plus it allows us to challenge any situation where we perceive inequality based purely on gender without having to resort to the expensive gesture of burning our La Perlas.

Alisa Miller has lived in three countries and two continents. A former model, she has used her training to focus on relationship issues and her first book, “Ultimate Guide to the Perfect Relationship” became an internet phenomenon appearing both as an eBook and on paper all over the Web in the first week of publication. She has since written for hundreds of Web sites and magazines. She edited a magazine and has been working hard on more books in the dating, sex and relationships areas. She is the author of “Ultimate Guide to the Perfect Relationship” and maintains the content of her own site: www.alisa-miller.com

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