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Gender representation and feminist patriarchy

"Do Marissa Mayer’s maternity plans make her a fit role model for women?" asks the Guardian headline of a conversation between writers Julia Llewellyn and Siobhan Freegard.

"What I mind is the effect of their vacuity and lack of serious purpose on the younger generations", writes Yasmin Brown dismayed by the mothering choices of Jools Oliver and Tana Ramsey.

"How irresponsible of her to say such a thing, knowing full-well that many young girls look up to her as a role model", Sophie Warnes exclaims in shock over Katie Price's decision not to use contraception.

There are more similar quotations, but you get the picture—and these are only some of the examples I found while researching the trend that holds women to an exacting standard and requires them to represent their gender. This seems depressingly familiar to someone with a degree in English literature. In A Literature of Their Own, Elaine Showalter wrote of the Victorian era: “A woman novelist, unless she disguised herself with a male pseudonym, had to expect critics to focus on her femininity and rank her with the other women writers of her day, no matter how diverse their subjects or styles.”

It was this form of sexist prejudice that made Marian Evans reinvent herself as George Eliot, and the outed Currer Bell, now known as Charlotte Bronte, to preface one of her works with this passionate declaration:

To you I am neither man nor woman. I come before you as an author only. It is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me—the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.

Just as during the Victorian period, judgments based on gender apply solely to women. For example, do writers question male executives' paternity leave plans and criticize them for disappointing their gender if they dispense leave? Do columnists tell men that people expect more from them on behalf of their gender? Do we tell men who do not define themselves by their career, but choose to be supportive homemakers, that they are a bad example to their sex? Do we ask male celebrities to be responsible for the sexual health of their fans? Based on the nil results of a Google search I conclude that the answer to these questions is a resounding no.

So why do people still hold women to such standards and publicly admonish them when their lifestyles or ideas do not conform to certain feminist ideals? Interestingly most of the criticism comes from female commentators, many of them feminists. Their articles seem to suggest that women who do not conform to a feminist standard betray their gender and prevent progress. The attitude is understandable since patriarchal beliefs often block women from every angle; and it is disheartening that some women do not understand how societal strictures steeped in patriarchy dictate their lives.

Nevertheless it is not a function of feminism to castigate women who have been manipulated by patriarchy. Johann Goethe said it well: "None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free”. Thus when writers attack women in the public eye, they do not endear feminism to them. Furthermore, by presenting a single standard for women to fulfill, such rhetoric acts as inverted patriarchy, not liberation.

When Janet Street-Porter shouts in a Daily Mail headline that Louise Mensch "can’t be a clothes horse AND a feminist!" she promotes the patriarchal desire to place women in one category. Street-Porter also rejects the feminist goal to liberate and not judge women as the bearers of their gender. Similarly, when Warnes and Llewellyn reject Price and Mayer as proper models, they attack women’s interests and reinforce the patriarchal designation of women as a homogenous block instead of individuals.

In an Independent article Owen Jones writes that many think gay people have a responsibility to defend their sexuality. He imagines a time when people will have "total equality" and the world will not consider sexual orientation "as a separate, defining identity”. Jones is right and we ought to apply this statement equally to women.

Female gender should not define a specific identity and indebt a person to represent all women. Young journalist Laurie Penny is not "a disgrace to both women and the left" because she called historian David Starkey racist. Her comment reflects only her thoughts, just as Starkey's comments reflect his opinion. Anyone who suggests different supports the damaging and homogenizing patriarchy that robs individuality from women. As feminists we must stand against the patriarchy that corrupts feminism. The time has come for total equality.

Caroline Criado-Perez prepared this text with assistance from e-feminist staff.