Sonia Pressman Fuentes is an American feminist (although she was born in Berlin, Germany, of Polish parents) and a founder of the second wave of the women’s movement in the U.S. She has been involved in women’s rights since 1963. She was a founder of NOW (National Organization for Women) and FEW (Federally Employed Women) and the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission). She spent thirty-six years working for several agencies of the federal government and with two national corporations as a lawyer and executive. Since she retired as an attorney with the US government in 1993, she has remained a feminist activist, writer, and public speaker.
She opposed my ideas of femininity at Facebook and we had a wonderful conversation about the subject. I think my readers should have access to the ideas of femininity from two different sides of perspectives. Follows are our exchanges. I am thankful and appreciative to Sonia for giving me permission to publish these conversations.
13 September at 08:56
Sarojini Sahoo writes:
Thanks for writing me in my personal id. I am sorry that I couldn't write earlier as I am still worried for my daughter's health who is suffering from appendicitis. I have now replied you from my Facebook message box.
I feel myself lucky to receive a letter from the personality like you. I also have been fortunate enough to be once recognized by NAWO (Orissa Chapter) for my ideas on feminism. For me feminism is not a gender problem or any confrontational attack on male hegemony. So, it is quite different from that of Virginia Woolf or Judith Butler. I accept feminism as a total entity of female hood which is completely separate from the man’s world. To me, femininity has a wonderful power. In our de-gendered times a really feminine woman is a joy to behold and you can love and unleash your own unique yet universal femininity. We are here for gender sensitivity to proclaim the differences between men and woman with a kind of pretence that we all the same. Too many women have been de-feminized by society. To be feminine is to know how to pay attention to detail and people, to have people skills and to know how to connect to and work well with others. There will be particular times and situations within which you'll want to be more in touch and in tune with your femininity than others - being able to choose is a great skill.
I have discussed these topics in one of my recently published book Sensible Sensuality.
It will be my pleasure to find my self associated with you in any means of creative aspects.
Want to hear more from you. Please keep in touch.
13 September at 17:04
Sonia Pressman Fuentes writes:
Hi: Lovely to hear from you and thanks for your kind words. I hope your daughter will be fine.
As for your philosophy, I can only say that I do not agree with a word of it. :) I do not like using the word "feminine" or "femininity." Those are words to which some men have attached meanings of what they believe women should be or what they would like women to be --rather than what women actually are. I believe "feminine" is whatever women are.
13 September at 23:19
Sarojini Sahoo writes:
I adore your ideas, but I think 'femininity' is the proper word to replace 'feminism,' because the later has lost its significance identity due to its extensive involvement with radical politics.
In one of my recently-published interviews in Muse India, I stated that I differed from Simon de Beauvoir in her 'Other' theory where she says “one is not born but rather, becomes a woman.” I further stated that I think a woman is born as a woman.
There are inherent physical, behavioral, emotional, and psychological differences between men and women and we affirm and celebrate these differences as wonderful and complementary. These differences do not evidence the superiority of one sex over the other but rather, serve to show that each sex is complemented and made stronger by the presence of the other. As a different unit, similar to man, the female mass has their right for equity as well.
Such a statement by me surprised some of my scholar friends in that how could I state this when it is known to me that according to social anthropology, gender is more a societal than a biological phenomenon? This following article aims to clarify my stand:
I started my first article of my book Sensible Sensuality with “Bicycle and Me,” where I wrote of my experiences of childhood. As my father had an obsession for a male child, he wanted to see me as a boy and therefore, I was dressed as a boy; my hair was cut like a boy’s; and I used to play boyish games with boys instead of girlish games with girls. In my second blogging, I mentioned my Portuguese friend’s query, where he asked whether this had any impact in my sexuality in later life or not. It is clear that these cross-gender activities did not make any difference in my later life and I grew up normally as a woman.
When I studied more about gender theories, specially in Anthropology, I found that the anthropologists tried to confirm that gender is not innate but is based upon social and cultural conditions; my mind did not accept the theory so easily. Margaret Mead, in her anthropological study in 1935, concluded that the differences in temperament between men and women were not a function of their biological differences, rather, they resulted from differences in socialisation and the cultural expectations held for each sex. (See: Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies by Margaret Mead; New York: Dell.). This is, I think, the earliest study that led to the conclusion that gender is more a social and cultural factor than a biological one. According to this study, it is the social environment of the child, such as parents and teachers, that shapes the gender identity of a child. A child learns what to wear (girls in frocks and boys in shirt-pants); how and what to play (dolls for girls and cars for boys); how to behave (passivity and dependence in girls and aggressiveness and independence in boys); and how to reciprocate (gender-wise thoughts, feelings, or behavior). And these learnings confirm an appropriate gender-wise appearance and behavior, which leads to gender identity.
The sex/gender distinction seen as a set and unchangeable dichotomy does not help social scientists. They might have feared that “the set of sex/gender distinction serve to ‘ground’ a society's system of gender differences, but the ground seems in some ways to be less firm than what it is supporting.” (See the essay: “Transsexualism: Reflections on the Persistence of Gender and the Mutability of Sex in Body Guards” by Judith Shapiro in the book The Cultural Politics of Gender Ambiguity (eds) J. Epstein and K. Straub, 1991). Other social anthropologists like Moira Gatens , Henrietta Moore, Pat Caplan dismiss the idea of a biological domain separated from the social. Even Pat Caplan declared that “...sexuality, like gender, is socially constructed.”
From the discussion above, one can see that gender identities are grounded in ideas about sex and cultural mechanisms [and] create men and women. But we also have to remember that the biological sex is related to chromosomal sex, genitalia, assigned birth sex, or initial gender role which are rooted deeply in science and somehow proved rather than hypothetically assumed. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes within each cell; twenty-two of these are alike in both males and females. But when we come to the twenty-third pair, the sexes are not the same. Every woman has in her cells two of what we call the ‘X’ chromosome. But a man has just one X and another Y chromosome. These sets of chromosomes are what make males and females different.
The sex hormones, primarily estrogen and testosterone, have a significant impact on the behavior of males and females. For example, why do boys typically like to play with cars and girls like to typically play with dolls? Social anthropologists think it is the impact of socialization while Biological science thinks it is the role of these sex hormones which differentiate the choice children make gender-wise. Biology says the sex-specific differences in the brain are located both in the primitive regions, and in the neocortex--the higher brain region that contains 70 percent of the neurons in the central nervous system.
The neocortex is divided into two hemispheres joined by a 200-million fiber network called the corpus callosum. The left hemisphere controls language analysis and expression and body movements while the right hemisphere is responsible for spatial relationships, facial expressions, emotional stimuli, and vocal intonations. Females use both their right and left hemisphere to process language in certain circumstances while males just use one hemisphere. Females also reach puberty two years earlier than boys, as per biological science, and this changes the way they process social and sexual information.
There are still some characteristics and feelings that I think social anthropologists rule out for the sake of their theory. What about the voice pitch? Males have harsh voices and females have soft voices. This is a biological characteristic and it is related to gender. The crisis of infertility may create a serious trauma to a female, which a male cannot feel. This is a feeling innate with specific feminine gender and it is more a psychological and biological than a social problem. The menopausal psycho syndromes are totally biological and not categorised with this social gender theory. Social anthropologists emphasise that we are all trying to pass as a gender which is decided by cultural systems, not our biological sex. But what happens in the cases of transsexuals who do not pass it? The operation does not make their bodies fully male or fully female. The genitals will not function as genuine genitals and their chromosomes cannot be changed. Voice pitch and other physical characteristics might reveal their transsexualism.
Actually, the high level of testosterone in males drives them toward some specific masculine characteristics, while the lack of high levels of estrogen in women creates a natural, biological push in the direction of feminine characteristics. Each gender has different strengths and weaknesses; this does not mean that one sex is superior or inferior to another. Being feminine is a woman's birthright! It is always hard for me to understand why any woman would want to give up this cherished possession. I feel proud and adore my feminine dress, grooming, carriage, posture, voice, and language.
I want to use an integrated analysis of oppression which means that both men and women are subjected to oppression and stereotypes and that these oppressive experiences have a profound affect on beliefs and perceptions. I am against the patriarchy role model of society but it does not mean that I want to replace a matriarchal form of society in place of the existing patriarchal one. What I want is to develop equal mutual relationships of caring and support between all genders and I want to focus on strengthening women in areas such as assertiveness, communication, relationships, and self esteem.
Above all, I feel myself more a writer than a feminist. As a writer, I feel more sensible and sincere to my feelings and as a feminist, I am more inclined towards my femininity.I just don't understand how people can be feminists and not realise that to be feminist, you must also not be racist, ableist, homophobic, etc. If you are feeling oppressed by a masculine world, then you should not be prejudiced and bigoted towards other oppressed groups either, whether they are a result of patriarchy or not.
I hope my stand has been further clarified. If it hasn’t, I’m sure you’ll let me know!
13 September at 23:46
Sonia Pressman Fuentes writes:
I love your last sentence, and, of course, you are right.
Thanks for clarifying your thoughts. That helped me to understand.
We probably want the same things but are coming at it from different directions. You identify yourself primarily as a writer first and a feminist second. I see you also as a scholar and perhaps a philosopher. I am a feminist activist first, a writer second and also a lawyer.
I am not much interested in the differences between the sexes -- I am interested in their similarities. Both sexes should be able to develop to their utmost potential -- which I see as the same for men and women.
To get the changes we need, I believe in using laws, education, picketing, protests, demands, whatever works.
I am not as much interested in theories as I am in results. I want the US and the world to be a better, kindlier, more equal place for women. I want women to receive equality in their work environment (pay, promotions, benefits, maternity leave -- and also paternity leave for men -- retirement), etc. I want them to be equal in their homes and for their significant others to play an equal role in the homes. I want equality in political life, religious life, in health care, including maternal health care, in all segments of our society. I don't want women to be battered and want them to have access to safe houses when they are. Issues such as hunger, poverty, lack of water, disease, rape and rape as a weapon of war, violence against women, the treatment of women in prison, forced marriages, child brides, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, HIV and AIDS -- all these concern me and I want to do what I can in all these areas. Laws and practices like the stoning of women in Iran and their convictions for adultery are abhorrent to me as is their treatment as second-class citizens in many developing countries.
14 September at 00:05
Sarojini Sahoo writes:
I agree with you when you say we probably want the same things but are coming at it from different directions.
Quoting your words, I can say I also want "the world to be a better, kindlier, more equal place for women. I want women to receive equality in their work environment (pay, promotions, benefits, maternity leave -- and also paternity leave for men -- retirement), etc. I want them to be equal in their homes and for their significant others to play an equal role in the homes. I want equality in political life, religious life, in health care, including maternal health care, in all segments of our society. I don't want women to be battered and want them to have access to safe houses when they are. Issues such as hunger, poverty, lack of water, disease, rape and rape as a weapon of war, violence against women, the treatment of women in prison, forced marriages, child brides, female genital mutilation, sexual harassment, HIV and AIDS -- all these concern me and I want to do what I can in all these areas. Laws and practices like the stoning of women in Iran and their convictions for adultery are abhorrent to me as is their treatment as second-class citizens in many developing countries."
But I never think these wishes come from a bunch of stereotyped hysterical man-hating fanatics who seek power and control rather than true equality. For me, ‘feminism’ is not just a movement for the liberation of women, but rather a broad social movement striving for the equality of each individual worldwide. Feminism should emphasise the importance of such values as cooperation, tolerance, nurturance, and the freedom for each person to achieve her or his full potential.
I think feminism should not act in opposition to men as individuals. To me, feminism is against oppressive and outdated social structures which forces both men and women into positions which are false and antagonistic. Thus, everyone has an important role to play in the feminist movement. It seems ironic that feminism has been characterized as anti-male, when in fact, it seeks to liberate men from the macho stereotypic roles men often have to endure such as the need to suppress feelings, act aggressively, and be deprived of contact with children. I think we should emphasize our femininity rather to impose the so-called stereotyped feministic attitude of the second wave.
Perhaps we are working for a same goal, but our ideas and paths are different. However, I feel happy to share these with you.
14 September at 00:14
Sonia Pressman Fuentes writes:
You wrote: "But I never think these wishes come from a bunch of stereotyped hysterical man-hating fanatics who seek power and control rather than true equality." Who are these stereotyped hysterical man-hating fanatics who seek power and control rather than true equality?" I have been fighting for women's rights in the US and various countries around the world since 1963 -- and haven't run across such creatures yet.
You also wrote: "I think feminism should not act in opposition to men as individuals." Did you read anything I wrote that has to do with opposition to men? I've been working with feminist men and women since 1963 and have heard no one oppose men or their rights. Of course, equality would make the world a better place for men, too.
It seems to me you set up straw men and women, which you can then knock down.
14 September at 00:20
Sonia Pressman Fuentes writes:
I see you also wrote the following: "I think we should emphasize our femininity rather to impose the so-called stereotyped feministic attitude of the second wave."
I've already written you what I think of the word "femininity" so I don't have to repeat that. As a founder of the second wave of the women's movement, I certainly don't appreciate your describing it as a "so-called stereotyped feministic attitude" nor do I have any idea what you mean by each of those words. The second wave fought for equality in the workplace and in academia and in other aspects of American society for women. What is "so-called" about that? What is "stereotyped feministic," whatever that means, about that?
Have you been fighting for better rights for women in India since 1963? If so, what have you achieved? We've secured a legal revolution in women's rights in the US; we have much more to do but the changes we've wrought are mind-blowing.
14 September at 00:33
Sarojini Sahoo writes
For many feminist thinkers, after marriage a family breeds patriarchy. Happily married women are considered false and double-crossing. The titles of popular feminist books from the early movement highlight the split between gender feminists and women who chose domesticity. Jill Johnston in her Lesbian Nation (1973), called the married women are heterosexual females 'traitors'; Kate Millett in her Sexual Politics (1970), redefined heterosexual sex as a power struggle; whereas in Kathrin Perutz's Marriage is Hell (1972); and Ellen Peck's The Baby Trap (1971), argued that motherhood blocks liberation of a woman. These feminists always try to paint the marriage as legalized prostitution; heterosexual intercourse as rape; and they come to the decision that men are the enemy; families are prisons.
Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer were against marriage in their earlier thoughts. But they tried to skip from their anti marriage ideas in later period. Marriage is a three-sided arrangement between a husband, a wife and the society. That is, the society legally defines what a marriage is and how it can be dissolved. But marriage is, on the other hand, for partners of marriage; it is more of an individual relationship than a social matter. This is the main reason of crisis. Individually, I think marriage must be taken out of the social realm and fully back into the private one. The society should withdraw from marriage and allow the adults involved to work out their own definition of justice in the privacy of their own homes.
Our feminist thinker always tries to skip the idea that offspring begging is a natural instinct of a woman and it is related to our ecological and environmental situation. Anything against it may resulted to disaster. We find a woman has to pass through a different stage in her life span and there is a phase where a woman feels an intense need of her own offspring. Feminists of second wave feminism have always tried to pursue a woman against the natural law because it is seemed to them that motherhood is barricade for the freedom of a woman. But if the woman has her own working field, doesn’t have it mean that her working assignments would demand more of her time, of her sincerity and of course of her freedom? If a woman can adjust herself and can sacrifice her freedom for her own identity at outside her home, then why she shouldn’t sacrifice some of her freedom for parenting when parenting is also a part of one of her social identity? And it could also be solved by rejecting the patriarchal role of parenting. We have to insist the idea of the division of labor in parenting. This equally shared parenting is now common in Western, but still in South Asian countries we find it as a taboo factor rather because of economic inequality between men and women, our crazy work culture, and the constrictions that are placed on us by traditional gender roles.
The conflict between American mother-daughter feminists Alice Walker and Rebecca Walker is well-known chapter for Western feminism. Alice Walker, the mother, the second-wave feminist, obviously had an anti-motherhood ideas as the other western feminists of her time. But Rebecca Walker, her daughter and a feminist of third wave discussed in her book Baby Love about how motherhood freed women like herself from their roles as daughters, and how this provided the much-needed perspective to heal themselves from damaged mother-daughter relationships and claim their full adulthood. What happened? This latest article is mired in unresolved childish hurt and anger (especially in the chapter “How my mother’s fanatical views tore us apart”), which would be all well and good except that she strikes out at her mother by striking out at feminism. I personally think the bitterness between her and her mother, as any woman who has ever fallen out with her mother knows, is a very painful experience and note to self, one that probably shouldn’t be written about too much in public.
In her book Baby Love, Rebecca Walker writes directly about unadulterated excitement and pride about becoming a mother. Rebecca argues that motherhood frees us from childhood. It is the most important step a woman can take because it creates another human being and because it makes a woman an adult. I found this to be true for myself. In one of my story “AMRUTA PRATIKSHA RE” (Waiting for Manna )(1989), published much more before Baby Love, where I want to discuss the queries after a lifetime of wondering whether to have children, wondering if the sacrifices are worth it, wondering if life is full to bursting enough already -- how does our generation of women decide to have children?
I can give hundreds of examples where many second-wave feminists tried to enhance stereotyped hysterical man-hating fanatics.
Thanks for asking me to prove.
You may continue this discourse. But as it is midnight (12:30) here, I beg your permission. Please write. I will try to clarify my stands tomorrow.
14 September at 02:08
Sonia Pressman Fuentes writes:
Thanks for asking me to continue writing -- but you haven't answered the question in my last e-mail. What have you accomplished for women in India since 1963? You are critical of the second wave in the US -- but we've created a legal revolution in women's rights, with effects in the rest of the world. What have you achieved?
But, more importantly, I do not plan to continue this discourse because I like to spend my time working with men and women of like minds on common goals to achieve change.
14 September at 07:21
Sarojini Sahoo writes:
Thanks for writing. I am concluding with one of my quotations that I feel myself more a writer than a feminist. As a writer, I feel more sensible and sincere to my feelings and as a feminist, I am more inclined towards my femininity. I am not an activist at all. What I achieved from this 'travel' is my realisation. So, there is no question for me what I could achieve and what you could achieve. So, to realise a truth is more important for me.
However, there may be every chance for you to differ and I adore and have respect for your ideas and feelings.
Let us say bye and conclude this discussion.
The important thing to realise is true progress never happens unless there are free exchanges of ideas and dialog, and that there are forums in which these ideas can be exchanged freely. Is there a wrong? Is there a right? Who knows? Our words speak for themselves.