Sociology Professor at Occidental College Gets Super Close to Right on Feminism


This is a guest post from formerly regular TOL Contributor Cathy Reisenwitz. You can check out the original post and more of her great work at


Taking on the whole Amanda-Palmer-responds-to-Sinead-O’Connor-writing-to-Miley-Cyrus-about-twerking brouhaha, Lisa Wade, a sociology professor at Occidental College makes some really spot-on, well-articulated, interesting, and not-often-enough-expressed points.

I’ll just quote the part I really like:

Women do have more choices – many, many more choices – than recent generations of women. They are now free to vote in elections, wear pants, smoke in public, have their own bank accounts, play sports, go into men’s occupations and, yes, be unabashedly sexual.  Hell they can even run for President.  And they get to still do all the feminine stuff too!  Women have it pretty great right now and Palmer is right that we should defend these options.

So, both are making a feminist argument.  What, then, is the source of the disagreement?

O’Connor and Palmer are using different levels of analysis.  Palmer’s is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do.  O’Connor’s is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic.

The truth is that both are right and, because of that, neither sees the whole picture.  On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system.  They are architects of their own lives.   On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system.  The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure.  No amount of wishing it were different will make it so.  No individual choices change that reality.

So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it.  She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition.  But why?  Because that’s what the system rewards.  That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.

In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain.  Both men and women make them and they come in many different forms. Generally, however, they involve a choice to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage without challenging the system itself.  This may maximize the benefits that accrue to any individual woman, but it harms women as a whole.  Cyrus’ particular bargain – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power – is a common one.  Serena WilliamsTila TequilaKim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga do it too.

It irks me to no end when people tell me that the wage gap or female underrepresentation in the top levels of business and politics aren’t problematic because they result from women’s choices and not discrimination. It’s a wonderful and true thing that blatant sex-based discrimination is getting rarer and rarer. But that doesn’t mean we’re done yet.

Gendered expectations persist, and influence behavior. Many women are told from a young age, some more explicitly than others, that their place is in the home. Throwing off gendered expectations requires courage and work. This is work men, for the most part, don’t have to do to reach for the top levels in their careers.

Now, the question is, what’s to be done about subtle sexism like that found in gendered expectations?

For Wade, the answer lies in collectivism.

Fighting the system on behalf of the disadvantaged – in this case, women – requires individual sacrifices that are extraordinarily costly.  In Cyrus’ case, perhaps being replaced by another artist who is willing to capitulate to patriarchy with more gusto.  Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place.  In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.

Americans want their stories to have happy endings.  I’m sorry I don’t have a more optimistic read.  If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already.  But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it.  To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.

I understand the idea that choosing to stay home and not work or to use your sexual attractiveness to get attention reinforces gendered expectations. But I don’t think that fighting gendered expectations requires women to narrow their range of acceptable choices. I think gendered expectations result from attribution error. We see gender differences, and ascribe them to biological differences when in fact they are cultural. The solution, then, is education. Books like this one help explode the myths that reinforce limiting gender-based assumptions.

But peer-reviewed scientific research isn’t the only kind of education that matters.

The story I like to tell is from when I worked full-time in Alabama, and my then-husband did not. I was dismayed to see that even people who knew our employment situation still would ask me, and not him, about how much I cooked and the cleanliness and state of decoration of our shared home. I had the choice to either take time I could be using to further my career to meet these gendered expectations, or deal with the consequences of failing to.

Gendered expectations influence how women choose to spend their time. They promote certain choices and disincentivize others.

There exists an expectation for women to cook, clean and care for children and aging parents. That they choose less demanding careers so they can meet those expectations is entirely understandable.

It’s also tragic.

Without gendered expectations, some women would still choose to stay home, and others would flaunt their bodies with abandon for fun and profit. But those choices wouldn’t be influenced by gender-based norms, stereotypes and pressure. They’d be based on the facts on the ground for those individual ladies.

Ultimately, that’s what I want for women. And I don’t think we need sacrifice, collective or otherwise, to accomplish it. I think we need to turn a critical eye to gender-based assumptions both based on their scientific sketchiness and on their pernicious effects, specifically how they disincentivize women to accomplish outside their expected spheres.