Sunday, June 11, 2017

America Made Paulina Porizkova A Feminist

Paulina Porizkova, a Czech-born model, actor and author, has written a widely quoted opinion column in today's New York Times.  It's titled "America Made Me A Feminist."

(By David Sedleck√Ĺ - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Porizkova compares the role and treatment of women in Sweden, where she grew up, to that in France, where she began her super-model career, to that in the United States, where she now lives.  This is the core of her argument:

In the Czech Republic, the nicknames for women, whether sweet or bitter, fall into the animal category: little bug, kitten, old cow, swine. In Sweden, women are rulers of the universe. In France, women are dangerous objects to treasure and fear. For better or worse, in those countries, a woman knows her place.
But the American woman is told she can do anything and then is knocked down the moment she proves it. In adapting myself to my new country, my Swedish woman power began to wilt. I joined the women around me who were struggling to do it all and failing miserably. I now have no choice but to pull the word “feminist” out of the dusty drawer and polish it up.
All this is a good reminder that not all cultures treat women the same (if you needed such a reminder).  Indeed, there are far worse places to be a woman than those Porizkova has experienced.  The variation in how cultures understand the role and treatment of men is much, much less.

But also keep in mind this:  Paulina Porizkova has lived in at least four different  cultures, but because of the passing of the time it's different Paulinas who experienced the treatment of women in the Czech Republic, Sweden, France and the United States.  She was a small child in the Czech Republic, a child and a teenager in Sweden, a young woman in France, and a more mature woman now in the United States.

And keep in mind this:  Paulina Porizkova's experiences are her experiences.  The experiences of one individual, with certain demographic characteristics (whiteness, say) and great beauty.

Our stories are of course our own, and there's nothing wrong with Porizkova telling her own stories.  It's valuable and interesting.  On the other hand, someone less physically attractive might have found less grrrl power in Sweden and perhaps different reactions in France.  Or maybe not, but it's worth thinking about.

My point about the different experiences women have at different ages is an important one:  Sexism in those countries where strides have been made in legislation about gender equality tends to hit women at a later age than it does in countries where such strides have not yet happened.

Thus, schools in the United States or Sweden or France do not, in general, gender-segregate students or ban girls from learning car repair or how to make a birdhouse, and neither do they force only girls to take domestic science.  Career counselors no longer advise girls to not to go to college because it would be wasted on future housewives, and academically minded female students are offered more than the three old options of being a nurse, a teacher or a social worker.

In short, past feminism --  where it has existed -- has succeeded in reducing overt sexism during the first two decades of girls' and women's lives.  Not only schools but also universities tend to be much more egalitarian places than the society which awaits the students after graduation.

That's when the differential expectations about who is supposed to manage the household, care for children, for sick family members and for the elderly set in.

That's when the way labor markets are structured, on the assumption that each worker has support staff at home, starts to bite at those women who have children and who also hold paid jobs, and that process (of the drip-drip-type) continues to carve wider differences between men's and women's earnings for several reasons:

The childcare and home management responsibilities of women, the weak parental leave provisions in many countries, and the employers' expectations that women are more likely to leave and less likely to have strong labor market attachment, which makes women less likely to be trained on the job or promoted.

Finally, youthful looks and beauty matter in how women are judged, especially in the United States (based on my own country-hopping experiences).  This means that some doors stop opening for women approaching midlife, that certain sexism remains invisible for younger women but can be starkly revealed to those who get older and, especially, to those who still seek power.

These caveats should be kept in mind when trying to assess whether Swedish women really are the rulers of the universe or how differently the labor markets, say, treat women in the four countries Porizkova has lived in.  Finally, it's worth noting that Porizkova's modeling career is a very female-dominated one, so her opportunities to learn about sex-based labor market discrimination in, say, France must have been limited by that reality*.

My comments shouldn't detract from the fact that I found Porizkova's opinions interesting.  Those who were born outside the fence (as I was, too) can often judge the greenness of a meadow more clearly than those whose world has always been that meadow.


*  This footnote (I love footnotes!) was added later:  One of the main ways in which women end up earning less is through the large amount of sex segregation in the labor force and the fact that female-dominated occupations pay less than male-dominated occupations.  So Porizkova could have experienced that, right?  Except that modeling is one of the very few occupations where women earn more than men.

Note that when I use "occupational sex segregation" I am saying nothing about its cause.  It could be the result of socially conditioned gender-linked choices (often seen as free choices), of real average preference differences between men and women, of steering women into certain occupations, or of making their entry to other occupations so unpleasant (through, say, sexual harassment) that those stay male-dominated.  Or it could be a combination of all or some of these.