Feminism: Achieving sustainable equality

Richard Parncutt
April 2016


The vision of feminism is not a "female future". It is a human future. Without enforced roles, without violent power relationships, without male solidarity or female delusion. (Die Vision des Feminimus ist nicht eine "weibliche Zukunft". Es ist eine menschliche Zukunft. Ohne Rollenzwänge, ohne Macht- und Gewaltverhältnisse, ohne Männerbündelei und Weiblichkeitswahn.) Johanna Dohnal, 2004

I have always been inclined toward feminism. It all started when I witnessed domestic violence in my own home as a child. It seemed clear to me throughout my childhood that my mother was an innocent victim and my father was the evil one. This was not entirely true, as I later found out; but it did not change the fact that my father was entirely responsible for his actions. Later, he became the warmest, kindest person you could imagine, and he reminded me many times that my children are the most important thing in my life, which is one of the reasons I am writing this text. For this reason alone, I could dedicate this text to his memory; and if my father was still around to read it, I guess he would enjoy reading it, even if it is a bit confronting. 

But the problem of domestic violence does not disappear with time, although it may diminish as it fades into the past. It is not easy to forgive and forget something like that. Physical violence is never justified, except perhaps in self-defence against physical violence. If only nation states and especially the USA would learn this simple principle, the world would be a much safer and happier place. More here

That was one aspect of feminism that I learned very early, and here is another. As a teenager I was very shy. Beautiful girls were like gods, and I was scared to talk to them.  I also noticed that girls and women who were evidently beautiful (and not only "in the eye of the beholder") got what they want easily, while others didn't. That seemed profoundly unfair, and I wanted to change it. People should succeed based on what they do and say, not what they look like.

If anyone doubts the importance of feminism, and many apparently do, consider forms of address in English. Men can always be called Mister (Mr.) although boys may sometimes be called Master (with unfortunate connotations of superiority). Women are called Missus (is that really how you spell it?) (Mrs.) or Miss, depending on whether they are married. Mr. sounds neutral - it is never a problem. Mrs. gives the impression that the woman in question is subservient to her husband, whose name she has adopted, erasing her previous name (and identity). Miss sounds like a little girl who doesn't know much, a young woman who is sexually available, or an old maid who is "on the shelf". To avoid these outrageous associations, many women prefer to be called Ms., which is certainly an improvement, but still sounds kind of ridiculous. To avoid all this nonsense, we find ourselves writing letters that start with "Dear Jane Smith". No wonder women academics are happy when they finally get a doctorate and can call themselves "Dr.". A person at last!

For these reasons such as these, I have always been sympathetic to feminist causes. That includes promoting basic rights like voting, property and education, for all girls and women everywhere. It also includes reproductive rights such as abortion and protection from sexual harassment, rape, or genital manipulation. It seems obvious that all of such causes are worthy, and they should be consistently supported until their goals are achieved. 

But there are some exceptions. Some so-called "feminist" causes have been counterproductive for feminism. Some ideas seem to be good in the short term but are in fact bad for the feminist cause in the long-term. Below, I will offer some examples and practical solutions. 

If feminist readers are suspecting that I am one of those pseudo-feminist men who just try to attract attention, stealing the show and taking the limelight away from the women who should be leading this discussion, let me say this: I understand that problem, and I am the first to give the microphone to a female ("proper") feminist. I'm also the first to go to a feminist demonstration, standing in the front row carrying a banner. I have a reputation for confronting my colleagues about the importance of promoting the professional careers of women and voting them into leading positions, and I have had some success within my sphere of influence. My colleagues know this, and it has always been this way. Feminism can only succeed if it is supported by both women and men, so let's work together.

Domestic violence

This is one of the main causes of sexism, and it is easy to see how it works. On average, men are stronger than women. Evolution has made men better at hunting and fighting, which was important for survival in ancient societies. From an ethical viewpoint, one could hardly argue that women and men are unequal; women are not intrinsically more or less evil than men. But the unfortunate fact is that men tend to use their physical strength to advantage to assert their dominance over women, and they have been doing so for time immemorial. That explains why sexism in the sense of unequal power is almost universal. 

There are many ways to address this problem, but the best approach is to identify the main cause and remove it. We can hardly make men weaker and women stronger (at least not on average or in the long term), but we can increase social awareness of the problem of domestic violence, equip women with the tools they need to prevent it, support them when it happens, and punish the perpetrators appropriately. A promising development is the increasing numbers of women's shelters in towns and cities around the world, and along with that an increasing understanding of the essential social function of women's shelters.

Equal pay

One of the most important feminist issues is money. Women and men should get equal pay for equal work with equal qualification. In western countries, progress is happening, slowly but surely. In some areas of the public sector, the goal has been reached, not only formally but sometimes even in reality. This is great news. Things are not so good in the private sector, where some professions are badly straggling. I came across a statistic according to which there are more bosses called "John" than all female bosses put together. This has to change.

Beyond that, there are still classical female careers or jobs that are badly paid, such as kindergarten teacher, hairdresser, cleaner, or nurse. If we seriously want more gender parity in these professions, and equal rights for women in general, the wages in these areas must urgently be increased. I will offer some long-term strategies below.

I am a musician, music researcher and psychologist. Composition is still dominated by men, and quite strongly. But there is no clear psychological evidence that men are intrinsically better at composition than women, so I guess the consensus of opinion these days is that there is no difference, on average. Of course there are gender differences, but women may be better than men in some ways and worse in others. There are a lot of projects under way to encourage women to get into male-dominated musical areas such as composition and conducting, and there has been some progress, but there is still a long way to go.

Another central area of feminism is leadership. Conducting is one example, but in general we need more female leaders in all male-dominated areas, including academia, business and politics. To achieve better equality, it is often necessary to implement the basic principle of affirmative action: if two people are equally qualified for the job, offer it to the woman. 

This principle should be the norm in every male-dominated profession, and I couldn't be bothered listening to the constant complaints about it. Since people started implementing this idea, things have only got better. I am working at a university, and my faculty was terribly male-dominated when I arrived in 1998. Since then, the gender balance has steadily improved, in spite the tiresome whinging of some of my colleagues, and as far as I know the faculty as a whole has also improved, in terms of both the quality and the diversity of academic output. Sometimes, professorial selection committees make a mistake and appoint a woman who is not very good, but by the same token they sometimes appoint men who are not very good, and such men have been known to wreak havoc. On the whole, the system seems to be working - not perfectly, but as well as might be expected - and it should be allowed to continue to work.

Here's the controversial part. In female-dominated areas, the principle of affirmative action should be reversed, to undermine and get rid of old gender cliches. If too many secretaries are female, then male applicants should get preference. Astonishingly, I was unable to convince the equal opportunity unit at my university to adopt and implement this idea. Meanwhile almost every secretary in the entire university is still female, and students are still asking female colleagues with doctorates for help with secretarial tasks. Hopefully the penny will drop soon. Much the same applies to kindergarten or primary teachers, hairdressers and nurses. Surely this is obvious?

If the leaders of such groups are traditionally men, it is a different matter. Efforts should be made to get women into leading positions in all professions. In an ideal world, those who teach secretaries, hairdressers and nurses would be mainly women, whereas the student secretaries, hairdressers or nurses themselves would be mainly men. 


One would have thought that in the 21st century parents would be fairly dividing up their estate and passing it onto their children and grandchildren, as well as a list of important charities. Many do, of course. But I have several times witnessed fathers who leave their house and/or land to their first son, or to the son who appears most likely to look after that house and land without splitting it up. 

That this kind of medieval thinking is still with us, even in supposedly advanced Western countries, is evidence that we have a long way to go in the struggle against sexism. It is understandable that many people don't want their valuable property (for which they worked so hard) to be divided up when they pass away. But it is surely even worse to leave behind a situation that encourages your children to fight over money. And it is equally bad to aggravate sexism by perpetuating the well-known imbalance of income and wealth between women and men, rather than trying to solve the problem.

The solution, of course, is to give one's children financially equal portions of the estate or to organise a fair plan in advance by which the estate could be divided up or one child might buy a piece of land from another. Even better: the women should get more than the men (maybe even twice as much, why not), to counteract the other financial disadvantages that women often experience. Is anyone promoting this idea? Financial institutions offer advice on writing a will, but does their advice include avoiding  sexism?

Divorce and children

This is one area in which feminism may have gone too far, at least in Western countries. By "pseudo-feminism" I mean actions that appear to promote the rights of individual women, but in fact prevent feminism from progressing to its long-term goal of equal opportunity in all areas. 

The primary and oft-cited aim of divorce law should be to promote the well-being of the children, who have suffered enough from their parents' failure to resolve their conflict. That can be achieved in different ways and it is interesting to look at the relevant empirical research, and to ask whether the law should be changed on the basis of research.

First, children are happier if their parents are happier, whether divorced or not (e.g. Hess & Camara, 1979). A study by King and Heard (1999) found that the more mothers were angry with fathers and wanted less contact between fathers and children, the poorer was the adjustment of the children to the new situation. This is surely true regardless of whether the father or the mother is more at fault, and it underlines the importance of finding a solution that is considered fair by both parties, so that they can recover from the conflict and build up a reasonably positive post-divorce relationship. Any parent who cares about his or her children should be careful to ensure that post-divorce arrangements are perceived as fair by the other parent. 

It is often supposed that the best solution is for the children to live with the mother, and for the father to move out and the children to stay with him every second weekend. But the idea that the woman is primarily responsible for the children is old sexist nonsense, and has no place in law. If the woman or the man wants to spend more or less time with the children, that is a matter for negotiation. In this and other cases, the woman and the man should be treated equally, and should treat each other equally.

Many people doubt that it is good for children to spend equal time with each parent. The answer to this question is not a matter of opinion - it is a matter of careful observation. We
should look at the empirical research.

Kruk (2012) listed 16 arguments in favor of equal parental responsibility. In his words, equal parenting

preserves children’s relationships with both parents and parents’ relationships with their children, decreases parental conflict, prevents family violence, respects children’s preferences and views about their needs and best interests, respects parents’ preferences and views about their children’s needs and best interests, reflects child caregiving arrangements before divorce, enhances the quality of parent-child relationships, decreases parental focus on “mathematizing time”, reduces litigation, provides an incentive for inter-parental negotiation, mediation, and the development of parenting plans, provides a clear and consistent guideline for judicial decision-making, reduces the risk and incidence of parental alienation, enables enforcement of parenting orders (as parents are more likely to abide by an equal parental responsibility order), and addresses social justice imperatives regarding protection of children’s rights and parental authority, autonomy, equality, rights, and responsibilities. (This is not a quote. I created it  by stringing together the headings in Kruk's article and removing repetitions.)

Similarly, Fabricius and Luecken (2007) found that the more time children spend with their fathers after divorce, the better are their relationships with their fathers, independent of parent conflict; the same presumably applies to their mothers. Fabricius (2003) interviewed university students whose parents had divorced years earlier, and found that they generally favored living arrangements that gave equal time with both parents; when that had actually happened, they reported that it had worked well. Fabricius and Hall (2000) found that 70% of children of divorced parents, when asked a decade after the divorce, preferred the option of equal time with each parent, and another 30% wanted a substantial number of overnights with their fathers.

The previous paragraph seems biased, because I repeatedly cited the same author (Fabricius). But there is empirical evidence for this finding from many different authors. Kelly and Emery (2003) wrote:

Considerable research has indicated that many children, particularly boys, want more time with their fathers than is traditionally negotiated or ordered; that children and young adults describe the loss of contact with a parent as the primary negative aspect of divorce; and that children report missing their fathers over time (Fabricius & Hall, 2000; Healy, Malley, & Stewart, 1990; Hetherington, 1999; Hetherington et al., 1982; Laumann-Billings & Emery, 2000; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1980).

I couldn't find a good empirical study that contradicted this general finding. Evidently, we can talk about a consensus among researchers in this area that the children of divorced parents should spend about half of their time with each parent. 

But this is not what usually happens. The usual outcome is for the children to live mainly with the mother and only see the father every second weekend. Why? Old sexist clichés die hard, it seems. Some mothers don't trust the fathers of their children to look after them. Many fathers don't believe in their own parenting abilities. The solution, then, is for mothers to learn to trust the fathers of their children, and the fathers to learn to trust themselves. 

I found two studies which reported that it made little difference whether children spent almost all their time with the mother or half the time with each parent (Melli & Brown, 2008; Vanassche et al., 2013). Even if this is true, there would be another reason why children should spend equal time with each parent: feminism. An equal post-divorce arrangement is a great opportunity to move toward a new society in which it is normal for men to take on caring roles, and to enjoy them. In such a society, men might even be less likely to enjoy the idea of fighting wars, which would be a big relief (Margaret Thatcher and Hilary Clinton to the contrary).

Children who split their time between two homes experience disadvantages, of course. Maybe they don't know which of their homes is "home" (but I found no empirical evidence of that being a problem). Maybe they are constantly looking for things that have been left behind in the other place (where are my roller skates?). But there are two good reasons why equal time with the parents is preferable, and they are clearly more important. First, relationships are generally more important than possessions (a child's father is more important to her or him than her or his roller skates). Second, it is good for feminism if men spend more time looking after children.

It may seem difficult for a child to spend one week at one parent's house and one week at another. But children are amazingly flexible, and I know of no evidence that such an arrangement is bad for children overall. Maccoby et al. (2014) reported that 

Multiple regression modelling showed that children in joint physical custody did not report higher levels of psychological complaints than those in nuclear families, while children in sole parental care reported elevated levels of complaints compared with those in joint physical custody. (abstract)

According to Bergström et al. (2015),

Children with non-cohabitant parents experience more psychosomatic problems than those in nuclear families. Those in joint physical custody do however report better psychosomatic health than children living mostly or only with one parent. (abstract)

Beyond that, it is surely good for children if they grow up knowing that men and women are equally good at parenting, and equally important as parents. Legal and support services should therefore promote a model in which the parenting is equally shared. If both women men are unsure about it, perhaps because their previous family life was organised along more sexist lines, they should be offered encouragement and support.

The causes of sexism

Having looked at some details, we can now return to the main issues. What is the main cause of sexism? Given that, what is the main solution? 

I guess sexism has two main causes. First, there is the physical power difference between men and women, which men unfortunately traditionally use to their advantage, for example in domestic violence. Second, there are gender roles, which used to be important for social and family efficiency and survival, but have outdated their usefulness in modern societies.

The most characteristic gender cliché is that women look after the children, while men go out into the world and bring home the money. This is why women are still dominating the domestic caring and cleaning professions: kindergarten and primary teacher, nurse, hairdresser, secretary, cleaner. This is also why the pay in these professions is so bad. The long-term recipe for getting more gender equality and better pay in these professions is to put men back into caring roles - which generally means taking women out of caring roles, for example by increasing the proportion of women in male-dominated professions. There are many ways to do that, but divorce is a splendid opportunity, because in this situation, many men are more than happy to spend more time with their wonderful children. If men want to do something that promotes feminism, that is cause for celebration, and the law should encourage them to do it.

In spite of the cited research, divorce law is often not oriented toward this possibility. The reason is perhaps an irrational belief among many mothers that their children need them all the time. Deep down, many women still feel that they have somehow failed as mothers, and perhaps even as human beings, if they are not constantly there for their children. So after divorce they fight for their right to "have" their children most of the time. Their ex-husbands, for their part, believe (equally irrationally) that they are somehow inadequate at looking after children, so it is better to let the women do that. These beliefs are clearly mistaken, and it is time to expose the error, if we are to achieve equality of opportunity for women and men in the long term.

Feminism is often about giving individual women what they want, which is a perfectly acceptable motivation. But if a woman wants to reduce the amount of time the father of her children spends with them, reducing him to the status of a benevolent and generous hotel owner, she is neglecting the long-term goals of feminism. Maybe that woman should not get what she wants, in this particular case. Instead, we should be pursuing the utilitarian goal of the greatest good for the greatest number of women, men and children. Feminism is playing a central role in achieving this objective - in multiple ways, of which I have mentioned only a few. 

A final word

I am strongly in favor of most feminist agendas and support them consistently in my professional, personal and political life. But it would be a mistake to assume that all agendas called "feminist" are ok, and it may be time for politicians, especially those who proudly call themselves feminist, to be a bit more discriminating.

If we want to reduce domestic violence, which is probably the most fundamental cause of sexism, we must oppose it from multiple angles. One angle is to clarify that domestic violence is never justified and always has serious consequences for the perpetrator. This is the main angle and there is still a lot of work to be done before we can speak of success. Another angle is to investigate what makes men angry in domestic situations, which includes unfair divorce proceedings. Both men and women should be learning more about what makes both men and women angry, in order to avoid pressing those "anger buttons", while at the same time asserting their rights and retaining a loving (caring, respectful, empathetic) attitude toward their partner or ex-partner, as well as their children.

In the end, relationships are about love. When we get married, we promise to love each other forever. We do not promise to love the other person provided X and Y; we promise to love unconditionally. There is an implied condition, of course; but it should be limited to violence. When a marriage goes wrong (without violence), it cannot mean that love turns to hate, for that would mean breaking a solemn promise. If we break a promise like that, what other promises will we break? Why should anyone trust a person who breaks such an important public promise? The solution is to maintain positive intentions toward one's ex-partner, still wanting the best for them and, if appropriate (given other relationships that may develop), supporting them to achieve their goals. It takes two to tango, of course, but even if one of the two is reluctant, the other can repeatedly try to move toward this model, while at the same time protecting his or her boundaries and making it clear that the romantic relationship is completely over (which is another important agreement). This kind of approach to divorce is good not only for the two people concerned - it is especially good for the children, who should always have highest priority. And it is also good for feminism, whose goals can only be achieved if women and men work together to achieve them.


Bergström, M., Fransson, E., Modin, B., Berlin, M., Gustafsson, P. A., & Hjern, A. (2015). Fifty moves a year: is there an association between joint physical custody and psychosomatic problems in children?. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, jech-2014.

Fabricius, W. V. (2003). Listening to children of divorce: New findings that diverge from Wallerstein, Lewis, and Blakeslee. Family Relations, 52(4), 385-396.

Fabricius, W. V., & Hall, J. (2000). Young adults' perspectives on divorce: Living arrangements. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 38, 446–461.

Fabricius, W. V., & Luecken, L. J. (2007). Postdivorce living arrangements, parent conflict, and long-term physical health correlates for children of divorce. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(2), 195.

Hess, R. D., & Camara, K. A. (1979). Post‐Divorce Family Relationships as Mediating Factors in the Consequences of Divorce for Children. Journal of Social issues, 35(4), 79-96.

Kelly, J. B., & Emery, R. E. (2003). Children's adjustment following divorce: Risk and resilience perspectives. Family Relations, 52(4), 352-362.

King, V., & Heard, H. E. (1999). Nonresident father visitation, parental conflict, and mother's satisfaction: What's best for child well-being Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61, 385–396.

Kruk, E. (2012). Arguments for an equal parental responsibility presumption in contested child custody. American Journal of Family Therapy, 40(1), 33-55.

Melli, M. S., & Brown, P. R. (2008). Exploring a new family form–The shared time family. International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family, 22(2), 231-269.

Vanassche, S., Sodermans, A. K., Matthijs, K., & Swicegood, G. (2013). Commuting between two parental households: The association between joint physical custody and adolescent wellbeing following divorce. Journal of Family Studies, 19(2), 139-158.

The opinions expressed on this page are the authors' personal opinions.
Suggestions for improving or extending the content are welcome at parncutt@gmx.at.
Back to Richard Parncutt's homepage