Women constitute a group that faces the problem of undeserved discrimination on an almost daily basis in our society. The underlying ideas and stereotypes that support this discrimination are part of our cultural and historical legacy. This makes them particularly difficult to overcome. But, since females constitute over 50% of our society, it is self destructive to our society to allow this discrimination to continue. Unfortunately, modifying the underlying cultural stereotypes about women is very difficult due to how much they permeate our society. Only the tools of science applied to research into feminist issues will allow us to undermine these stereotypes.
The first area that we need to understand as we undertake the research into feminist issues is what the underlying stereotypes actually are and what the original basis for forming these stereotypes was. Researchers in this area will have to be particularly careful that the designs of their studies are not biased by their preconceived ideas about the stereotypes. For example, questionnaires that provide a list of stereotypes for study participants to agree or disagree with will not identify previously unidentified stereotypes. A more appropriate design might be to have questionnaire respondents provide one or two word descriptions of women seen in various settings from which the underlying stereotypes could be identified.
Once the underlying stereotypes are identified we need to understand the historical context in which they were formed. For example the stereotype that underage females need to be protected from non-familial males can be traced back to the period when females were essentially sold into marriage. In those times dowries were not paid if the young female was determined not to be a virgin on her wedding night. This meant that there was a strong economic incentive to protect daughters from the possibility of early sexual activity. The varying strength of this stereotype in today’s society is directly related to how long it has been since the culture stopped requiring dowries for the sale of daughters into feminist marriage. The more recently that underlying cultural behavior, the sale of female children into marriage, has been seen, the stronger the prohibition against unsupervised contact with males from outside of the family.
Unfortunately, the identification of all of the various stereotypes that have an effect on the treatment of women in our society will not be as simple. Scientific research into feminist issues to identify the underlying causes for those stereotypes will be even more complicated. But, true economic and political equality cannot be achieved until those underlying stereotypes are identified and understood in all of their ramifications.