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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Female Stereotypes Persist

Do women’s consumer dollars buy less value in the marketplace than do men’s dollars? In all too many instances, the answer is still “yes.”

Our inquiry into this persistent discrimination against women assembled cases which many women unfortunately can relate to from their own experience:

  • A federal judge’s wife says that she never brings in her own car to the repair shop without her husband.

  • A department store shopper complains that women’s jeans, blouses and shoes are more poorly constructed, have less material, but cost more than comparable men’s wear.

  • A woman applying for a loan to start a cosmetics business is told by the banker that she should file a joint appli­cation with her husband because the bank would not “loan money to a woman to sell cosmetics.”

  • A woman observes that her doctor treats her in a very condescending manner, prescribes tranquilizers and says her problems are mostly emotional.

  • A woman walks into a department store and tells the salesman that she wants to buy comfortable shoes; the salesman asks her: “What’s wrong with your feet?”

  • Men’s voices in television advertisements advise women on everything from how to become ‘beautiful’ to household cleaning materials. In most ads men are shown as assertive, intelligent, powerful individuals, while women are shown as sex objects, dependent, or ornamental beings for men’s appraisal.

Many of the cruel stereotypes of female hysteria, insecurity, ignorance, hypochondria and inexperience still endure, notwithstanding the recent expansion of women’s rights and roles. Progress against sexism has been exaggerated when reality, rather than rhetoric, is measured, as in the marketplace. The stereotypes themselves are central to merchandising strategies supported by billions of dollars of design and promotion. In sector after sector — clothing, adver­tising, health, credit and many consumer services from auto to home repair — women are being harmed, cheated or excluded because they are women.

As might be expected, sellers have a ready supply of glib obfuscations. “Well, women like fashion and style”; “Women will pay a lot more than men”; “Women are just more emotional, you know, it’s just part of being feminine”; “Women just don’t know about technical things like cars or plumbing or the law”; were some of the comments we came across.

Over the years I have received letters from women who recited these words in order to declare their resentment at continually being treated as a lower order of intelligence. They want to tell the stores, the offices, the companies and the rest of the male world that this wasteful destructive and unjust nonsense has got to stop.

There has been some change over the past decade. Laws such as the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1975 have been passed. Women moving into the legal and medical professions, as well as other trades, in greater numbers have helped chip away at long-held biases. The quest for sensible and comfortable clothes is certainly more widespread than the bygone years of the 19th century when Victorian women wore corsets so tight their lungs sometimes collapsed and their ribs were fractured or deformed.

But there are still many unnecessary operations performed on women and too many drugs prescribed for women because gender myths replace medical science. An old medical-school so-called joke asked: “What are the symptoms for a hysterectomy? Answer: A Blue Shield card and $200.”

Sellers time and time again will choose to exploit women who have passive self-images as long as they can profitably get away with it. If such marketing approaches come up against the rugged terrain of women taking charge, then sellers will have to win their sales by concentrating more on quality, durability, price competition, safety, truth, competent service and useful product information. The cumulative result would be a superior quality of living and a more valuable consumer dollar.