Free-Floating Hostility

Saturday, November 12, 2005

It's not your Mother's Brand of Feminism

It's been almost two weeks since Maureen Dowd's essay in the Times magazine about the current state of American feminism, but I only read it this morning. I'm pretty touchy about Dowd's generation accusing my generation of having abandoned feminism. Here are the flaws I find in her argument:

1. The female sex is not divided into two categories in which you either are or aren't a feminist. Not having been alive in the 70s I suppose I don't really know, but it seems to me that binary was a big part of the movement at the time. It made sense; it was a radical movement which was (at least in the beginning) a minority opinion. Having pride in gender equality meant being vocal about it, and therefore it mattered whether you did or did not want to be counted as a member of the movement. But I would argue that feminism has become so successful that those categories no longer apply. Not even the most hard-core rightist would publicly admit that women are not equal, even if his actions would seem to contradict it. Everyone is a feminist now. And that means that any given woman exhibits some "feminist" and "non-feminist" behaviors, falling somewhere along the spectrum between Mamie Eisenhower and Bella Abzug. Many young women disavow feminism because they have internalized a caricatured notion of it, but if they still believe they have the same right to earn money, to strive for societal roles of their own choosing, to generally shape their own destinies, then I don't really care what they call themselves.

2. Feminism was supposed to give women choices. The evil of sexism is that it restricts the freedom of both sexes to carve their identities and take certain societal roles that would be most fulfilling to them. If what you're fighting for is Choice in its widest sense, then you have to accept that some women will choose traditional roles. What made a woman's job so horrible wasn't only the job itself, it was that she was forced into it without the power of reshaping it. Someone who truly wants that role and stays in it because it makes her happy is not a bad feminist. Therefore you can't simply look at numbers (or, in Dowd's case, anecdotal evidence) and take that as proof of the failure of feminism. I don't personally think the traditional man is a creature I should imitate, nor do I think it's my duty to do so by virtue of the fact that men have been slow to imitate the best aspects of womanhood. And even if you do, why are women being blamed for this phenomenon while the men are let off the hook?

3. The other problem with looking at "numbers" alone, is that it involves a distortion of the experience of 70s feminism. It's not as though there was a consensus among women as to the virtues of feminism at the time. What, there were no housewives in Dowd's generation? Please.

4. Feminism then as now has been concerned with the most convenient aspects of gender inequality: A. The success of the top rungs of professional women and B. Cosmetic issues. It seems obvious to me that if women earned the same amount as men, and truly had equal roles in their family lives, then no one would give a shit about whether or not they changed their last names or wore makeup. It also seems obvious to me that women of low socioeconomic status have the most to gain from feminism--they don't have a choice about whether or not to work. They have the most need of self-reliance and the chance to achieve equal benefits of their labor, and they are not much better off today than they were thirty years ago. While Dowd and her generation are up in arms about Harvard Business Graduates giving up their jobs, there are thousands of mothers who couldn't give up their jobs if they wanted to. That is a real feminist issue.

5. The reason the behavior of Harvard grads is changing is that in Dowd's generation, the women who went to business school were mostly women who allied themselves with traditional feminism. Now that, as I have argued, feminism is all-pervasive, any "type" of woman can go to business school, and that's going to include some Phyllis Schlafly types. That's the consequence of true success. If you really want to create a society in which women and men don't have to give up their jobs to raise children, then you have to create a structure that helps them to raise those children. I sure wish the energy that went into mainstreaming the title "Ms." had gone into creating widely available and affordable child care. I really see no point in denying that women who keep their jobs have a harder time raising their children the way they would ideally like to and blaming the women who have observed this phenomenon for themselves.

I don't wish my argument here to come off as a defense of the status quo. I know full well the limitations of gender equality in this country, and let's not even talk about the rest of the world or I'll be too frustrated to finish typing this sentence. But I think it's such a waste of emotion and resources to argue about the symptoms of gender disparity instead of its true causes. I can't help feeling that if Steinem's generation of activists had kept its eye on the ball, we wouldn't be having this conversation.

13 Comment(s):

  •   Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at November 12, 2005 6:41 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Couldn't have said it any better myself.


  •   Posted by Blogger BrooklynDodger at November 13, 2005 9:12 AM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Dowd irritates by projecting such a femme persona - check out the pictures she permits to be published on the Times website. Also elitist.

    At this point, 57% of college students are female. Among higher income whites, it's still 51%. Some Ivy schools have gone from 0% female in the '80's to majority female. White married women voted for George Bush, almost to the degree of white married men. Can any person who voted for Bush be considered a feminist?


  •   Posted by Blogger Anna at November 13, 2005 12:12 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Dodger, I have to disagree with both your points. My position is that criticizing people for being "femme" or insufficiently so distracts from truly important women's issues, and that includes Maureen Dowd.

    As to the second point, I think it's eminently possible for a feminist to vote for Bush. S/he just can't be a pro-choice feminist, and would probaly subscribe to the notion that the measure of feminism's success is the performance of the highest socioeconomic sectors. I have registered my objection to the latter, but I also think it's a red herring to argue over who should be allowed to call him/herself a feminist. I'm more interested in how people write, vote and spend their money.

  •   Posted by Blogger Form at November 13, 2005 12:25 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • I am concerned with how people spend their money too, and people who know they are going to stay at home with the kids should not spend their (or their parents') money on graduate school tuition. If you have already made up your mind not to use a graduate degree (not undecided), don't take a future bread winner's spot. This has to do with a fetishizing of educational success, which is true elitist narcissism. People need to stop thinking about how they are going to look on the Sunday Styles and start being practical.

  •   Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at November 13, 2005 2:04 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • On the other hand, what woman knows for sure that she'll have the opportunity to stay home with the kids and not need to earn money? Assuming that one won't have to be the breadwinner seems unwise.
    - Sol

  •   Posted by Blogger Anna at November 13, 2005 2:14 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • I take your point, Dave, and on a personal level it pisses me off, too. However, I don't think achievement makes women beholden to the rest of us. Particularly when achievement in this case is not measured by social contributions but by personal attainment. We don't demand of men entering coveted academic programs that they know they will never burn out or change fields or become unemployable alcoholics. Again, I think it's a symptom of larger problems in gender roles, family structures and the burden of raising a child without the "village." And I also think it's worth noting that women who give up that kind of career often come back to it eventually. An interrupted career path is not the same as societal parasitism. I wish women with gifts and opportunity would use it to the fullest, but I think it's going at the issue backwards to blame them for their choice instead of addressing why they are willing to make that choice when it obviously compromises so much.

  •   Posted by Blogger Form at November 14, 2005 9:25 AM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • All I am asking for is good faith. If you are undecided as to whether you want to work in Corporate America, go to business school. And I would never demand that people with Law Degrees spend their entire lives as lawyers. But I read a New York Times article about female Yale grads enterring grad school with full knowledge they were going to stay at home once they got married. That seemed to me to be stupid.

    So I do not ask for certain commitments, only good faith that you might use the degree.

  •   Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at November 17, 2005 8:16 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • I will post a longer comment but need to believe it will get htere. Trixie

  •   Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at November 17, 2005 8:22 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • Ok, so I think this will get there. What exactly is the ball that STeinem and her generation (mine) have not kept our collective eye on? We've worked till we're blue in the face for day care; no one would give an inch on it. And feminists have been committed to social justice disproportionately given their numbers. And we've worked extremely hard for equal pay--. If you believe that feminism is so successful, you're in cloud cuckoo land. It is a perfectly respectable prejudice for people to believe, and say, that women are not as fit as men for certain important jobs. That they are more emotional; more likely to make "soft" decisions, less likely to make hard ones, more ready to bail out for family or personal reasons. And there's Larry Sommers feeling quite cheery to say women can't do science. To say nothing of the strong belief that women are naturally better suited to changing diapers and wiping up vomit--so men belong in the outside work force, because they're suited to everything else. The hatred of women is visceral, deep, and omnipresent. The grip of appearance and its importance to the success of women is unloosened. The horrors of this, from eating disorders to plastic surgery for teenagers are obvious. I would be much more sanguine about women staying home to take care of their children if men did in anywhere equal numbers. I grant your point, that parents who work probably know that their kids aren't getting the care they would get if they were home. But even Anna limits that concern to women. Why aren't men worried enough, in equal proportions, to adapt their work life to this problem. To sacrifice the ego and other satisfactionds, the autonomous pleasures of earning a pyacheck--if it's such a damn great thing to do. Trixie

  •   Posted by Blogger Anna at November 17, 2005 9:19 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • I believe I already addressed your point, Trixie, when I said, "I don't personally think the traditional man is a creature I should imitate, nor do I think it's my duty to do so by virtue of the fact that men have been slow to imitate the best aspects of womanhood. And even if you do, why are women being blamed for this phenomenon while the men are let off the hook?." I don't in the slightest limit it to women, I am in fact pointing out that only women are being criticized for the decision and therefore are in need of defense. I think both sexes could profit from a cross-fertilization of job descriptions.

    I also pointed out that I'm not a moron, and that anyone who thinks gender equality has been achieved is probably asleep. My point is not that your generation didn't care about child care, but that the project has been all but abandoned. And my objection to Dowd's article was not that I think feminism has been a complete success but that she is looking at all the wrong criteria. I am arguing that that misemphasis contributed to the failure of some of the more important aspects of gender equality.

    You feel that hatred of women is visceral, deep and omnipresent. I feel that it is irrelevant. I don't care who does and doesn't like women as long as they are treated equally. Dowd's article was all about how no one likes feminists anymore, and that speaks volumes about the strategic and methodological flaws of the 70s feminst movement. It's not a popularity contest, it's civil rights.

  •   Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at November 18, 2005 10:14 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • What it also speaks to is the success acheived by the millions and millions of dollars and hours the enemies of feminism have spent. This is my understanding of Maureen Dowd, about whom I think more ink has been spilt than about global warming, and sort of , enough already, but just this one more. You can only understand Maureen Dowd if you went to Catholic school. So this is Maureen Dowd. There is a ban on not wearing unfiorm hats and white gloves if you have any part of the uniform on. YOu and your friends knock themselves out confronting the nuns to get the ban lifted. There is no hope the ban will be lifted on hats, but the nuns agree that you no longer have to wear white gloves every day. bYou and your friends are on their way to get a celebatory coke and french fries where you see Maureen Dowd and her girlfriends, none of whom worked to have the dress code restructured, standing around with football players from your brother school lamenting the fact tha ttheir hands are cold and now Muareen Dowd is wearing gloves up to her elbow every day.

  •   Posted by Anonymous Anonymous at November 18, 2005 10:14 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • The above was posted by Trixie

  •   Posted by Blogger Anna at November 19, 2005 1:59 PM | Permanent Link to this Comment
  • I think I speak for everyone when I say "What?"

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