by Sarah Curtis-Fawley
It was June, and I was on a roadtrip. We stopped for gas and I glanced at the magazine stand. The cover of Time reached out and slapped me across the face. "Is Feminism Dead?" it leered at me. On the cover were Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Ally McBeal. Staring at three of the most influential women in American history juxtaposed with a fictional television character, I felt as if something essential to me had died, and I wasn't even invited to the funeral. If, as the editors of Time so flippantly report, feminism is dying, why aren't we whipping out the defibrillator paddles and doing our darndest to shock the life back into it? Are we all just shuffling around in the waiting room, whispering about feminism's death as if it was some old great-aunt whom no one really cared about anyway?
Once I was able to take a deep breath and actually read the Time article, I was a little less panicked. Writer Ginia Bellafante's main thrust is that we have moved into an era of female self-obsession, a far cry from the personal/political feminist agenda that fired the feminism of the 60s and 70s, when women made "big, unambiguous demands of the world." Rather than concentrating on equality in the workplace or political representation, Bellafante asserts that women have turned inward, and that feminism has "devolved into the silly." Today's woman is characterized by singers such as Meredith Brooks or Alanis Morissette, who "sing about bad moods or boyfriends who have dumped them." Television's poster girl, Ally McBeal, is similarly self-obsessed; in one episode she states that her problems are bigger than everyone else's, "Because they're mine." Even Women's Studies departments have become narcissistically focused on "symbols of the body and less on social action and social change," the article continues, as if rolling out the proverbial fat lady.
In a companion piece to the Time cover story, Nadya Labi writes on "Girl Power." Look at the role models that girls can emulate these days; the Spice Girls, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mulan. Girls can stamp their feet and proclaim, "Yo, I'll tell you what I want, what I really, really want." Girls can kick butt, whether that butt belongs to a Hun or a vampire. Feminism's tenets of equality have been packaged and presented in ways that America can digest without too much thought. Yet all of these supposed symbols of female power are nothing more than glitzy commodities. "In order to even imagine female heroism, we're placing it in the realm of fantasy," said Kathleen Karlyn, a professor at the University of Oregon. And as girls struggle to embody those fantasies, they are killing their self-esteem and starving their bodies. A 1995 Center for Disease Control study found that 60% of high-school age girls were trying to lose weight. Replacing Barbie with Buffy is clearly not the victory that feminism hoped for.
What is distinctly absent from the Time coverage of the alleged demise of feminism is any attempt to analyze what real women think about feminist values and politics. Mulan and McBeal are one thing, but what about the millions of women who have inherited feminism's legacy? Bellafante does mention that a Time/CNN survey found that 50% of 18- to 34-year old women share "feminist values." This figure seems to imply that feminism is very much alive and kicking, but Time seems altogether uninterested in finding out why so many women feel this way about a supposedly passé movement.
But maybe feminism has one foot in the grave simply because we don't need it anymore. Perhaps, Bellafonte muses, "it's dead because it has won." A very superficial analysis of gender relations in modern American culture might lead one to believe this to be true. Today women comprise over half of the students enrolled in colleges. More women than ever are in the labor force and are starting to enter traditionally male fields. We are increasingly aware of violence against women, and more research is being done on female medical issues, such as breast cancer. But before we crack open the champagne to celebrate gender equality, we need to examine if we've really come a long way, baby. One hundred and fifty years have passed since the first "women's rights" convention, the 1848 Seneca Falls Conference. What have we accomplished in the past century and a half?
Women have been called queens for a long time, but the kingdom given them isn't worth ruling. -Louisa May Alcott
According to the National Council of Women's Organizations, in 1997 women comprised only 12.3% of the members of Congress. In 1992-93, 68.9% of male professors at four-year colleges were tenured, in comparison with 44.1% of female faculty. Women still aren't paid as much as men either; they make 76 cents for every dollar earned by a man. A woman with a B.A. earns an average of only $41 a week more than a man with a high school diploma. Among the Fortune 500 companies, there are only two female CEOs, and only 10% of corporate officers are women. In the military, women are excluded from 39% of all positions. Female criminals receive disproportionately longer sentences for the same crimes that men commit. Domestic violence and sexual assault affect millions of women every year, and, according to the Surgeon General, more than a third of the women murdered annually in the United States are killed by their husbands. Many victims of these crimes never report to the police, which may not be surprising considering that only 13.6% of all police officers in this country are women. Clearly there are many fights left to be won.
The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn. -Gloria Steinem
After reading the Time article, I became more and more aware that there is a significant movement that seeks to kill feminism if it won't just hurry up and die on its own. Just by doing a simple search of "feminism" on the Web, I found more anti-feminist websites than anything else. Organizations such as The Men's Defense Association (MDA) and the Independent Women's Forum vehemently attack feminism and link it to every conceivable social problem, from poverty to male impotence to the "pantywaists running the Pentagon."
In her article "Real Women to Our Rescue," anti-feminist writer Nan Bauroth asserts that only by "counteracting the feminist hordes" will we save America from imminent demise. She asserts that feminism has created a bunch of "Neanderthal women" who drink, gamble, curse, and flush "newborns down the toilet." According to Bauroth, women have "conquered the bedroom and the boardroom," and will soon get on with their master plan: "white male genocide." "No wonder the rush for Viagra," she exclaims. Women have so emasculated men that of course they can't get it up anymore. Anti-feminist and poet Robert Bly also argues that feminism has deprived men of the sexual control they rightly deserve. "I began to feel diminished," said Bly about the feminist movement of the 1970s, "by my lack of embodiment of the fruitful male." Bly and Bauroth seem to argue that power and social status amount to a zero sum game. If women's autonomy increases, then it's got to come from somewhere -- why not from male sexuality?
The MDA claims that feminism, which is based upon a "hatred of men, manhood and fatherhood," has caused "men's sorry situation." Yet despite this melodramatic rhetoric, the only piece of "evidence" of male oppression they can offer is that mothers receive custody of children in 95% of custody disputes. If the MDA is truly interested in children and custody rights, perhaps they should attempt to address why women have been responsible for the vast majority of child care and housework for eons. Rather than snivel about the injustice of the custody system, the MDA should figure out how men can work to achieve more equitable parenting with their female partners.
Another website, aptly titled "The Domain of Patriarchy on the Internet," states that feminism is "fundamentally a con." Women have it all, this irate site screams: "women live, on average, seven years longer than men." This site also dismisses the need to be concerned about violence against women, as "women are the victim of only about 35% of violent crimes, and only about 25% of all murders." What the "Domain" fails to address is that the majority of violence against women is perpetrated by their husbands, boyfriends, fathers, uncles, and other intimate relations. It is estimated that every year four million women are the victims of severe or life-threatening abuse from a male partner. Yet the "Domain" feels that the "American woman emerges as perhaps the most privileged large group in history." How have women accomplished this coup? By "pretending to be helplessly trapped" and then ferociously taking the reins of power when society comes to her rescue.
Finally, there are many religious groups that attack feminism as the cause of moral decay. The Catholic Resource Network contends that feminism "breeds in bitterness and envy," suggesting that feminists are merely jealous of men. This organization states that feminism is rooted in "destruction of the fatherheaded family with divorce and illegitimacy made normal; all women in the workforce ... total sexual liberation including sex for children, homosexuality, and bisexuality." This group has voiced its committment to purge the country of feminism. But this crusade will be far from easy, as they assert that, "Radical feminists are firmly entrenched in the universities, in the media, and now in the government."
No wonder feminism has gotten a bad name. If feminism really is about flushing babies down the toilet, hating men, and an all-female workforce, count me out. The far-right has been wildly successful at denigrating feminism and convincing the public that it is a movement comprised of wild-eyed women intent on nothing less than bringing men to their knees and then kicking them while they're down. It is amazing how distorted feminism's tenets have become -- it's like a twisted game of Whisper Down The Lane. I start by saying "Feminism means equal rights for women politically, economically, and socially," and ends up being interpreted as, "Feminism means women hate all men and hate being mothers and want to rule the whole world." By sticking to overblown rhetoric and cartoonish examples, rather than concentrating on concrete issues, these anti-feminists (and even Time) create a mockery of feminism that no self-respecting human being would want to be associated with. So even if many American women still believe in the movement, they run screaming from the label, perhaps even buying into the idea that feminism is the problem rather than the answer.
Every time we liberate a woman, we liberate a man. - Margaret Mead
OK, so enough of Time and wackos on the internet. What do real women think about feminism? My highly unscientific survey found that women feel that feminism has profoundly affected their lives in numerous ways. Admittedly, the women that I come in contact with aren't a representative sample ... but they are a lot more real than Ally McBeal.
My mother (always a good person to start with, as moms are usually right about everything) told me that, "Feminism in the late 70s opened my eyes to the discrimination around me and made me understand that much of what I considered 'traditional' behavior was in fact male society's desire to maintain their comfortable status quo." Right on, mom. She also said that "Having three daughters has made me more aware of the inequalities in society." Rather than a bunch of "angry women," mom feels that feminism is "the natural progression of a democratic society." Fourth year Maria Pulzetti said that she views feminism as part of a history of social justice movements in the United States, which can be traced through abolitionism, women's suffrage, civil rights, anti-war, and finally the feminism of the late 1960s and 70s.
If feminism is a part of a larger "progression," some women that I surveyed did feel as if we have achieved many of feminism's original gains. The "younger generation has not had to fight as hard for the obvious stuff," said one woman. Feminism "has made me stronger," replied Jessica Arnold, "It has made me recognize who I am and to not limit myself to the normal daughter/sister/woman roles that have been mapped out for me." Yet while woman are able to take more and more for granted, we are simultaneously faced with the hard reality that we are not considered the equals of men. This is a double whammy for feminism; it has emerged as both a victor and a pathetic loser in the struggle for equality. It is important to realize that feminism will not die when we achieve a certain minimum level of equality. Rather, feminism can be seen as a continually evolving process, that begins with "social and political change on a personal level," as Jessie Blundell said.
Yet while all of the women in my little survey felt that feminism has positively impacted their lives, they also repeatedly stated that feminism has been so demonized that it can be a hard sell. As Maria pointed out, because feminism is threatening to deeply-wentrenched systems of hierarchy and privilege, those who wish to discredit feminism can simply say that "feminists are crazy." "The word itself is a little beleaguered -- maybe we need a new term," Dean Janice Gerda suggested. "I think the general public is not interested," said Dawn Jefferson.
When asked what kind of images feminism conjures up in America's minds, the women I surveyed said that the public perception is that a feminist is "some cranky old divorced woman who 'couldn't keep a man,'" or "overdriven women who abandon their homes to work on Wall Street." Maria said that, "the perception still exists that feminists are angry/ugly/bitter and are all rape survivors, lesbians, or victims of childhood sexual abuse." My best friend, a student at Brown, said that she does not identify as a feminist, "I would rather create another label which does not encompass all of the baggage of 'feminism,'" she said. It is shocking that it is easier for people to rattle off all of the negative stereotypes about feminism than it is to actually define feminism's real goals. This is evidence of how powerfully successful the feminist backlash has been, and a reminder of why we can't let feminism die when it is most needed.
The most interesting aspect of this whole debate is that there are as many feminisms as there are feminists. Every woman that I surveyed gave a slightly different definition of the term. Some spoke of equality in the home, of equally sharing the child-rearing and housecleaning duties. Others felt that feminism was about women taking control of their bodies, in terms of sex, reproduction, and images of beauty. Or that feminism's main goal is and should be equality in education and the workplace. One woman spoke of feminism in a cross-cultural sense, acknowledging that there are cultures with entirely different conceptions of gender, and that the feminist project should include and respect women on a global level. As Dawn Jefferson stated, "Feminism is so varied, but discussed as if all women come to one meeting on Monday nights and agree." Feminism does, however, create a common space in which women and men can think and act to affect social change. Jessie Blundell said that even though it is impossible to assert that there is "some essential, genetic, or biological bond between women regardless of economic class, culture, 'race,' or ethnicity ... I claim feminism because I find it a useful tool, a meeting ground."
As long as one keeps searching, the answers come. - Joan Baez
So I don't see any funerals for feminism in the near future. But that doesn't mean that feminism is not in trouble. There are many who want to see feminism fail. Take a moment, close your eyes, and try to envision a world without feminism. Would the University of Virginia be more than 50% female? Would girls be able to look up to role models like Sheryl Swoops, Madeleine Albright, and Betty Williams? Would there be a strong movement to end domestic violence? Would we value women as human beings?
Modern feminists continue to ask the same questions and face the same challenges as early women's rights activists. In the past, women who challenged the patriarchal status quo were burned at the stake, beaten, or considered mentally ill and sent to the hospital for a hysterectomy. Today, feminists are labeled as baby-killers and blamed for the destruction of the American family. But feminists have held true to the same core idea that was presented in the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848, "The woman is man's equal."
Clearly, feminism has changed our country on every level: personal, economic, political. The challenge for contemporary feminists is to find new momentum and support for the battles that still need to be fought and won: ending sexual violence, creating a new vision for parenting, closing the pay gap, ensuring that boys and girls receive equitable educations, continuing the feminist project to write women back into history. Sociology professor Sharon Hays said that feminism is far from dead, but that "it is taking a bit of a nap." OK, the nap is over. I am going to jump on the bed and make sure feminism wakes up.
10 DECEMBER 1998
© Copyright 1998, Sarah Curtis-Fawley. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
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