My respiratory infection is only slowly getting better. I am now taking Prednisone, the powerful steroid; it worked the last time I had such breathing problems in 1999. It has a remarkably stimulating impact on my appetite, and it keeps me awake at night -- but today I feel better than I have felt in two weeks, and that is progress. I'm hoping I will be able to run later this week -- as any readers who are exercise addicts know, there are few frustrations comparable to being deprived of the opportunity to sweat recreationally!
Here comes the Monday rant/essay:
Last week, Rhesa from Creative Slips sent me a terrific e-mail, asking about feminism. With her permission, I'm going to make the attempt to respond publicly. Here's an excerpt from what she wrote:
For the past few days I've been re-reading your posts
while trying to get a clear picture of what a modern
feminist is and what s/he believes in. Frankly, it's
hard. For the most part, I'm really curious about
feminism because I don't call myself a feminist...
What I'm looking for are
answers, basically. What are the goals for today's
feminists? And I don't mean for this to sound
condescending at all, but why should I care?
These are excellent questions, and they aren't at all dissimilar from the questions my students in Women's History classes ask regularly. At the beginning of each semester, I always ask students in that class whether or not they consider themselves to be feminists. For the past decade, the response rate has been more or less the same: 20% say "yes", 20% say "definitely not" and the majority offer some variation on the time-honored phrase "I'm not a feminist, but..."
Part of the problem is that the media has distorted the image of what it means to be a feminist. Despite the fact that "bra-burning" never took place publicly during the 1960s or 1970s (though there were public demonstrations where women discarded uncomfortable undergarments), my students still associate feminism with this non-existent practice. They also, as one of my students put it succinctly, see feminists on TV as "hairy, ugly, smelly, and angry". Above all, they have become convinced that to be a feminist is to dislike men -- both collectively and as individuals. Overwhelmed by media distortions, the majority are understandably reluctant to claim the mantle of feminism!
Another problem is that the word "feminism" encompasses an astonishingly broad range of theories and practices. There are "radical" feminists; there are "Marxist" feminists; there are "liberal" feminists; there are "separatist" feminists; there are certainly "Christian" (and Jewish, Islamic, etc.) feminists; there are many different varieties of "academic" feminists. Googling any of these terms can provide one not just with one definition, but with many -- often contradictory ones at that.
Still another problem is that the organized feminist movement in this country has chosen, in recent years, to associate itself almost exclusively with the abortion issue. Last month's March for Women's Lives is a fine case in point. The title of the March was vague indeed, but the intent wasn't. The Feminist Majority foundation not only has the web address feminist.org, but their agenda revolves almost solely around reproductive rights issues. (There are small pro-life feminist organizations, including the wonderful Feminists for Life, to whom I donate monthly.)
(On a tangential note, I'm always struck by the silence of pro-choice organizations on the primary use of abortion in India and China -- as a means of sex-selection, where it is routine to terminate the lives of healthy girls in utero. Clearly, it is access to abortion -- not the absence of abortion rights -- that is literally the biggest threat to "women's lives" in the two most populous countries in the world. But I digress).
So far, we're not doing a great job of making the case for feminism! Rhesa's final question, "Why should I care?" has yet to be answered. Well, if Rhesa sees preserving access to abortion as the great struggle of her life and of our time, then she has a cause to join. But polling shows that most young women are increasingly ambivalent about abortion, a cause for either celebration or alarm depending upon one's views. So what else is there to feminism in general? Let me make the case here I make to my students:
To be a feminist is, at its core, to believe in women, and to believe them to be deserving of equal treatment at the hands of legal, cultural, economic, and religious institutions. (Let's note in passing that "equal" does not mean the same thing as "identical".) To be a feminist is to look back into the past, and note that for most of recorded human history, women have been accorded less influence, less power, and access to far fewer resources than men. Indeed, in most instances women have been -- until recently -- seen as the legal property of fathers and husbands. To be a feminist today is to undertake the task of making oneself aware of how far we in the prosperous West have come from a world where women were chattel. To be a feminist today is to honor our feminist forebears by remembering the names and re-telling the stories of those who struggled for equal opportunity.
To be a feminist today, however, is not merely to remember the "bad old days" and offer hosannas of thanksgiving. To be a feminist today is to be aware that acquisition of the right to vote, the right to education, and the right to own property (the three great goals of 19th-century feminism) are alone not enough to give women genuine equality in the public and private spheres. Modern feminists are concerned that we live in a society where "poverty has a woman's face" (see here for some stats). Modern feminists note that in a world where women outlive men, and in a world where women remain the overwhelming majority of those who provide for the basic needs of the elderly, that the ageing of America is itself an issue with huge repercussions for women's lives. Modern feminists also note that in much of the developing world, women remain in virtual slavery, sexually and economically exploited.
My own concern as a feminist has been with our cultural loathing for women's bodies. I am troubled that we live in a culture where women enjoy unprecedented access to political and economic power, but are increasingly anxious about their own flesh. As I wrote elsewhere, I see no progress in moving from a world where girls undergo clitoridectomies to a world where girls undergo breast implants.
And as a feminist, I believe the whole notion of "choice" to be problematic. One only can "choose" from a limited selection of choices made available at any one time. Choices and desires are very different things, and feminists know this. The choice between an abortion and raising a child on one's own in poverty and shame is not a happy one. Most young women who "choose" abortion might choose differently if our society were willing to provide young mothers with sufficient emotional and financial support so that they were not forced to choose between their babies and their futures. (And many of these young women might choose differently if the father of the child were willing to "step up" and be present for his new family emotionally, financially, and physically.) The choice between cosmetic surgery and being accepted as beautiful is not a happy one either -- what most women really desire is to be loved and affirmed and wanted as they are. Radical diets, surgery, and hyper-sexualization are strategies of desperation rather than choices rooted in genuine desire.
I still may not have answered Rhesa's question. But let me finish this extremely long entry (you can't possibly still be reading, can you?) with this:
I want the women in my life, young and old, to be able to enjoy the same freedoms that their lovers and husbands and brothers do. I want them to be able to walk into parking lots at night without fear of rape. I want them to be able to use their voices in the pulpit, in the professoriate, and someday, lord willing, in the presidency, without being told that they have "stepped out of their place." I want a society where women's bodies are neither feared and shrouded (ala the Taliban) nor reduced to vulgarly displayed commodities to be ogled, fondled, judged and consumed (ala today). I want a society where certain innate differences between men and women are understood and honored, where flexibility in gender roles does not diminish what ought to be an enduring appreciation for women's individual and collective capacity to give life and to nurture. I want a society where young women can laugh and jump and run around and have dreams, where they are valued for their minds more than for their bodies. I want a society where mothers feel that the society around them values their work as much as it values that of the police officer or the insurance agent or the soldier. I want a society where older women, who so often are left alone, are heard and valued and respected and cared for until natural death.
To be a feminist means that I must be committed, in ways large and small, to working to make this into reality. It means working in solidarity with other men and women. But above all, for me as a feminist, I must be willing all to identify those aspects of myself where my language does not match my life, and I must hold myself -- and others -- accountable to change.