Warning: I'm feeling a bit snarky this week, and this post may reflect that!
Tuesday night, my wife and I were in the Apple store in Old Town Pasadena, picking up iPod accessories. When I handed my credit card over to the young woman behind the counter, she read my name and said "Hey, you teach at PCC." I admitted that it was so, and we chatted as she rang up the purchase. Jokingly, I asked her why she hadn't taken any of my courses. I mentioned my courses in Western Civ, as well as Women's History. As soon as I mentioned the latter class, the gal remarked "Well, I'd never take a class like that. I'm not a feminist. I'm all about being a homemaker, and I don't like sitting around listening to a bunch of women complain about how unfair the world is." We had a movie to catch, and I almost never argue with folks in public, so when I heard this, I just smiled my most indulgent smile and said "Well, if you take my class, you might be surprised", and I left it at that.
But I've been thinking about that encounter ever since. I've heard similar things from many young women. Curiously, I've found that some of the most virulently anti-feminist young women are also assertive and bright. They have plans to transfer to elite universities and colleges, and while some -- like the woman in the Apple store -- aspire to be homemakers sooner rather than later, others are quite clear that they wish to have careers and public lives. They either don't connect their freedom to pursue education and career with feminist history at all, or they pay grudging respect to the struggles of previous generations of activists, but persist in saying that in the twenty-first century, feminism is no longer necessary.
I don't keep good track of my own posts, but I know I've mentioned this at least once before: I think most of the anti-feminist rhetoric we hear from certain young women today is tied up with a profound sense that to be a feminist is to embrace victim language. Somehow, someway, some young women have been given the false impression that feminism over-emphasizes women's powerlessness and suffering. The last thing many young women want is to think of themselves as victims, particularly when our popular culture promotes the ideal of the "hip, together woman" who can handle herself and "doesn't let adversity slow her down."
On the one hand, I'm not fond of "victim language" either. Actually, I don't know many authentic feminist scholars and instructors who are intent on convincing young women that they are being victimized by the big bad patriarchy. Most of us are far more interested in giving young women the tools with which to change their lives -- and the lives of other women around the globe -- than we are in reinforcing resentments or inculcating bitterness. Yes, I want the young men and women with whom I work to get angry. Yes, I want them to look honestly at the ways in which our society still discriminates against and exploits women. But I don't want to leave them stuck in anger or in fatalistic surrender to the inevitable. The way to approach the notion of women as victims is not to ignore or deny the reality of women's suffering (which anti-feminists do), but instead to (oh, over-used verb alert) empower young women to take tangible but vital steps towards taking responsibility for changing their lives and the lives of their sisters.
As in AA, the first step is admitting that a problem -- in this case, rampant and enduring sex-discrimination -- still exists. But acknowledging the problem is the first step towards transformation. The tragedy is that contemporary rhetoric has created the idea for young women that to be a feminist is to be "stuck" in bitterness and resentment, to be constantly aware of one's victimization. It's not a pleasant picture the anti-feminists paint, and it is disturbingly effective at scaring off countless young women and men who really do need to confront the reality of local and global injustice against women.
The other aspect of this anti-feminism I encounter among my students is a disturbing refusal to see any sense of responsibility for and towards other women. Not all anti-feminist young women are selfish. But I have to admit that more than a few of the brighter ones, are alas, going through that depressing stage where they think the Fountainhead is the greatest book ever written, and Ayn Rand has become -- at least temporarily -- their hero. (Thankfully, they usually grow out of it. Lots of young men and women become captivated by the radical self-centeredness of objectivism in their teens and early twenties; most abandon it once they learn what it is to truly love another human being unconditionally.) Young women like this flatter themselves into believing that sexism is just an excuse used by unhappy and unsuccessful women to explain their failures; the Rand devotees insist, with an almost heartbreaking naivete, that in the modern world any young woman can succeed at anything she wants if she tries hard enough, and she can do so by herself. Women's failure to achieve happiness, they defiantly declare, is due to individual shortcomings only, and not to broader social problems.
Young women in this latter category tend to have, I notice, few good female friends. They are often card-carrying members of the "all my good friends are guys" club. Frequently, their speech drips with contempt for most other women, whom they consider "weak" or "superficial" or "catty". "Me, I'm more like a man than a woman", these gals will boast. For some that means sexual aggressiveness, but for most, it means that they associate masculinity with boldness, decisiveness, and certainty -- qualities they see as infinitely preferable to what they see in most of their female peers. For this sort of young woman, anti-feminism is a perverse badge of honor, a way of saying "I am achieving success for myself on my own; I don't need a feminist movement, I don't need a 'sisterhood'".
As much as this attitude drives me bats, I have to admit I relish the challenge students such as these present! It's why I'd love to get the gal from the Apple store into class. Make no mistake, these young anti-feminist women are frequently bright and articulate, and often make excellent students. Even as they push me -- and I push back, hard -- I am grateful for their presence. They force me, and all of us who do this work, to do a still-better job of making clear that feminism is still relevant and essential to the lives of contemporary American women. And they compel me to make the case that we do have collective obligations to our fellow human beings -- and in a very important sense, we have a special obligation to those who share our sex.