Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Am I a feminist? Are you? I've been reading about Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and it's obvious that if one of us were to time-travel to visit the other, and she were to question me about what I felt women were fit to do, she would consider me a radical feminist. Probably you, too, if you believe that:
  • Women ought to be able to own property, instead of having a man (husband, father, brother, son) own and dispose of all property.

  • Women can decently write books and be paid for it.

  • Girls should go to school, not just to learn to sew but also to think and reason.

  • Girls should be allowed some modest exercise to keep their bodies healthy.

  • A grown woman is responsible for her own moral behavior.
Ok, maybe 1792 is too easy to compare to. Do you believe women should vote? Then according to the mores of UK, US and Canada in 1906, just a hundred years ago, you're a suffragist and feminist.

How about comparing to a time less than 50 years ago, then. In 1963, the Kennedy administration published the findings of a moderate commission on the status of women, and in 1964 came the Civil Rights Act which covered sex as well as race discrimination. Do you agree that:
  • It's unfair discrimination if a qualified woman is turned down for a job, and a less-qualified man hired instead, particularly in government and government-funded jobs.

  • Women should be allowed to use contraceptives.
Even though I know nobody, personally, who strongly disagrees with any of these points, I also know nobody who calls themselves a feminist, and thinking back 25 years can't remember knowing any self-declared feminists. Yet of course I know many women who wear pants (heh) and have technically-demanding careers, some of them also raising children. I also know many husbands and boyfriends who support demanding careers, help with housework, and have spoken in favour of equal pay and equal access to promotions and high-status jobs. There's some social differentiation around sexual acts -- it's better for your reputation to be sexually promiscuous if you're male than if you're female -- but I still have trouble of thinking of many people who would seriously discriminate on that basis (e.g. refusing to associate with an adulteress or reproving her while approving the company and behavior of adulterers).

What turned "feminist" into a nasty epithet? Was it the introduction of issues around sexual promiscuity and pornography? Was it the opposition of domesticity to feminist belief, making a woman who enjoyed cooking, sewing or having a clean house feel like she couldn't be a legitimate feminist? Was it fictional portrayals of feminists?

I can't decide if it's a good thing that we don't have as deep a need to be feminists any more, or a bad thing that the word is still so tarred after 30 years. I'd be interested in hearing opinions on that and whether you, male or female, consider yourself a feminist.


Barry Leiba said...

——> I also know nobody who calls themselves a feminist

I do (call myself one). OK, not every day, maybe not even often. But when it comes up (like now). And when I make blog posts like this one, and say, as I often do, that the world would be a better place if it were run by women.

I supported the ERA (remember that?!), and was aghast that a simple thing like that couldn't pass. (I'd rather that such a thing were so obvious that it didn't need to be in our constitution, but in the 1970s it was still common enough to hear people say that the Declaration of Independence says that "all men are created equal", such that I believed that it was necessary.)

Some of it may be, as you say, that accepting as a matter of course, as something unremarkable, that women have these rights to equality, and, therefore, who was once a feminist is now a mainstream, average person, and "feminist" applies only to certain nutjobs with crazy-by-today's-standards ideas. I dunno.

But, you know, to me, the fuss being made this week about Katie Couric and her being the first permanent news anchor for a major network makes it clear that we're not "there" yet. If it were unremarkable, we wouldn't remark. That it is remarkable is a symptom of a continuing problem.

And so I'm still a feminist.

——> it's better for your reputation to be sexually promiscuous if you're male than if you're female

True enough in general, but I'll point out that Bill Clinton got in lots more trouble for his indiscretions than Monica Lewinsky did. (But I don't mean to belittle your point; you're absolutely right. I'm sure that lots of those guys who on the outside were cluck-clucking about it, on the inside were saying, "All right, he got it on her dress!" Yeef.)

But, yeah, we have no Hester Prynnes these days. Only William Jeffses. Yeef, again.

——> What turned "feminist" into a nasty epithet?

The same thing that's turned "liberal" into one, and that's co-opted "patriot": political spin. Back in ERA days, in the heyday of Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem... and Phyllis Schlafly... the anti-feminists were portraying feminists as bra-burning nuts, who would make all bathrooms unisex and send all young women off to war. Who claimed that there were no differences between men and woman, and would have men and women playing American football in the same professional league.

The feminist side, of course, tried to point out that none of that was what we were on about. That the point was to give women the opportunity and the choice to do whatever they want — including to be homemakers and soccer moms, to cook and sew and clean house, if that's what they want to do.

But as so often happens, the sensationalist message is the one that sticks, not the one borne of reason and sense.


Glad to see a new blog entry, by the way. I'd like to see 'em more often....

Rachel Gollub said...

Hey, I call myself a feminist all the time! My mother-in-law, bless her heart, calls me one all the time too, though not in as flattering a tone of voice. :) But you're right, every time I say I'm a feminist, Jeremy says I'm not, because I don't identify with the goals and beliefs of current self-labeled radical feminists. He has a lot to say on this issue, actually, which sums up to the fact that the label has been absconded with by people with fringe views, creating an anti-feminist backlash which makes people afraid to identify with the fringe. This is something (I think) that happens to a lot of movements when they become less relevant -- as you say, nobody has to march on Washington these days to gain women the right to vote and own property, so traditional feminism (how's that for a phrase? :) ) is not as visible as it was. There's still a long way to go -- as women in technology, we both know that far better than most, but it's cascading to the point where I tend to think it will be outdated and irrelevant in another generation. Still, I label myself a feminist in an attempt to take back that name for those of us who want to make sure that we don't backslide, and that the remaining changes come soon. When my daughter says that women can't be doctors (hey, her doctor is female -- I have no idea where she got this!) then I tell her women can be whatever we want to be, and I'm a feminist because I take those kind of situations personally, and feel a personal need to fight for women's rights.

Ideally, in another generation, gay rights activists will be where feminists are now -- a fringe group, because gays already have all the rights that everyone else does. :)

Natasha said...
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Natasha said...

Well, it's still legal to discriminate against female job candidates for being married or having children and women still earn less than men for comparable work. A woman is far more likely to get the death penalty for killing a spouse, not that it's a trivial crime, but that the justice system is still sexist enough to be more forgiving of a man killing his wife. Rape remains a crime wherein a victim of a physical assault can be accused of wanting to be attacked, which is like arguing that if you're known in your town as a generous gift giver and charity supporter that you're just asking to be stolen from. Women remain a segment of society whose rights to reproductive and physical autonomy constantly have to be fought for.

The better sort of job a person has, the more time they spend around cultured and well educated people, the easier it is to lose sight of these things. When a person lives in a very liberal area with lots of amenities and an enlightened humanism pervades the local sense of public etiquette, even people of modest means can forget that these problems are still with us.

However, even a state like CA now has a governor who's known to be abusive and disrespectful towards women. Even the chancellor of Germany can be casually groped by another western world leader because of her gender and have it shrugged off as high spirits. We still live in a society that sends women a hail of contradictory and insulting messages about sexual behavior while encouraging men to be callous and disconnected from women as people.

I used to think feminism was an artifact, but then the more I started reading, the more I saw that there was still work to do. The people who think that women are only good for filling traditional roles, which roles get a lot of lip service but no real respect from these proponents*, are still fighting to return American society to something the Taliban might not find quite so offensive. The more people think this fight is finished, the more ground they gain.

Anyway, I'd point you to Alas, A Blog. The authors there spend a lot of time talking about gender issues as well as finding studies, blogs and other online resources that provide a high quality of debate or analysis. There's also plenty of entertaining debate on the topic from more of a pop culture slant at Pandagon. Both of these sites seem to me to challenge the idea that feminism has been taken over in any sense by a radical fringe. That's a sentiment that's seeped into popular culture from the Limbaughs of the world, but mainstream feminism is sex-positive, family-positive and has a lot to say about the ways in which current social dynamics tie men into artificially stilted and restricted behaviors.

And from Ampersand at Alas, the male privilege checklist.

* When was the last time you heard a radical anti-feminist suggest real help for mothers, like daycare support for working moms (who might be single!) or a pension system for people who spend most of their lives caring for children without pay? When have any of them ever suggested restructuring a society premised on a (male) wage earner with a life-long, full-time, unpaid care provider at home to make life and work easier for the typical modern family? Not holding my breath.

note: spotted an oversight in the first run of this comment, sorry about that

Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

)I should state that I found this from Barry Leiba's comment which he turned into a post and many of my responses to him will be posted on his blog.)
I too have always called myself a feminist, and still do. I think one of the reasons, besides the Schlafflys and Limbaughs, why the term became an epithet was the confusion between 'feminist' and 'radical feminist.' Many of the latter, particularly in acadame, bcame mythogogues, truly as sexist as the worst men, who saw all virtues as feminine, all vices as testosterone-connected, who bent anthropology, literary criticism, scientific history, and other fields so that all positives could be, somehow, traced to females, almost as the cliche 'comic Russian' claimed that Russia had 'really' invented everything.

That being said, I feel you are far too sanguine that the battles have been won, that feminism is no longer a necessary view to hold. (I too would have said something similar ten years ago.)

In the secular, urban, world, perhaps this is true. But as we have seen, there is a dangerous recurrence of the most conservative forms of religion, and, in many religions, a drift from a casual, moderately liberal or conservative form of religion to a much harsher fundamentalism. (This is true in Protestantism, Islam, and to a lesser extent in Judaism. It is probably least true in Roman Catholicism, which, despite the myths, except for the question of the priesthood, has never had the anti-woman attitudes of the stricter forms of other religions. 'Women must be subject to their husband's authority' has never been a popular position in Catholicism, women have never had strict dress codes, even nuns were under no harsher rules than were monks -- if not priests in general.)

But in the radical Protestant groups, in the Ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities -- and, since we are not limited to America, in those areas where Islam is predominant, there is a return to the old ideas of women. True, there has been no attempt to change the legal status women have gotten -- except for abortion-related questions -- and they may be too established to be rolled back.

But I would not be too sanguine even about this. If the movement called Dominionism/Reconstructionism gains more power, even these may be assaulted.

In the particular form of Dominionism that is the "Cult of Character,' women have a purely subservient status, and, while they have not implimemented this, seven states and about 150 cities have declared themselves 'States/Cities of Character and have established schools teaching a (nominally secularised) form of these beliefs. Indianapolis was using such schools as a place to send 'unruly children' as young as ten, and several areas in Florida and the Southwest have used these ideas in schools and for teaching law enforcement officers. Were this movement to gain power, attitudes we treat as relics of the past might prove to be current threats.

C.K. said...

I call myself a feminist too and I think anyone who doesn't feel they have as deep a need to be feminist anymore is being remiss. In the U.S. one in four women are raped. Some states would like to criminalize abortion even in cases of rape and incest. In Canada fifty percent of women are physically or sexually abused in their lifetime. Ireland, which had no recorded gang rape until 1996 now has a big problem with teenage gang rape. Examples of physical violence are just the most obvious infringement of human rights but then there are wage discrepancies between the sexes, under-representation in politics, sexual harassment in the workplace. And so far I’m just talking about the western world. The powerlessness of women in Africa has led to a huge AIDS epidemic, rooted in physical violence and lack of choice.

A stopover at the Human Rights Watch women's rights section documents the utter lack of equality women face worldwide.

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