Revisionist Feminism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 23 1997 3:30 AM

Revisionist Feminism

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Dear Susan,

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       I appreciate your more civil tone, though I must remind you that the only people who still argue that women aren't "biologically equipped for a pissing match" tend to be orthodox feminists and fundamentalist conservatives. Evolutionary anthropologists believe (and anyone who has ever observed women at work knows) that women can be "naturally" just as competitive as men, though they often express it differently.
       I also agree that we disagree over feminism's charter, though I disagree (big surprise) on what those differences are. We also seem to disagree on the definition of "feminist" and "debate."
       First, a few clarifications. Nowhere in the book do I equate emotional autonomy with wearing lipstick or engaging in any of the other traditionally feminine behaviors. I have never said lipstick is a metaphor for emotional independence. As I explicitly wrote in my first letter, "I use lipstick as a metaphor for all of the traditionally feminine behaviors that feminist theorists have at some point condemned as being degrading and exploitative--from being a mother to staying home full time with one's children to wearing miniskirts and makeup." (And, yes, there are still plenty of feminists who classify these behaviors as "bad things." A former intern at Ms. recently told me that shortly after her arrival at the magazine, she was informed, "Real feminists don't wear short skirts.")
       I also wrote in my first letter: "I use the term emotional independence to refer to self-development." Thus, I was making two separate points, in no way suggesting that wearing lipstick is part of self-development. To put it in the clearest of terms: Lipstick is a choice; self-development is crucial to feminism. In the spirit of showing that women are capable of amicably disagreeing, I would appreciate it if you would stop purposefully distorting (and trivializing) two of the main arguments of my book (I can't believe you are simply misreading what I wrote).
       I have also never said that engaging in traditionally feminine behaviors should be "the thrust of feminism, supplanting sisterhood and the political 'women's movement.' " I have never said that women's desire to "look good" is the "central battle of their lives," that a woman could "change the world by changing her wardrobe." Again, you've purposefully distorted my argument in order to trivialize it. To clarify yet again, my main points concerning traditionally feminine behaviors are: Engaging in them does not (necessarily) undermine feminism; the line between what's feminist and what's not should not be drawn at what existed before the '60s and what didn't, but at what's self-destructive and what isn't; the reason some traditionally feminine behaviors (e.g., nurturing) have outlasted others (submissiveness, passivity) may be because they are more deeply rooted in biology.
       Throughout my book I argue that the political work is not finished, especially regarding such issues as rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination. Even when the legislation and enforcement is as good as it's going to get, vigilance of women's rights--especially regarding abortion rights--will still be essential. Thus, some level of feminist activism will always be necessary. You're right that I don't focus on specific legislation in my book. That's because an analysis of specific legislation wasn't the point of my book. (In Backlash, you also didn't focus on specific legislation. Does that make you "callous" as well?)
       What I try to do in my book is redraw a distinction between the personal and the political, a distinction that is essential to feminism. Many of women's problems cannot or should not be solved by government, and many of women's choices--from wanting to look attractive to wanting to work in traditionally feminine fields--are not "problems" that must be fixed by society. Orthodox feminists such as yourself have trouble accepting the fact that many women like being nurses, kindergarten teachers, dental hygienists, and yes, even secretaries. Many women like these jobs because they offer shorter hours or more flexible schedules. Many women also like them because they indulge a desire to nurture. Just because you or I wouldn't choose these jobs doesn't mean other women wouldn't want to.
       Yes, many women in our generation were not encouraged by their parents or teachers to shoot for the most prestigious, high-paying careers. So we can hardly say that the male/female ratio in any one field is set as is. But to take teaching as just one example, women who graduated college in 1992--women who grew up in a far more feminist environment than we had--earned 75 percent of the advanced degrees awarded in education. Had all these women been brainwashed by the media? I don't think so. Not only is your attitude demeaning to women, it also belittles these jobs. How are we going to get society to value these traditionally feminine jobs--so that their abysmal pay will increase--if feminists like yourself don't value them?
       Finally, please stop lumping me in with Christina Hoff Sommers, Katie Roiphe, and Laura Ingraham. I know it's easier for you to label me a conservative than to fairly and soberly take on my particular arguments, but the fact is, I am not a conservative, and my political views differ significantly from these women.
       Moreover, my politics are largely beside the point. So are yours. My guess is that your political views are situated somewhere on the far left (the fact that you could call my book a "consumer manifesto" was a huge hint). You are certainly welcome to promote your particular political views, but you are not welcome to demand that every woman must share them--that stifles not only real debate but women's individuality.
       What isn't beside the point is self-development. You say that "personal emotional work is as toothless as academic feminism's love affair with deconstructionism." Actually, women's personal work is as integral to feminism as the political work. It fits under the category of equal responsibility. It's not a coincidence that Elizabeth Cady Stanton's last speech, called "Solitude of Self," was on the essential autonomy of each woman. "The strongest reason for giving woman a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition ... is the solitude and personal responsibility of her own individual life." Freedom is not exactly useful if you don't have the emotional wherewithal to take advantage of it. And the fact is, many women--of all socioeconomic brackets--still allow men to verbally abuse them, still don't demand the raises and promotions they deserve, still say yes to sex when they would prefer to say no. The fact that these problems are not political--government can't solve them--doesn't diminish their destructiveness. Why do you have so little interest in these struggles?
       My emphasis on self-development has little to do with what Wendy Kaminer has called "therapeutic feminism." Yes, those writers also focus on personal issues--anorexia, abusive men, fear of power. But they tend to blame these problems on "the patriarchy," taking no responsibility for solving them. That is quite the opposite of emotional autonomy. (It is not a coincidence, though, that these writers, who tend to be in their 20s, are now focusing on the personal realm--these are the problems that their generation must contend with.)
       You say that you will accept my unwrinkled, heel-garbed Republican housewife as a feminist if she "gave a damn about other women and was engaged in some sort of public struggle to make the world a better place for women less privileged than she." You are confusing a feminist with a feminist activist. As I said in my previous letter, this woman believes that every woman has a right to follow her desires; that's all she has to believe in order to be a feminist. Only a few hundred women would fit under your gratuitously narrow definition of feminist--and yet you still blame the media for the fact that only a third of women call themselves feminist. Do you also have such a narrow definition of liberal?
       Yes, women should have a "public consciousness" regarding women's rights, as well as a private consciousness. Unfortunately, that's not what sisterhood has come to mean. Today, orthodox feminists--yourself included--use sisterhood as a political and personal litmus test. Here's another example: In your last letter, you confuse problems of class with problems of feminism. The fact is, there are many men as well as women who "are not yet free to blow off a job they don't like, who can't raise their children the way they yearn to," etc. And no matter how feminist society becomes, these problems will continue to exist--among both women and men--until the underlying socioeconomic conditions change. It is your political opinion that equality of opportunity should really mean equality of result, but not every woman has to believe that in order to be a feminist.
       So, I ask you again, how do you think we should deal with the personal and social problems I mentioned at the end of my first installment?

Sincerely,
Karen

Susan Faludi is author of Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. She is working on a book about masculinity. Her article "I'm Not a Feminist But I Play One on TV" appeared in Ms. magazine. Karen Lehrman is author ofThe Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World, released May 1. She is editor ofCivnet, a Webzine.

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