Revisionist Feminism

Revisionist Feminism

E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
May 31 1997 3:30 AM

Revisionist Feminism

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Dear Karen,

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       Lighten up, Karen. The "pissing match" remark was just a joke. Guess you must be a feminist after all, seeing as how feminists never have a sense of humor. (That's a joke, too.)
       Again, for anyone who wants to gauge how much you are distancing yourself from your own book, I suggest reading the book. And with that plug ... let me get "uncivil" with you again, because they're only giving us 500 words from here on out and we don't have space to waste. How could I "trivialize" your point when I can't find it; I get lost in your contradictions. First you proclaim women's right to thumb their nose at supposed feminist restrictions and express their own infinitely varied individuality, then you devote a large section of your book to suggesting that much of women's "individuality" is restricted by biology anyway. (And then you back-pedal away from this with an all-purpose "to-be-sure" disclaimer that you aren't really hawking biological determinism either.) First you acknowledge that "there's still considerable work to be done in the political realm," then you call for an end to feminist work in the political arena. First you chastise feminism for supposedly denouncing gals in minis and engaging more generally in coercive behavior, then you engage in coercive behavior of your own--cluck, clucking about the "vulgar" and less than ladylike antics of Future Sex's Lisa Palac, Sallie Tisdale, Roseanne and Madonna. (Oops, excuse me, it's just the "first incarnation" of Madonna you decry; evidently you approve of the new-'n-improved Madonna-and-child.)
       It's not what you are saying about women that irks--you haven't really said anything about women other than to cite three friends of yours and muck around in the swamp of biology studies on sex differences, which everybody knows are wildly contradictory and can be used selectively to prove any point you care to make. What bothers me, and what I want to focus on here, is how you position feminists. Because that is how your book and, more likely, your sound bites on the book will be used. No one's going to be promoting your vague call for female "self-development"; all they are going to remember and all the media are going to repeat are all the cruddy things you said about feminists, because the media love those clichés. This is the essential dishonesty of your book: setting up feminism as the straw woman. Because what you are saying about feminists is JUST NOT TRUE. Before we can debate honestly (though I've been trying) on feminist issues, you have to confront this fiction.
       You say that "orthodox feminists" like me "have trouble accepting the fact that many women like being nurses, kindergarten teachers, dental hygienists, and yes, even secretaries." C'mon, Karen, name one feminist who's ever denounced a secretary for her work. This is just silly. And nurses, by the way, have been leading a feminist-inspired campaign for some years now to raise their authority and power. What feminists do have trouble with, as I'm sure you must know if you've read all the feminist works you are fond of citing, is a society that tells women that the only choice they have is to be a secretary. You might want to consult with the scads of women after World War II who were booted from high-wage defense jobs into the secretarial pool; or the hundreds of thousands of women in clerical jobs since then who have pursued class-action suits in all of the major industries and occupations, including journalism, so they can have a choice of work beyond typing and filing.
       You say that feminists are telling women they can't indulge in beauty, can't wear lipstick, can't wear provocative clothing. This again is just total b.s. Your evidence is one anonymous intern at Ms. Have you ever met anyone who works at Ms.? Plenty of 'em wear short skirts. Gloria Steinem likes to tango. Naomi Wolf's hair, for heaven sakes, is practically as famous as she is. In the first three paragraphs of your book you link me and other feminists with an intolerance for Tori Amos-style display. You cite one anonymous critic griping about Tori Amos wearing a tube top. Then you try to make the exception the rule by saying such priggishness comes out of reigning feminist theory as espoused by, among others, me. You're wrong. I love Tori Amos. I go to her concerts. I have her recordings. And on my book tour for Backlash, in every speech, I praised new female musicians like her as feminist inspirations, to much applause from "orthodox" feminists in the audience. So, where do you get this nonsense?
       Sure, you can find the occasional feminist who rails against miniskirts. But you can find that point of view on the right as well, where some fundamentalists find the mini a moral outrage. And, conversely, you can find--even in the heart of hard-core academic feminism--feminist scholars who are positively giddy over the mini. Witness Lucinda Rosenfeld's "Feminism in a Micromini" essay in last week's New York Times Sunday Magazine, in which she confessed to devoting her entire senior thesis to the "subversive potential of the miniskirt." Fit that into your vision of Reigning Feminist Theory.
       Your insistence on drawing false distinctions and forcing feminism into a role it never played is disingenuous and only popular because it panders to a favorite media stereotype.
       OK, I'm through fulminating. Please, let's try something constructive. You keep inviting me to talk about the generalities of women's status. Let me propose two specifics that are suggested by your letter which we might be able to address. You say that "no matter how feminist society becomes, these problems [lousy jobs, bad child care options, etc.] will continue to exist--among both women and men--until the underlying socioeconomic conditions change." Hence, you say, I "confuse problems of class with problems of feminism." Here you put your finger on a profound difference between us. My idea of feminism is all about changing underlying socioeconomic conditions. Is yours?
       Secondly, my feminism seeks to change those conditions for men as well as women. You point out that men aren't free to blow off a job they hate anymore than women are. I couldn't agree more, and it's precisely because the class issues that feminism explores are applicable to men that feminism should be the cause of both genders. As I said in my last letter, and I meant it, issues of feminism are not a matter of the girls versus the guys; they are class lessons from a gender that has been defined as a class.
       In the end of your last letter, you asked me to say how we should deal with the personal and social problems women face. I'd first follow the Elizabeth Cady Stanton quotation you cite: "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." I interpret that to mean political activity is necessary before you can freely explore the personal. Secondly, dealing with women's issues requires honesty. You need to identify the problem accurately. Do that and we'll begin.

Sincerely,
Susan Faludi

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.