The Book Club

Feminism Isn’t Just About Individual Advancement

Dear Chris and Judith,

I knew I misstated what I meant to say yesterday. There aren’t just two kinds of feminists, the individualist and the political—or rather, political feminism is hardly limited to the big mainstream groups like NOW and their lobbying and legislating, which occasioned my rather unfair weary sigh yesterday. That work is incredibly important—I just wish the agenda was a little more bold. There’s lots of feminist activity that goes on closer to home, though, that flies beneath the national-media radar. For example, I know lots of feminists who are involved in grass-roots projects, like local funds that raise money to pay for poor women’s abortions and networks of people who are willing put up in their homes women who need to travel for abortions; lots of welfare-rights activists, women’s health advocates, supporters of Afghan women’s rights who are funding girls’ schools, and so on. And then there are women, lots of women, who are involved in their professions in a feminist way—doctors and lawyers and teachers and ministers and social workers and on and on—by which I mean that they try to reform their fields and use them to forward women’s equality. There are lots of feminist mothers out there, too—and feminist fathers, I hasten to add, before “The Fray” goes wild. Feminist political activism is most definitely not just about what happens in Washington.

I think the key to all these ways of being feminist, though, is that they are not just about advancing yourself, as a buccaneer on the free-market seas, an exceptional person who “happens to be a woman” and has no sense of the history Judith so well describes that allowed her to get where she is today and needs to be carried forward on behalf of the women for whom things are still rotten—poor women, battered women, raped women, women shut out of the many occupations that are still effectively all-male, and so on. Feminism challenges the ways women are treated collectively, the ways they are treated because they are women—so feminism has to involve connecting individuals in something bigger than themselves, even if it’s just raising a daughter (or a son) who doesn’t think sex is about giving blow jobs in the school bathroom. It really isn’t enough to be an individual “bitch,”—as Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose blurb adorns both cover and inside page, seems to think—to just do what you want, to be transgressive, a taker, a diva, a cocaine princess.

I mean, it’s fun, sometimes, to watch a woman violate the stereotypes of women as sweet, subservient, lacking in initiative—whether it’s Margaret Thatcher or the rare drug kingpin who is a queenpin. But that is not how progress for women is going to be made. That comes, as Judith points out, from creating a social system with more opportunity, more freedom, more acceptance of human variety, and more support (day care yes!). And yet—there’s always a “yet”—the outrageous divas enacting their theater of the self do sometimes open up the imagination. I’m not particularly fond of Madonna, and I don’t know if she calls herself a feminist, but I can’t tell you how many girls back in the 1980s and early 1990s told me that Madonna gave them the notion as teen-agers that they could define and take charge of their own sexuality. In the same way, Germaine Greer, for all her misogyny (as Chris rightly calls it), surely opened some women’s eyes to the nature of the particular assembly line society had placed them on. And since, despite Greer’s badmouthing of it, there was in fact an active women’s movement producing reams of social change, The Female Eunuch was hardly the last or only word on the subject.

Chris, you raise the always-interesting question of “What about men?” Of course it’s silly the way anti-feminists are always insisting feminists hate men, are frustrated “spinsters,” etc.—most heterosexual feminists I know live with men, and the ones that don’t would very much like to. I don’t think feminism spells the end of the couple, in fact I think sexism is a bigger threat to the coupled life. I actually do know numerous couples that are loving, emotionally honest, and equal—although truth in advertising compels me to admit that I thought my own recently ended relationship was all these things when it was not, so what do I know. I agree with you, Chris, that people want “security,” at least as they get older—but that doesn’t mean they’ll pay any price for it. It may not be the only thing they want. You also argue that the odds of loneliness are greater outside marriage than in it—I wonder. In any case, millions of women have decided that they’d rather live alone than with their spouses—so you have to explain that before you accuse Germaine Greer of failing to understand what women really want. I suspect that there is no loneliness, really, as awful as the loneliness of living with another person who basically doesn’t care about you, doesn’t see you. And loneliness isn’t the only consideration: Loneliness might be less painful than feeling like 2 cents all the time. That said, Chris, I think we are not likely to see the day when women stop cutting men lots of slack, as you put it. Lucky men!

This has been fun, even if I don’t get the last word.