Revisionist Feminism

Dear Karen,

       I enter into this conversation with you about feminism with some misgivings. Not because I don’t want to talk to you. It’s just that I suspect it will be like a phone conversation where the connection’s so bad neither party can hear the other through the static. I say this because in my experience, there’s no getting through to the group of “feminists” (and I use that word with heavy quotation marks and highly arched brows) who are your sister travelers. I mean the group that maintains that an “orthodoxy” of “reigning feminists” (your terms) torments the American female population with its highhanded fiats, its litmus tests of “proper” feminist behavior, its regulatory whip seeking to slap the femininity out of the American girl. Christina Hoff Sommers, Katie Roiphe, Laura Ingraham, Danielle Crittenden, and the rest of the inside-the-Beltway “revisionist feminists” (as the media would have it) condemn feminism for its “excesses” over and over on the New York Times and Washington Post op-ed pages and the major TV talk shows (while complaining they are viciously “silenced” by the “reigning” feminists, who hardly ever get an airing in the aforementioned forums).

       And you, too, Karen. Your own book-length addition to this chorus repeats the argument that feminism has turned women off by denying them the right to display and revel in their feminine beauty and sexuality. You then adorn that old can of “revisionist” contents with a fancy new label, The Lipstick Proviso, which you define as “women don’t have to sacrifice their individuality, or even their femininity–whatever that means to each of them–in order to be equal.”

       For the longer version of my response to the “revisionists” and their charges against feminism. For the shorter version, to your book specifically, here ‘tis:

       Earth to Karen! Do you read me? … ‘Cuz back on planet Earth, feminists don’t “reign” and they certainly don’t stop women at checkpoints to strip them of their “individuality” by impounding their lipstick (though what a pathetic “individuality” that must be if it depends on the application of Revlon to achieve it). Bulletin from the front: I wear lipstick, and I’ve spotted it on other feminists, too. I’ve watched, in fact, legions of “militant” feminists apply makeup brazenly in public ladies’ rooms, and no femi-Nazi police swooped down and seized their compacts. And you know why? Because lipstick is not what feminism is about.

       What’s clear in your book is you feel gypped by feminism. You feel the feminists of the ‘60s and ‘70s made a promise to your generation of women that they didn’t keep. Let us assume you are sincere, and I have no reason–in your case–to think otherwise. But why do you feel so betrayed? Maybe the answer lies in your definition of feminism. You write in your book that “as a young woman eager to escape the confines of a traditional household,” you embraced feminism, which, you believed, “was going to turn all women into liberated women, into women who would unfailingly exhibit serene confidence, steely resolve, and steadfast courage. Unburdened by the behavioral and sartorial restrictions of traditional femininity, we would all want to trek alone through the wilds of Indonesia, head IBM, run for president.” You then go on to lament, “Yet it doesn’t seem as though the first generation of women to come of age with feminism … has metamorphosed en masse into briefcase-toting, world-wandering Mistresses of the Universe.”

       Now here’s the problem: Your definition of feminism is gleaned not from ‘70s feminism but from ‘70s advertising. In that decade, Madison Avenue and Hollywood and the fashion industry and mass media all saw a marketing opportunity in “women’s lib” and they ran with it. Feminism as reinterpreted through television commercials for pantyhose and marketing manuals for Dress for Success bow ties would do just what advertising is supposed to do: Inflame your hungers and your anxieties, then offer to mollify them with a product that makes ludicrously inflated promises. So just as Hanes tried to convince shoppers that slipping on a pair of pantyhose would turn them into raving beauties with a million suitors, so the faux-feminism of Consumer America tried to convince a younger generation of women that “liberation” led to Banana Republicesque treks in the Himalayas and starring roles in the executive penthouse suite. All young women had to do to get that liberation was smoke Virginia Slims. As Christopher Lasch (that raving liberal!) wrote prophetically in 1979 in The Culture of Narcissism, “The advertising industry thus encourages the pseudo-emancipation of women, flattering them with its insinuating reminder, ‘You’ve come a long way, baby,’ and disguising the freedom to consume as genuine autonomy.”

       Now you are trying to reclaim that promise, proclaiming in your book that women have the “right” to liberate themselves via the marketplace. You champion women’s right to express themselves through makeup, lingerie, cosmetic surgery, aerobics classes, and corsets. You even say that “entering a wet T-shirt contest” can be a “liberating” act for some women.

       But, but, but … you are mad at the wrong folks. Feminists never promised you a rose garden in Lotusland; the consumer culture did. Feminism, unlike advertising, is not about gulling you into believing you could win the sweepstakes. Feminism is and always has been about women acting in the world as full-fledged citizens, as real participants in the world of ideas and policy and history. That doesn’t have anything to do with wearing lipstick or not wearing lipstick or even about making obscene amounts of money. It’s about insisting on the right of women to dignity, a living wage, meaningful work, and active engagement in the public arena. As for lipstick: For most women who work in the cruddy lower reaches of American employment, the problem isn’t being denied the “right” to wear makeup and lingerie; it’s about the right not to be forced to dress and act the way their male bosses demand. You may recall that flight attendants in the ‘60s fought one of the earliest battles of feminism’s second wave so that male corporate bosses could no longer fire them over their weight, age, dress, or marital status. (Stewardesses were also, by the way, required to wear girdles–and didn’t consider it liberating when their supervisors conducted company-mandated “touch checks.”) Feminism, real feminism, is about freeing women to be genuine individuals–and recognizing that such individuality doesn’t come in one size only or out of a bottle.

       You propose that we cleanse feminism of political content and even “abolish” the term “women’s movement.” “This next wave” of feminism, you say, “needs to be primarily devoted to developing our emotional independence.” Well, we certainly are in an “emotional” era. That’s because we are steeped in a consumer culture where emotional manipulation is the name of the game and political analysis interferes with the Big Sell and so is discouraged. Now you are asking that feminism junk the politics and join in on the consumerizing of the American female public. Well, you can ask. You can cheerlead for that all you like, of course. And I’m sure a lot of powerful institutions will be only too glad to enable your cheerleading for their own selfish ends. But you can’t call what you’re asking for feminism, or progress. You can’t say we’ve come a long way when you are still championing our “right” to stand on the stage in a wet T-shirt and be called baby.

       … Am I getting through, or does this all sound like static on the line?