Revisionist Feminism

Dear Susan,

       Well, I think there would be much less static between us if you had read my book more carefully, did not take my words out of context, and did not lump me in with women with whom I clearly have little in common. I also think we’d have a much better connection if you’d drop the sneery, condescending tone you always seem to adopt when writing about women with whom you disagree. I respect you; I’d probably even like you if we met under slightly less fraught circumstances. Yes, I disagree with some of your philosophical and political views. But those views don’t make you any less of a feminist. As long as you believe that women should have the same rights, opportunities, and responsibilities as men, you can have whatever political agenda, lifestyle, or wardrobe you wish.
       Unfortunately, you don’t seem to feel the same way about me or millions of other women. You say that “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.” But much of what you’ve written on the subject–in your book, magazine articles, and already in this dialogue–would indicate that you don’t really mean it. And the same, I’m afraid, is true about most of the other self-appointed spokeswomen for feminism.
       You each appear to believe that, to be allowed to use the term feminist, a woman has to adhere to a well-defined leftist political agenda, consisting of, at the very least, affirmative action, nationally subsidized day care, and “pay equity” (formerly known as comparable worth). In your Ms. article, you call a handful of women who happen to disagree with you politically (myself included) “pod” or “pseudo” feminists. You say that we’re right-wing misogynists or pawns of right-wing misogynists. Perhaps most curiously, you imply that we’re also racist. In 1992, the National Organization for Women tried to start a “women’s party,” offering a distinctly leftist “women’s agenda.” During the last election, NOW president Patricia Ireland said women should vote only for “authentic” female candidates, Gloria Steinem called Texas Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson a “female impersonator,” and Naomi Wolf described the foreign-policy analysis of Jeane Kirkpatrick as being “uninflected by the experiences of the female body.” The desire to enforce political conformity is even worse in academia. Many women’s-studies professors regularly judge texts and opinions in terms of their agreement with the orthodox political agenda. (For an honest “insider” account, check out Professing Feminism, by Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge.)
       Fortunately, all women don’t think alike, and as far as feminism is concerned they certainly don’t have to. The only items on the real feminist agenda are equal rights and opportunities, a society capable of accepting the widest array of women’s choices, and women strong and independent enough to make rational ones. This in no way means that feminists should “junk the politics.” It means that feminism is a moral ideal; how women achieve it is a matter of political debate.
       It’s true that some of the women you mention above and in your Ms. article do oppose abortion rights, do deny that discrimination exists, and do believe that it is a woman’s God-given duty to have children and stay home with them–all anti-feminist notions. Some have minimized the very real problems of sexual harassment and date rape, and seem far more interested in self-promotion than in the future of feminism. Yet the surveys suggest that the vast majority of women–and men–who have criticized the women’s movement in recent years do believe in women’s essential equality and are simply unhappy with the fact that feminism has turned into an orthodoxy, that it now means precisely the opposite of what it was intended to mean–namely, freedom.
       Feminist theorists have gotten much better at not explicitly stating that women need to follow a certain lifestyle or dress code to be a feminist. But an implicit criticism of more traditional choices is still quite apparent. In Backlash, for instance, you blame the fact that women are still primarily clustered in the “pink ghetto” or low- to mid-level management positions entirely on discrimination. Some of it surely is discrimination, and some of it is due to the fact that women are still working their way up. But much of the explanation can be found in the choices of women themselves. The vast majority of women–even young women with college degrees who have grown up with nearly every option open to them–still prefer to give their families higher priority than their careers. According to the Women’s Education and Research Institute (hardly a bastion of conservative thought), employed mothers are significantly more likely than fathers to want to stay at their current levels of responsibility and to trade job advancement to work part time, work at home, or have control over their work schedules. Four-fifths of mothers who work part time do so by choice.
       The larger problem is that most feminist theorists still refuse to acknowledge that there appear to be significant biological differences between the sexes. They still seem to believe that equality with men has to mean sameness to men, that until all aspects of traditional femininity are abolished, women will not be free. Thankfully, this is far from necessary. Women, on average, may always have a stronger need than men to nurture, a need that will at times eclipse their desire for power. Restructuring the corporate world to better accommodate two-career families may certainly help women to deal with these conflicting goals, but I don’t think they will ever disappear. We may not like the choices many women continue to make, but not only are they really none of our business, there’s precious little we could do about them if they were.
       Biology also still seems to be turning up in courtship (the desire of the vast majority of women to want men to pursue them), sex (the ambivalence most women have toward casual sex), and beauty (the energy most women give toward making themselves attractive). As you well know, I do not say anywhere in the book that women have to wear lipstick to be feminist or even feminine. 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. In Backlash, you implicitly argue that the desire of many women to buy feminine or sexy clothing and indulge in cosmetic products and services is wholly the result of manipulation by the beauty and fashion industries. You call women’s desire for sexy lingerie “fashion regression,” and argue that happy and confident women don’t care about clothes. Actually, I think the desire of most women to not hide their sexuality is a sign of progress, evidence that many women now feel they no longer have to renounce a fundamental aspect of themselves in order to make a symbolic point.
       I do not feel “gypped” by feminism. On the contrary, feminism has offered me the opportunity to live my life in a way that was considered reprehensible just 40 years ago. What I do feel is that the feminist revolution is not complete, and it’s incomplete in ways that differ from the orthodox feminist line. There’s still more political work to be done, to be sure, especially involving the issues of rape and domestic violence. But there’s also much personal work to be done. This is a major theme of my book, yet for some reason you have chosen to purposefully misread what I wrote about it. Where do I say anything about “the consumerizing of the American female public”?
       Of course the advertising industry exploited feminism; that’s their job. But that has nothing to do with what I’m talking about. I use the term emotional independence to refer to self-development, which was a prominent part of feminist theorizing and activism in the early days of the Second Wave. Actually, it’s not that surprising that you chose to ignore what I was saying and turn the focus back on how society has victimized women. Feminists have unfortunately been doing that for the past 20 years, which may partly explain why women lag so far behind in their emotional development. While enormous attention has been paid to how the “patriarchy” mistreats women, little has been written about how women mistreat themselves. Even focusing on how women should take responsibility for their problems is often dismissed as naive, sexist, or “blaming the victim.”
       (By the way, you also took my point about “entering a wet T-shirt contest” completely out of context. As you well know, I was actually saying that just because women now have the freedom to do something doesn’t mean it’s the most rational thing to do. “Only each woman can decide if her actions are self-destructive and thus unfeminist,” I wrote. “What is self-destructive for one woman–entering a wet T-shirt contest, for instance, or being a full-time housewife–may be liberating for another.”)
       It’s true that the orthodoxy is breaking up, and other feminist voices are finally being heard. But that’s no thanks to you, Susan. I think you have focused more energy on stifling dissent than perhaps any other feminist writer. In your book, you castigate Susan Brownmiller, Betty Friedan, and Erica Jong for having the gall to suggest that the women’s movement’s refusal to acknowledge biological differences between the sexes is hurtful to women. You can’t blame the media for the fact that two-thirds of women still don’t call themselves feminist. The media may very well highlight the extremes, but it has also given Gloria Steinem, Naomi Wolf, Patricia Ireland, and yourself plenty of space and air time to alienate the majority of women through your restrictive view of feminism.
       Feminism–real feminism–deserves to be respected and honored. Every woman today should proudly call herself a feminist. But that is not going to happen until prominent feminist writers such as yourself admit to a couple of things. One, that a Republican housewife who annually has her face lifted and daily greets her husband at the door wearing only heels can be a feminist if she knows her mind, follows her desires, and believes that every woman has the right to do the same. Two, that the notion of sisterhood is false, outdated, and sexist. Women don’t “owe” each other anything: They don’t have to like each other, agree with each other, vote for each other, or hire each other for feminism to succeed.
       Three, the notion of a “women’s movement” has outlived its usefulness. Men must be just as aware and involved as women–on both a personal and political level–for feminism to work. Four, women can act differently from men. Even if that means that Congress, corporate boards, and CEOs will never be 50 percent female, as long as women are making their choices freely, feminism will not be undermined. And finally, each woman is fundamentally unique. No assumptions can be made about her politics, values, goals, and beliefs.
       Instead of fighting about whether or not feminism has turned into an orthodoxy, I think it would be far more useful if this dialogue–as well as the larger feminist debate–were focused on the complexities that women must deal with today. For instance, how does the corporate world learn to judge women strictly on their merits yet recognize the obvious differences–e.g., that women are the only ones who get pregnant? How do we help women deal with their ambivalence toward responsibility and power? How do we help women develop the strength and independence to demand boyfriends who don’t abuse them, and raises that they deserve? These are tough questions, and I’d really like to know what you think about them.