Revisionist Feminism

Dear Karen,

       And they say women aren’t biologically equipped for a pissing match! I don’t want to get into a she said/she said here. If someone wants to know if I really scolded women (as you claim) or whether I scolded the apparel industry for offering a woeful selection of lingerie, they can look it up in Chapter 7 of Backlash. If they want to know if your book is in fact a consumer manifesto, they can look it up in your book in the chapters named “Beauty,” “Femininity,” “Sex,” “Love,” and even the one called “Power.” But there is one correction I must make. I have never “stifled” anyone, as you accuse me of doing by criticizing such people as Betty Friedan (who is impossible to stifle), Susan Brownmiller, and Erica Jong (who ditto). It’s curious to me that you talk about a rigid, monolithic feminist “orthodoxy” and then fault me for disagreeing with three prominent feminists. These aren’t the only disagreements out there in the monolith. Gloria Steinem doesn’t always agree with me on pornography, and Naomi Wolf and I disagree on abortion. But that’s what we do, and it’s called debate, not stifling.
       What I’m trying to resist here (and already it ain’t easy) is the impulse for the snappy comeback. Because once we fall into that track, there’s no getting out; you’ll call me a name, then I’ll call you one, and soon they can bill this exchange “Microsoft Female Mud Wrestling” (but do we get to wear wet T-shirts?). It’s the way of all talk-show duels and a few S
LATEdialogues, too. I’m trying to keep uppermost in my brain why I (and you, I think) signed up for this discussion, and that is because we’re struggling with a question. And that question, at least in my mind, is where do we diverge and what is the true nature of that divide? Because until we tease out what we are really arguing about, we are going to keep going in circles, with one saying, “Your book says women are all sheep,” and the other saying, “No it doesn’t, but your mother is a cow,” and there we are, playing the dozens.
       So here’s a first, imperfect stab at trying to define what underlies our differences, because I think these differences are more than quibble points; they point up a significant divergence of views over feminism’s charter. They may also help to explain something that at first struck me as quite peculiar. In reading your book and your response to my letter, it occurred to me that we are talking at cross purposes because we are looking at the world on very different levels. I’m looking at the public world of women’s economic circumstances, the institutional forces women must contend with in the arena of labor and law and policy-making–a show-me-the-money sort of analysis. You concentrate your attentions on the private world of women’s bodily display and dress, women’s desire for expressions of beauty and romance, women’s need for psychological growth and development, all those things that fall under the banner of what you call “emotional independence.”
       What’s peculiar is that you are laying claim to the very therapeutic, touchy-feely, self-esteem area that critics of the women’s movement so often accuse feminism of inflicting on the culture. You yourself maintained in an astute piece in the Washington Post (“Women Who Talk Too Much,” March 30, 1997) that the craze for women’s tell-all, confessional “memoirs” suggests a disturbing descent into navel-gazing and “self-indulgent exhibitionism.” I agree with you that quite a few writers under a feminist banner have indulged in puerile commentary based only on their own narrow experience. But what that narcissistic tendency reflects is not feminism; it is vanity masquerading as feminism. It is looking in the mirror not to find out how your experience connects with the world but only to disconnect and lose yourself in self-reverie. And, I would argue, it is the same sort of vanity that you are celebrating, perhaps unintentionally, in your book when you call upon women to embrace a “lipstick proviso.”
       Personal choices in the form of wearing whatever you want or being flirtatious when you want or quitting work if you want or engaging in any of the “traditional feminine behaviors,” as you call them, are not in themselves bad things, if someone wants to express themselves in these ways. But you are saying, if I understand you correctly, that these kinds of personal choices should be the thrust of feminism, supplanting sisterhood and the political “women’s movement.”
       Here’s the problem. For most women, the choices you are talking about are a bourgeois luxury. Not that all women don’t like to look good or dress well or be courted. It’s just that that’s not the central battle of their lives that women need feminism to confront. For most working women, jobs are not optional. For most women, lipstick, even as a “metaphor” for emotional independence, is less of a problem than dangerous homes, dangerous streets, and a society that makes their child-rearing harder and their choice between job and home more dire: in short, things that are in the political and public realm. You seem to want to turn these public battles into private preferences, like when you say that women in the “pink ghetto” are largely there out of their own personal choice. That’s not true. Few women choose the secretarial pool; it chooses them. What I really want to ask you–and, for that matter, Christina Hoff Sommers, Katie Roiphe, Laura Ingraham, and other critics of feminism making the rounds in the media these days who take a similar tack on this question–is why do you have so little interest in the public struggles women face? Why do you and these other critics brush off the critical circumstances of women out in the wide world with a breezy “sure-there’s-still-discrimination-out-there-but …” sentence, only to plunge right back into the inner world of personal “self-development”? Not only is this callous, it would seem to conflict with the other favorite conservative mantra: that it’s feminist leaders who are the privileged elitists.
       Whether or not you are honestly seeking emotional independence in personal matters, there are plenty of vested interests who are only too happy to have women preoccupied with personal matters because it is not threatening to the status quo. Personal emotional work is as toothless as academic feminism’s love affair with deconstructionism. Both distract from constructive engagement with the problems of the public world. No one changed the world by changing her wardrobe (with the possible exception of Joan of Arc, and she wasn’t wearing mascara).
       It’s precisely the presence of sisterhood and a women’s movement that keeps personal improvement from becoming navel-gazing or consumerism. You ask that I recognize as a feminist the Republican housewife with a face lift who greets her husband at the door wearing only her heels. 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, I would indeed. But if she just “follows her desires” and is blind to the fact that other women don’t have the option of following their desires, then, no, I wouldn’t call her a feminist. I’d call her a shopper, a sybarite reveling in the frivolity of being both consumer and consumer item.
       Women who are so fortunate as to have the luxury of defining their choices as emotional growth and lipstick choice and whether to have a full-time nanny or work part time must acknowledge the fact that their luxury is tied to the same struggle less fortunate women (for instance, the nanny) are fighting on a grittier front. This is sisterhood: not the giving of jobs by women to women, but a public consciousness on the part of the woman engaged in personal pursuits. The personal choice you advocate is not anti-feminist, but becomes anti-feminist if it supplants public and political sisterhood before similar choices are extended to all women.
       And it’s on the question of sisterhood, again, that this divide of personal and public leads us to talk past each other. You say that sisterhood is an outdated notion; that women don’t “owe” anything to each other. In your book, you offer as evidence of sisterhood’s suspect nature a bad experience you had with a friend; she talked a good game to you about how men are the enemy and then snaked your boyfriend. But that’s a personal matter of betrayal, and not one that feminism addresses or will eradicate. Sisterhood, to me, is not about “us girls against the guys” or about regulating the course of friendships in the private world. It’s about public solidarity with women who don’t have the choices you have, 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, who have all this potential creativity and talent that is unexpressed and withering on the vine. Public sisterhood is saying to yourself, it’s not enough that I’m free to wear lipstick when I want and not wear it when I don’t. It’s not enough for me to look in the mirror. I’ve got to look out the window–and take responsibility for what I see.