Us: Feminism Lite

THE women’s movement has transformed the United States in just over 30 years. Stroll through a park and you’re likely to see a team of girls playing soccer. Drop in at a law or medical school and women occupy almost half the seats. Women own about one in four of small businesses, and have made inroads in such masculine preserves as bus driving, bartending, the clergy and military – 12% of the armed forces are now female.


In private life the rules are rapidly changing: girls and women are more willing to ask men out, and with women’s age at first marriage the latest ever, they come to marriage with a firmer sense of who they are; they now expect to work, to share domestic chores, and to have a full and equal partnership with their mates. In liberal communities practices that seemed bizarre a generation ago may be rare, but raise few eyebrows: lesbian co-parents, or educated single women with good jobs, who have babies through artificial insemination or adopt children.


So is American feminism, as its detractors claim, a finished project kept alive only by ideologues? Not so: the rosy picture above is only a part of the truth. Women are still paid less (24% on average), promoted less, and concentrated in poorly paid, stereotypically female jobs. Women working full-time still make only 76 cents for every $1 earned by men. Only in porn movies can women expect to earn higher salaries than men.


Men still overwhelmingly control US social, political, legal and economic institutions and machinery. Rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment are huge problems. In four out of five marriages, the wife does most of the housework and childcare whether or not she also works full- time (and whether or not her husband considers himself egalitarian). The flip side of girls’ achievement is the pressure on them from the media, fashion, boys, each other, to conform to a prematurely sexualised, impossible beauty ideal. In schools and colleges, anorexia, bulimia and other eating disorders are endemic.


Feminism has made the US more equal, more just, more free, more diverse – more American. But it still has a long way to go. The sociologist Arlie Hochschild calls it a “stalled revolution” – in women’s roles, hopes and expectations to which society has yet to adjust. Although most mothers, even of infants, are in the workforce, 45% of which is female, the typical worker is still seen as a man with a wife at home, thanks to whom he can be totally available to his employer.


The rules for pensions, social security and unemployment benefits disadvantage women, who are usually the ones to take time off to care for children or sick family. The social supports that ease poverty, childcare and the working mother’s double day in European welfare states barely exist in the US: 41 million people lack health insurance; and welfare reform has forced poor single mothers into jobs that are often precarious and do not pay a living wage. Without a national system of daycare or pre-school, finding affordable childcare can be a nightmare even for prosperous parents. It took the women’s movement more than 20 years to win passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives workers in large companies just 12 weeks’ leave to care for newborns or sick relatives: since the leave is unpaid, few can afford to take it.


Caught between the old ways and the new, many Americans blame feminism for difficulties. Men no longer give their seats to pregnant women on the subway? Legal abortion has destroyed chivalry. Not married although you’d like to be? Feminism has made women too choosy and men too childish. Infertile? You should have listened to your biological clock instead of Gloria Steinem. The women’s movement has never had a good press: every few years it has been declared dead. But demonising feminists is now a pre occupation of ideologues across the political spectrum. On the right, misogynist radio hosts – “shock jocks” – rant against “feminazis”, as if a woman who doesn’t laugh at a sexist joke is about to invade Poland. Fundamentalist preachers such as televangelist Pat Robertson claim feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”.


The American left, such as it is, is officially pro- feminism, but suspicious of the women’s movement – too bourgeois, too white, too pre occupied with abortion rights. For communitarians, feminists threaten the family and the social cohesion married families supposedly produce, and, by focusing on paid labour and individual autonomy, introduce capitalist values into the home.


So much criticism is daunting. It is often said that young women reject feminism. Millions of women under 30 grew up with the idea of gender equality and take their rights for granted. But polls show that they are reluctant to call themselves feminists. “A few weeks ago,” wrote Wendy Murphy, a professor at Harvard Law School, “I asked my students (all women) to raise their hands if they believe in social equality for women: they all raised their hands. Then I asked if they believe in economic equality for women: they all raised their hands. Then I asked if they believe in political equality for women: they all raised their hands. Finally, I asked for a show of hands from those who considered themselves to be feminists. Only two raised their hands, and one was a reluctant half-raise” (1). Asked why she avoided the word, a student said: “I just don’t see myself as a bra-burning man-hater.” Another felt she had been raised as her brother’s equal, so had no problems. A third didn’t want to limit her politics to gender: she called herself a humanist.


What will happen to them when they enter the legal profession, where 61% of firms have no women partners, 70-80 hour weeks are normal and taking time off for children is the kiss of career death? When feminism becomes a matter of individual initiative – a bra- wearing humanist making her way in a man’s world – how does a woman understand and overcome structural gender- based obstacles to equality? Does she join with other women, or blame herself?


The common European stereotype is that US feminism is obsessed with political correctness and victimology. But PC is mostly a rightwing fabrication, a label that can be used to mock women who object to demeaning or hostile language or behaviour. The US media loves stories about excessive PC – the little boy suspended from school for kissing a little girl, the professor who removed a reproduction of Goya’s Naked Maja from her classroom. The reality is usually more trivial and ambiguous than the reports: the little boy, who had a history of disruptive behaviour and genuinely upset the girl, only sat out a party. The professor lost patience with male students who leered at the Maja instead of practicing their Spanish. Even if the teachers acted foolishly, why are these incidents worldwide news?


It is the same with victimology. The intent is to make those who are disadvantaged and injured ashamed to acknowledge their pain or demand redress: that would be whining, complaining, asking for special treatment. But many women are victimised – raped, beaten, disrespected or discriminated against. When a woman insists on prosecuting her rapist or abuser or harasser, isn’t she refusing to be a victim? Are there feminists who will make extreme claims of victimisation? For sure. But they are a very small strand in a broad, even contradictory movement. Since the l960s American feminism has been fractious and diffuse, encompassing Marxist professors and freemarket stockbrokers; nuns and logicians; lipstick lesbians and Catholic mothers of six.


Feminism is strong in surprising places: among nurses, who have used feminist theory to redefine themselves as holistic healers and patient advocates. While liberal advocacy organisations like the National Organisation for Women (NOW) and Feminist Majority focus on electoral politics, young women put out small counter- cultural magazines – “zines”, start rock bands, and organise campus productions of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler’s hilarious play about women’s sexuality, which is performed as a fundraiser at colleges around Valentine’s Day.


A debate that seems to have exhausted itself is the pornography war of the l980s and early 1990s. The brouhaha was immensely destructive to the movement, because it raised questions about sexuality and agency in non-negotiable terms; and it pitted two very American principles with deep historical roots against each other: freedom of speech versus Puritanism. When it came to the idea of women enjoying pornog raphy, two important feminist principles were in conflict: the quest for pleasure without guilt versus humane values like intimacy, responsibility, non- violence, equality. Both sides cited studies supporting claims that pornography did or did not lead to actual violence against women. Intellectually the debate was exciting, but it left bitterness and had little to do with campaigns to protect real women from actual violence.


On the university campus today sex-positivity rules. It is fashionable among young feminists to go to strip clubs, and even work in them. While older feminists reluctantly defended President Bill Clinton from impeachment, young feminists defended what they saw as Monica Lewinsky’s bold sexuality. The monolithic, moralistic feminism of the l970s has given way to a multiplicity of feminisms – queer theory and social constructionism have thrown the idea of woman up in the air. Suggest that a man who’s had a sex change isn’t really a woman, and you may find yourself tagged as an old-fashioned essentialist.


Anti-feminists claim that feminism is a set menu, but it is more like a cafeteria, where each woman takes what she likes. Personal choice seems to be the only value: there are no politics, and no society – to suggest that a choice isn’t really free is to insult a woman’s ability to know what is best for herself. Having a facelift, which 20 years ago most feminists saw as a humiliating capitulation to sexist standards of beauty, today can be a present a woman gives herself: “I’m doing this for me.” The academic focus on parody and performance can reduce feminism to an ironic wink: yes, I’m still in the kitchen, but my collection of l950s refrigerator magnets means I’m not just a housewife.This is feminism lite.


These internal debates are nothing to the threat posed to progress by the ascendancy of George Bush, the Republican party and the Christian right. Thirty years of political and legal advances are at risk. Abortion rights, already threatened in many states, are the most obvious target: new limits are sure to pass at the federal level and in many states as well, and many new anti-abortion rightwing judges will likely rule against legal challenges to them. The Bush administration has allocated millions of dollars for abstinence-only sex education in schools, pro-marriage classes for poor single mothers, and religious-based social services whose aim is Christian conversion; Bush has packed federal panels and commissions with fundamentalists, social conservatives, anti- feminists and other opponents of women’s rights. Wade Horn, a key figure in the father’s rights movement, is in charge of family issues at the Department of Health and Human Services. Diana Furchgott-Roth, who argues that sex discrimination in employment does not exist, sits on his council of economic advisers. Dr David Hagger, who opposes legal abortion, refuses to prescribe contraception to unmarried women and wrote a book suggesting bible reading as a treatment for premenstrual symptoms, sits on a medical panel overseeing contraception.


And those girls playing soccer in the park? The Bush administration is considering weakening legislation that requires schools to work toward equalising athletic opportunities for the sexes. Bush-instigated challenges to affirmative action threaten the ability of businesswomen to obtain government contracts (2), workers to enter non- traditional occupations, and students to attend non-traditional vocational programmes, which are still highly sex-segregated. If these changes happen, will women – those who call themselves feminists and those who don’t dare use the word – come together to defend their rights? _________________________________________________ _______


* Katha Pollitt is an American essayist and poet, columnist for ‘The Nation’ (New York), and author of ‘Subject To Debate’ (Modern Library, New York, 2001)


(1) Op/ed in the Boston Herald, 15 April 2000.


(2) Until now the US administration had to make a certain number of contracts with companies headed by women.


Original text in English


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