I haven’t written much about the so-called Gender Wars. This may seem odd, given that I am obviously a feminist. I frequently drive, for example, when my husband is also in the car. Also, I kept my maiden name after getting married. And sometimes, I actually just call it, “my name.”
As it turns out, though, feminism in America is on the decline. According to a recent study, most women today no longer identify as feminists. And most men don’t either so –no change there.
Women’s reasons for rejecting the feminist label are mysterious – at least to me. This is especially true because the same women who reject feminism apparently do believe in equality. When I first saw that, I thought: Hmmm. Maybe some of these gals just don’t really know what feminism means. Because their friends have never posted it – in the form of a kissy face picture -- on Instagram. But the fact is, most people – including the people who did the survey – define feminism roughly as believing in equality.
So how does feminism differ for them? Do they think it’s outdated? Old fashioned? Too threatening, and aggressive? Historically, feminism has been coupled with the word movement, which suggests moving. And change. Believing in equality does sound a lot nicer. And less demanding. And possibly even more feminine. It’s confusing for me because at the age of 40 something, I’m already a bit of a feminist dinosaur. (As an aside, if I were a dinosaur, I’d totally be an Ankylosaurus. Those lizards had bony tail clubs, and were threatening and aggressive.)
But as a feminist, I’m a diehard believer. In college, I did a consciousness-raising group (sans mirrors). I always planned to keep “my name.” And hello –corsets? I can’t even wear an underwire bra without feeling like my civil rights have been a little bit violated. Yes, I believe in feminism. And everything it stands for. With the possible exception of my hairy armpits in college, which probably weren’t as critical to the cause of women’s lib as I once believed.
I still think about women's issues a lot because -- you know -- that was a steep hill of sexist shit our foremothers started to climb. Today, there are reasons to feel really encouraged about the progress of women. Sometimes, I think we’ve almost arrived. And then, my 8-year old daughter does a simple internet search, on the subject of peaches. And instead of learning about fruit, Google turns up a hundred porn sites. With really nasty images. Not one of which she can ever remove from her brain. And I think – nope. We aren’t even near the top yet.
So what does feminism mean to women today, such that they can't identify with it? They must know that our foremothers gave us equal opportunities, basic protections, nominal legal rights. Women are increasingly part of the boy’s club. We can have a job, we can run our own companies. Theoretically, at least, we can even work as professional athletes, and get a degree in math or science.
And yet, it's also clear that inequalities remain. And often times, the ones that remain seem more protracted, and complex, and divisive than ever. So I wonder: now that the civil rights movement has long passed, and the word feminist is no longer associated with a visible movement, and the challenges we face are only growing more complicated every day, do the majority of women really feel that feminism is no longer necessary? Or is it possible that they don't work for feminism because they think it's no longer working, for them?
Take the sexual culture. Speaking as an old school feminist, I used to think the Miss America pageant was pretty sexist. Grown women, standing in bikinis and high heels, showcasing their talents? But now, we have toddlers in tiaras. American Apparel ads. Pedophilic Halloween costumes. And what should feminists do about the proliferation of -- let's call it what it is -- rapey internet porn? Caitlin Moran wrote a genius essay about stuff like that in her book, How To Be a Woman. You should read that, because she’s smart. She basically advocates not against porn, but for more female-friendly porn. But not all women will agree with her, either. And she’s a feminist. So, I mean, it’s a slippery issue. No pun intended.
If some feminist issues seem very difficult, others seem a little stalled. Periodically, for example, you read an article about how women still do most of the housework. This inequality not only leads to a lot of frustration, and marital argument, but it significantly impacts the choices some women make about how much to work. Privately, many women will probably say that their standards are higher. They see the dirty countertops and their husbands don’t. Ok. But, I can't really blame women for feeling like giving up. It’s been more than 40 years since second-wave feminism. Why are we still doing all the laundry?
It’s weird because, in so many areas of human achievement, men are so capable. They’re obviously capable of doing the following series of simple tasks, in repetitive sequence.
Fill it with dirty clothes.
And yet, I know very few women whose husbands do the family laundry. Is that because laundry is a chore that involves clothing, and the menfolk can’t relate to that? Does the laundry repel them because it’s so different from, say, trash? I get that. Garbage goes from one bin to another, and then it’s done. Whereas laundry requires us to collect a variety of fabrics -- from various locations throughout the house, some of which are bins and some of which are tables and hooks -- and then do a whole bunch of other things to them. Or is it simply that -- more often than not -- doing the laundry involves getting up and down from the couch several times at night -- that special time of the day when the only people in the house still getting up and down from the couch are women?
Laundry? Right now? So much standing up! What does permanent press even mean? Wait -- people clean tablecloths?
Apart from domestic equality, there are other issues that could be clouding the feminist mission for modern women, and making it hard for them to stake out a position. If you don’t believe me, just watch two women – from different walks of life, or career perspectives -- debate breastfeeding. Feminists taught us that breast milk was healthier for babies than commercial formula. Particularly that kind of formula that’s made in China, and is flavored with turpentine.
But choosing to breastfeed – or not – has never been easy. Women who work outside the home full-time have to carry around a breast pump the size of a small artillery projectile in their handbags. And it’s not necessarily any easier for women who don’t. Personally, I had so many health problems from breastfeeding that I sometimes forced my poor husband to go – in my stead -- to a store called The Upper Breast Side, for special clothing, pads, and creams. And really, let’s be honest. The name of that store alone could turn an entire generation of women against feminism.
The most intractable issue of all might be the dreaded “work/family balance.” This is an issue that we never stop discussing, or disagreeing about. And yet somehow, it changes so little. Unlike the laundry, however, we can’t just hire someone else to do it. Once a year, there’s a new book or article, a panel of qualified experts, and a tough female TV anchor – in a very short skirt, with a TV camera pointed right at her, um, knees -- moderating the conversation from the middle. Wherever that is.
And you know, the fact that educated, career-minded women are still having this conversation about balancing career and family is itself a measure of progress. We’re not defending the location of our uterus anymore, after all, or how it’s disrupting our humors. And it must be said: a short skirt is not a corset. That whale bone was tight, bitches. It took like an hour to tie. Don’t start.
Still, if someone asked me my feminist position on how to juggle work and family, I’d probably say: Um. Make it up on the fly, however you can? Or maybe I’m just saying that because that’s what happened to me. When I was getting my PhD, I never thought about how I’d juggle it all. Somehow, I just hoped it would work out. But when I got my first job, my spouse also had a really busy job. In another city. And instead of having that “easy baby” who would thrive in day care, I got one who cried and cried. And who literally never napped for longer than 33 minutes. (As an aside, 33 minutes is a surprisingly difficult interval of time in which to accomplish personal goals. I couldn’t even get to the Upper Breast Side and back in that time frame.)
Having choices at all is obviously a privilege. But for most women, decisions about work and family are still made with conflicted feelings. And a lot of anxiety. And maybe not enough information. And at the last minute. In my case, that meant somewhere between when the head crowned, and when I was legally contracted to show up for work. So when I asked my new employer about working a flexible schedule, the conversation went roughly like this:
Then I left my job.
To me, being a feminist means going to work full-time, raising kids full-time, or working a flexible schedule that allows for both. But some women may not see it that way. It’s a complex issue, with a lot of potential contradictions. And the frustrating fact is, feminists have been debating this issue forever. Virginia Woolf wrote about it – 80 years ago – in A Room of One’s Own. And what she basically said there was: The monks didn't plan for this nonsense. Modern work routines and standards were not established with linen tablecloths and achy breasts -- or, as a matter of fact, women -- in mind. Most monks probably didn’t even have kids. Not legitimate ones, anyway. They certainly didn’t have to take care of them. Or be around after school to protect them from pornography on the internet.
Here is a short list of some other things that monks probably didn’t do:
Leave diaper rash instructions for the nanny.
Make triangular pb&j sandwiches for the lunches.
Fill out the yearbook forms.
Try to mend the ballet tights and eventually get new ones.
Call the cable guy, and wait all day for him. twice.
Measure the amount of vegetarian protein in the dinner.
Take the cat to the vet.
Take the vacuum cleaner to the repair store.
Clean up the cloisters for their mothers-in-law,
In fact, I’m pretty sure all the monks had to do – apart from wearing cool rope belts, and trying really hard not to catch Bubonic Plague – was to write their books.
So Virginia Wolf knew this was a problem. Why then, 80 years later, is it still a problem? And how does it relate to women’s ambivalence about feminism? Well, I'm not sure. But I do know a cool quote by Karl Marx:
People make choices, but they don’t make choices within circumstances of their choosing.
Karl Marx wasn’t talking about educated western women who have financial means, or take Pilates, or drive minivans. But I thought of this quotation in regards to feminism because --while the feminist goal of giving us the choice to work was clear and winnable -- the broader social circumstances in which we make those hard-won choices still seem very complicated. And possibly even harder than ever to solve.
So we have choices. Some women want to raise their kids full time, and don’t even care if their husbands can’t do laundry. Some women are leaners, and only want to talk about merit hiring, competitive packages, and equal pay. Some want something in between -- with on-site child care, family leave, and periodic and part time employment with benefits.
Some (like me) just want science to figure out how to make a safe version of Ambien for infants, a hormone that allows men to breastfeed, and another one to curb the maternal instinct. Those women might just prefer to be men. I guess we’ll never know. But my point is simply this: Is feminism today speaking to all of these women simultaneously, and still working for all of them? I’m not really sure. And I’m a feminist.
I’ll always be a feminist. I think “believing in equality” sounds wishy-washy. And we still need a word that means we’re actively climbing the hill. But that is not, apparently, how most women see it. I don't know how they see it, but we should probably look into it. Maybe those women think feminism is no longer needed, because we have arrived. Or maybe feminism -- one of the greatest inventions in human history – has won many of the battles but ultimately, lost the war.