Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Has Feminism Lost the War?

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   Do they think it’s outdated?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. 
  Get basket. 
  Fill it with dirty clothes. 
  Go downstairs.
  Start machine.
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:
Part time? 
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.


Megan M said...

Deep stuff. I remember not caring a whit what law firms' maternity policies were. I mean, heck, I was only 30. How could this possibly ever affect me??? There was such a disconnect, thanks in large part to the "you can have it all" feminist culture of the 90s. You can't. Period. I think word is finally getting out there.

Also, Upper Breast Side. Heh.

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

So interesting M. Thanks for posting. I remember things similarly. Who needs leave? I'll just lecture with a baby Bjorn.

JSE said...

"Is feminism today speaking to all of these women simultaneously, and still working for all of them?" I think so, but that's because I think there are lots of different feminisms working at different scales. It's like asking, does "democracy" work for everybody?

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Yes good point! Why being rejected though?

Sarita said...

so many thoughts, not enough synapses. I, too, am a feminist and am working living a breathing a feminist life in a huge metropolitan city. And let me tell you, shit's hard out there on the streets. But after reading this article I'm ready to burn my bra, and call up my gal Gloria. But, seriously, from my superficial observations, the majority of women who don't fall under this category of feminists seem TO ME to lack an amount of respect for themselves Which may internal, but it also may be external. And if we think sexism in the workplace doesn't exist, I'd like you to see a side-by-side salary comparison of the women I work to the men I work. Spoiler alert: It's not equal. Lastly, remind me to tell you (or blog about) the time I stormed out of a restaurant due to a women's rights conversation, and then realized I left my umbrella, and had to go back in and get it. Love you. You're talented, and powerful. XO

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Wow. Yes. Thank you. And I love that umbrella story.

MmeHuppert said...

This is a great article, Erin.

I'm not sure how to answer your question except that I don't think the war is over. I think we are mid-way. I think the label has been co-opted and young women (those from Gen-Y and millenials, I mean) equate it with bra-burning and stridency. For a lot of women, there will always be an innate urge to make peace, I think and that's inherently anti-revolutionary. But, the war may not be fought on men's terms. Most women hold a superior role in their relationships (just ask their men!) and get their way not through confrontation but through other means. I think the true feminist path will be through "other means." Those tactics include shame, manipulation and subterfuge. We can't win on men's terms (open battlefield, opposing flags, etc.) because those are just that: MEN's terms. We need to turn guerrilla. Those are my thoughts. Oh, and I think that the whole "laundry" conundrum comes down to men's fabrics are far less complex than women's. And, a man who is corrected on how he launders someone's bra is literally 99% less likely to volunteer to do laundry again. He's certainly NOT going to organize his thoughts around saving the elastic or spandex in his wifes or daughters clothes just to extend their clothing's life a little. That's silly for them to wear such fragile gear. Every man organizes his own tackle box on a fishing trip and wouldn't expect someone else to organize his lures or tie them, same goes for laundry. I'm probably being wildly unfair and generalizing horribly here. But, that's what you get today!

I think you are such a phenomenal brain! And, yes, Caitlin Moran is a genius. I'm never giving back your book, apparently, either.

p.s. yes I am. ;-)

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Thanks for sharing those thoughts. I guess we need a term for subterfuge then. A sneaky one. You are a scoundrel. Give me my book.

Unknown said...

I love this, it gave me much to think about. I had intentions of becoming an academic until my mid-20s when it slowly dawned on me that I hated my master's program. I have had lots of interests since then, and eventually finished another MS that I loved, but I've never been that enamored of the 9 to 5 grind. Without that compelling passion to keep me in the workforce, it was easy to be at home with my daughter. And I am so happy not to have to deal with the trials of full-time childcare.
I do want my daughter to feel that she can do anything. And I would like to see more women in powerful positions. But sometimes I think it really is men who need to change, do the laundry, become more family-centered, in order to support more ambitious women. I do think it is on the rise, there are an increasing amount of stay-at-home dads, for instance. And my husband does do the laundry!

Jennifer Beyler Horejsi said...

"Unknown" is Jennifer Beyler, Btw.

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Thank you, Jennifer. I was hoping someone would offer their laundry arrangement, as part of the conversation about progress. I know it's out there. :) And so many good points about men and change.... food for thought.

Christine W said...

This is a very complex and personal issue for women...and I struggle to even determine where to start my comments.

I have never felt I have been able to fight along side other like minded women, in large part because I have struggled to find like minded women. I made a choice to go back to work full time after my son was born, and the stay at home moms in my town commented on my plight with a hint of pity. Women at work with nannies or without children smiled at me with thinly veiled irritation at the end of each day as I raced from my last meeting with my head on fire to get to day care pick up before the financial penalties started. Older women frequently asked me either when I was planning to have my next child or wondered if I should be concerned about burning my candle at both ends. Other working moms at Day care pickup didn't have time to chat because their hair was on fire like mine at the 5:30 witching hour, with cranky screaming kids in the back of their mini vans. I have experienced bullying at work several times - for pushing back and being outspoken or assertive - and always by women - not men - above me in positions of power. If I really sit and consider it, I have been made to feel inadequate, irrelevant or selfish more often by more women than men in my life.

I suppose I was raised to believe in my own worth, fight for my own words and ideas to be heard, work hard to earn my way, and contribute to my own success and the success of others in my group. But my group has not been exclusively one of women. My group is one of one of women, men, young and old, gay and straight, rich and painfully poor. My point being, at 44 years, I am still fighting for myself and for my group - and that fight has nothing to do with gender, age, or any other demographic.

As a mother of a young boy, I too worry about shielding him from pornography after school. Perhaps I have never considered myself a feminist because in no way have I found common ground with all women. We all need to fight for what we know is healthy and just and stand up beside the boy children and the gay men AND the women in our lives.

As Groucho said, I suppose I don't want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member....

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Thank you for your comment. And maybe many women lack that feeling of common ground, even though they share common experiences. I think many people don't know where to start with this issue. I started with questions but there are so many many places to go....

Anonymous said...

Your talent and insights are amazing! I've been fuming about the bad rap feminism has been getting for a few years. I didn't realize its decline until Tim told me about the survey he does with freshmen similar to the one you mention, e.g. barely anyone raises their hand to "are you a feminist?" but every one agrees "equal rights is a concern". I am very concerned about this disconnect.
Gawd, and the laundry and clean surfaces thing, I hear you.
Thanks for writing!

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Yes they are "a concern." Ugh. Speaking of freshman surveys, I had a philosophy class at Stanford in which the instructor asked a Rawls state of nature thing: if we could start over in perfect equality- or you had a 1 percent chance of being much wealthier than others -- what would you choose .... Nobody chose equal distribution of wealth. I was like wow! That explains a lot!

Anonymous said...

well the problem with feminism from a mans point of view is that it is not really about equality, but superiority. Feminists seem to want equality with men in areas where men have traditionally had the advantage, yet hold onto the advantages that they have traditionally had. as an example, feminists want men to do equal work around the house, yet still expect men to do all the traditionally manly things around the house (garden, cars, hanging shelves etc.) Now I know women will be the first to say that they can and and do do all these things, yet in reality that's not really the case. I still have yet to see a woman change a car tyre in my 50 years! Also, women want men to put in equal work raising the kids, but in case of marriage break down they want and still get 90% guardianship...where is the equality for men in this? Girls are outscoring boys in education at an alarming rate yet you will never hear feminists raise this issue. Domestic violence against men, harsher jail terms, homelessness and many more areas which adversely effect men but will never hear about it from the feminist lobby...in fact most often feminists will either defend or deny these inequalities for men. So as you can see until the feminist movement starts to recognise inequalities across both genders, they are going to find it hard to garner respect from men and more and more women.

Anonymous said...

Maybe most women are rejecting feminism because they don't want to be victims all the time.

Erin Elizabeth Clune said...

Well, I deleted many of the rambling, hateful comments that people (obviously men) left here. But I will respond to this last point, since it's at least expressed without curse words: I hang my own shelves. Take my own car in. Do everything on the lawn and garden and more that my husband does. Feminist lobby. Please.

Elana Matthews said...

I'm married to an insufferably wonderful feminist who does laundry, cooks a lot, and does dishes far more than I do. I feel mildly guilty about it, not because I feel like I'm neglecting my wifely duties, but because he works really hard and I'm a little lazy. He'd have breastfed our colicky newborn in a second if he could have, and he'd probably have done a better job than I did. None of this keeps me from being constantly furious about the shit deal that women get, or helps me feel less terrified about the world my daughter's growing up in, or prevents me from skittishly measuring and weighing every word I use in conversations with my daughter or son about gender and rights, because omfg, what if I say the wrong thing and turn her into a passive victim or him into an entitled prick? Also, you're a genius, Erin. Thank you.

Paul Boyle said...

So you're confused why women don't identify with feminism... but:

1. You fall into the standard 'man bashing' that women often site as a reason they aren't feminsts, but they are for gender equality.

2. You wonder why men who don't care about doing the laundry don't do the laundry, or any other fussy chore you think they should do Because, hey, women don't want their roles and behavior dictated to them, but it's ok for you to dictate to men?

3. Those manuscripts were awesome - you try spend 12+ hours a day painstakingly and perfectly copying text and artwork, with any mistake possibly ruining your labor like a human xerox machine. Oh, but the monks didn't make sammiches for kids, guess they're lame. Men used to denigrate women for their labor, now you turn around and do the same

In essence, you and your mindset are the answer to your own question. Because feminism has become more sexist than the culture it's in, rather than more gender equal. And don't quote me the dictionary definition of it standing for equal rights- I mean 'feminism as it actual is' now

Anonymous said...

Funny that a person who's for equal rights censored and silenced the other sex. How would you feel if that was still being done to women?

Jennifer Beyler Horejsi said...

I don't understand the many angry comments that certain men make online about feminism. In response to this column Paul Boyle, the poster 2 comments up, has accused you of "falling into the standard man-bashing" category of feminism, trying to dictate housework chores, and denigrating monks for their labor. He must have skimmed this piece very quickly, because I don't see any evidence of his complains in your column, Erin. You are looking at feminism as a struggle against deeply-ingrained historical systems. Most of my friends are feminists, and they all have friends who are men. Many are married to lovely men. We really don't delight in bashing men, we just want a more just society. But if the Internet is to be believed many men seemed to be enraged over the very term "feminism," and I doubt if meaningful dialogue can be had with them.

Jennifer Beyler Horejsi said...

I should clarify that some of my feminist friends, such as my husband, are actually men! *gasp*

Charlotte said...

Yes, part of the problem is that feminists seem to want to have their cake and eat it too (so to speak), and have men pay for that cake. They are asking workplaces to bend over backward to accomodate them and their lifestyle choices in ways working men never did. They demanded to join the workforce under the claim of wanting equality with men, but refuse to accept the same hours, workplace conditions, or schedules men have because it makes it harder to do everything else they want to do as far as family and social life. That's not equality. Men have always understood that they can't give 100% at work at 100% at home, made choices accordingly, and understood that it was wrong to shift the cost of their personal choices regarding home and family onto their employer, their coworkers, or taxpayers via regulations. Even as a former feminist and former working woman the incredibly burdensome demands working mothers were trying to put in place so they could work less than a man in the same position never sat well with me. I guess I just think equality should mean true equality - women having the same rights, but also the same responsibilities and consequences. And that's before I even get into the huge problem of horrendously unfair divorce and child custody laws, or discrimination against boys in education. There's a lot of areas in society where feminism swung the pendulum way too far in the other direction and many women want to see it corrected.

S. Graham said...

Hi Charlotte. As an Australian male I would have to say your comments absolutely nailed it as far as I am concerned. Your views and opinions fit with mine exactly and I could not have said it better myself. I just love it when others express my opinion better than myself! I enjoyed reading Erin's article immensely. Although a male (and self professed non feminist) I did greatly admire and respect the work done by the first and second waves of the women's movement. Since the start of the new millennium I have come to realise that feminism does not mean gender equality at all. It's about the demonisation of men and boys and propelling women into victim roles. It's about diminishing and invalidating masculinity and making boys feel bad about themselves in an ever feminised education system. Radicle feminism is the order of the day and fully supported by mainstream media. I know that radicle feminism does not represent the views of all feminists but unfortunately it is they that are heard, with the right to say what they wish without being made to account for it. I am hardly surprised that feminism is in decline and being rejected. It deserves to be. Immense damage has (and is) being done to gender relationships greatly by the vitriol of modern day feminists and this is really sad. In short feminism has lost the right to claim the gender equality tag. As a male of course my views will be ignored and trashed because that is how it is! However I do appreciate Erin's blog and the opportunity to post my views.

Anonymous said...

Hi S Graham and Charlotte,

Another Aussie male here.

Yes, I agree with Charlotte's very succinct and truthful post, but at least it's good to see that you weren't censored.

Have you heard of The Red Pill movie produced by former feminist Cassie Jaye?

Feminists have been fighting tooth and nail to get this insightful and intelligent documentary banned, resorting to filing petitions containing damaging lies such as claiming that the movie incites hatred against women.

At least the OP, Erin, has allowed opposing opinions, including yours. I believe the posts that were removed probably were hateful and/or abusive; unlike your post, Charlotte's and mine.

Erin, if you're still following the comments in this thread, I have a little challenge for you, and that is to watch The Red Pill, and report on it fairly once you've seen it.

In return, I'm happy to watch or read anything that you recommend should you wish to.

Mark W

Anonymous said...

In response to Anonymous:

'...barely anyone raises their hand to "are you a feminist?" but every one agrees "equal rights is a concern". I am very concerned about this disconnect.'

Here's my take on it.

Feminism is about equal rights for women.

Women in the Western world have already won equal legal rights, unlike those in some other countries...

...and unlike men.

Men are legally discriminated against in a variety of ways in the Western world, and feminism does nothing to help. In fact it actively hinders men's efforts to be heard with such sayings as "What about teh menz" and "mansplaining" being morally dubious but effective ways of silencing men. It pushes men's issues to the back of the line and often fights against acknowledging they even exist. "There's no such thing as sexism against men" and "there's not such thing as misandry" are sentiments often expressed on feminist sites.

So I experience no cognitive disconnect when I hear that people are pro gender equality, but anti-feminism. To me it makes complete sense.

Anonymous said...

Feminism is about equal rights for women.


Feminism is about greater or equal rights for women.