Katha Pollitt on feminism
Source Michael Hoover
Date 03/07/18/11:39

Claiming Independence, Asserting Personal Choice
US: feminism lite

The collective action that changed women's public and
private lives in the United States is over: personal
choice is now seen as the only true value.

By Katha Pollitt *

Le Monde diplomatique

July 2003

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

Original text in English

[View the list]

InternetBoard v1.0
Copyright (c) 1998, Joongpil Cho