America, I’ve had it! I’ve really had it up to here with the accepted “I’m not a feminist” rally cry. It’s bullshit! Out right BULLSHIT!
If I hear one more woman say that phrase, I will knock them out cold. There is no way that you can be a woman (or even a man) in this country today and not be a feminist. Zero. But attacking feminists and feminism is a popular trick for the Right in this country, and sadly, as of late, a popular attack of conservative women on liberal women.
In her second book, America By Heart, (published November 2010) Sarah Palin says the following of Hillary Clinton circa 1992:
“…she seemed like someone frozen in an attitude of 1960s bra-burning militancy…she told us in no uncertain terms that she could have stayed home and baked cookies but she preferred to pursue a serious career…but Hillary, some of us like to bake cookies and we don’t have to run-down stay-at-home moms to feel good about our careers.”
A month later, Fox New Channel’s Megyn Kelly’s profile in GQ Magazine was published. In it, Kelly says the following:
“GQ: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Kelly: I don’t really love that word. That connotes a harshness and almost a shrillness that I find unattractive.
GQ: What is it about that word?
Kelly: Hmm, I respect women like Gloria Steinem who paved the way. But when you say “feminist” now, there is a message that if you are sexy and you acknowledge that part of your personality publicly, then it’s somehow an affront to women. And I reject that.”
Kelly, a lawyer-turned-TV-personality, scorns the word “feminist” because she feels that it crimps her sexuality (she noted earlier in the profile that “it’s a visual media, people want to see the anchor” when asked why she sits behind a clear desk). Palin, beauty pageant contestant-turned-governor-turned VP candidate-turned media personality, derides Hillary Clinton as being “militant” and negative towards stay-at-home moms. By playing the long-standing divide between “working women” and “moms” Palin posits women in the workplace as cold, militant, and liberal versus stay-at-home mothers as warm, nurturing and representative of proper conservative values.
What Palin and Kelly fail to understand is that Second Wave Feminism (early 1960s to late 1970s) was epitomized as much by women asserting themselves on issues of sexuality, reproductive rights, and the workplace as it was by a rising sense of domesticity. In her phenomenal book The Feminist Promise, Christine Stansell writes:
“In the United States, the nexus of 1950s beliefs about female nature and family roles that Betty Friedan later called “the feminine mystique” resurrected the Victorian ideology of separate spheres. But 1950s domesticity thrived, too, on modernizing elements: consumerism, sexualized marriage, and civic activism. The idea was that men would work while women stayed home, to shop in stores where, unlike in devastated Europe, the aisles were overflowing. They would tend houses large enough for growing families – again, unlike Europe, where people were struggling to find housing, and they would heap on them the riches of consumer goods…They were to enliven their marriages with sexuality that drew in equal measure from girlish flirtation and the seductiveness of the femme fatale.
The push back into the home came from above, with policies that forced women out of high-paying, high-skilled wartime jobs by giving preference to returning GIs. But neo-domesticity also came from below, from men’s and women’s desires for a bountiful private life freed from the demands of sacrifice for the nation.” (183)
Sure, later efforts of Second Wavers included attacks on men and marriage, questions of whether a relationship with a man wouldn’t result in some form of exploitation. But the contempt that many Second Wavers had for men was due to the noticeable inadequacies between the earning potential of men compared to women. Men worked out side the home in higher paying jobs while women worked in the home or in low paying jobs. The higher wages earned by men “made up” for their decreased or non-existent role in domestic duties. Women handled a disproportionate amount of child-care and home maintenance. Women’s mistrust of men stemmed from each individual man’s role as representative of the collective male patriarchy, a patriarchy that was seen as demoralizing and exploitative.
Some of the most substantial efforts of the Second Wave were efforts made to give women voices within the system. Access to more knowledge (of their bodies, of their rights, educational opportunities generally), access to jobs and wider range of careers, more knowledge of sexuality and choices regarding their sexual practices and family planning. In doing this, Second Wavers laid the foundations for pot-structuralist Third Wave Feminism which disavowed Second Wave essentialism and opened up the boundaries of feminism to discursive power and gender ambiguity. Whereas the Second Wave had focused exclusively on women and had only in it’s ramifications impacted men and minorities, Third Wave embraced all races, ethnicities, sexualities, and paid particular attention to the post-colonialism, critical theory, and postmodernism.
Even though Second Wave embraced sexuality and empowered women to feel comfortable with their bodies, their sexuality, and to be active participants in their healthcare and family planning; it really wasn’t till Third Wave that feminism took a universal sex-positive position. The most prominent example of this change is the change in approach to sex workers, pornography and stripping. Prior to Third Wave these fields were considered exploitative towards women. Third Wave Feminism opened up the possibility of seeing women in these roles as empowered, that their choices were indicative of their empowerment. Central to Third Wave Feminism is the idea that women define feminism for themselves.
When Kelly and Palin attack women like Clinton for being “frozen” in “1960s militancy” they forget Third Wave entirely. They exacerbate ideological divides between genders by exacerbating ideological divides amongst women. A woman saying she’s not a feminist is like a drunk college-girl at a frat party kissing another girl, it’s a ploy to appease men by sacrificing themselves. When a woman undermines feminism because they think embracing it makes them a “bitch” or “cold” they enforce critique rather than embrace criticality. Feminism was never meant to be stagnant. It is an evolving notion and a collection of theories. Megyn Kelly disavowing feminism and sliding away from Gloria Steinem, et al, comes at a cost for all of us, not just her. Sarah Palin standing on Hillary Clinton’s shoulders while simultaneously burning her feet is a classic example of not just Right-leaning men but Right-leaning women sacrificing women for political inclusion or patriarchal acceptance.
We are all feminists. We define it for ourselves. We can embrace essentialism or contradictions. We can do all of this because of the militancy of those past. To marginalize those efforts is beyond insulting, it’s dangerous.