Sunday, January 03, 2010

Taking stock of US feminism: the perils of identity politics

Excellent review of Gail Collins' When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present, from Ariel Levy, in The New Yorker. Excerpts follow, all emphases are mine.

At the Miss America pageant in Atlantic City in 1968, feminists threw items symbolic of women's oppression into a Freedom Trash Can, including copies of Playboy, girdles, high heels, bras and corsets. No bras were burned.

Bra burning—the most famous habit of women’s libbers—caused a fair amount of consternation back in the seventies, and the smoke has lingered...So it may be worth noting that it never actually happened.

It’s as if feminism were plagued by a kind of false-memory syndrome...We tend to imagine the fifties and the early sixties, for example, as a time when most American women were housewives. “In reality, however, by 1960 there were as many women working as there had been at the peak of World War II, and the vast majority of them were married,” Collins writes...

There are political consequences to remembering things that never happened and forgetting things that did. If what you mainly know about modern feminism is that its proponents immolated their underwear, you might well arrive at the conclusion that feminists are “obnoxious,” as Leslie Sanchez does in her new book, “You’ve Come a Long Way, Maybe: Sarah, Michelle, Hillary and the Shaping of the New American Woman” (Palgrave; $25)...

One sign of our cultural memory disorder is that you can describe a female governor of a state as “traditional” and not get laughed at...Conservative career women are eager to describe themselves in those terms. “I don’t like labels, but, if there’s a label for me, it would be ‘traditional,’ and I’m very proud to be traditional,’’ Cindy McCain told voters when her husband was running for President. Since 2000, she has been the chairman of Hensley & Company, one of the largest distributors of beer in this country, with annual revenues exceeding three hundred million dollars.

Neither she nor Sarah Palin is, of course, a traditional woman. In a traditional family, a wife and mother does not pursue success outside her own home...Unquestioned male authority is the basis of traditional marriage, and that is why the zealots of an earlier and more disruptive time wanted to scrap it.

Feminists have long been criticized for telling women that they could have it all. But conservatives have done us one better: apparently, you can have it all and be traditional, too...All of this raises a question: why has feminism, which managed to win so many battles—the notion of a woman with a career has become perfectly unexceptionable—remained anathema to millions of women who are the beneficiaries of its success?

Once, it was easy to say what feminism was. Its aim was to win full citizenship for women, starting with suffrage, an issue that began amassing support in the United States in the eighteen-forties. More than a century later, Betty Friedan was working in that tradition when, in 1966, she co-founded the National Organization for Women, whose goal was to obtain legislative protections for women and insure employment parity. Like the suffragists, Friedan was devoted to a politics of equality.

Here’s another detail we’ve forgotten: historically, it was the Republican Party that was more amenable to women’s rights...

By the late sixties and early seventies, of course, things had changed. The argument had moved from civic equality to personal liberation: feminists started talking about orgasms as well as ambitions...The radicals taking over feminism, many of whom were active in the civil-rights and antiwar movements, wanted to overthrow patriarchy, which would require transforming almost every aspect of society: child rearing, entertainment, housework, academics, romance, business, art, politics, sex.

Some of that happened and some of it didn’t. By the early seventies, the Supreme Court had granted legal protection to birth control and abortion. But the politics of equality—forget liberation—swiftly ran into resistance. Catholic and Protestant conservatives found a common threat: the destruction of the traditional family...The Republican Bob McDonnell, who won last week’s race to become governor of Virginia, described the peril in a master’s thesis he wrote in the nineteen-eighties: “A dynamic new trend of working women and feminists”—women who have sought “to increase their family income, or for some women, to break their perceived stereotypical role bonds and seek workplace equality and individual self-actualization”—is “ultimately detrimental to the family.”

In the run-up to the election, McDonnell scrambled to distance himself from the thesis. But he was telling a particular truth that liberals and conservatives have different reasons for evading: if the father works and the mother works, nobody is left to watch the kids. In societies where these families constitute the majority, either government acknowledges the situation and helps provide child care (as many European countries do) or child care becomes a luxury affordable for the affluent, and a major problem for everyone else.

Social movements, like armies, define themselves by their conquests, not by their defeats. Feminism failed to make child care available to all, let alone bring about the total reconfiguration of the family that revolutionary feminists had envisaged, and that would have changed this country on a cellular level. Like so many other ideals of the sixties and seventies, the state-backed egalitarian family has gone from seeming—to both political parties—practical and inevitable to seeming utterly beyond the pale. The easier victories involved representation, or at least symbolic representation. For all the backlash against Roe v. Wade, the movement had steady success in getting women into the government and the private-sector workforce. The contours of mainstream feminism started to change accordingly. A politics of liberation was largely supplanted by a politics of identity.

But, if feminism becomes a politics of identity, it can safely be drained of ideology. Identity politics isn’t much concerned with abstract ideals, like justice. It’s a version of the old spoils system: align yourself with other members of a group—Irish, Italian, women, or whatever—and try to get a bigger slice of the resources that are being allocated. If a demand for revolution is tamed into a simple insistence on representation, then one woman is as good as another. You could have, in a sense, feminism without feminists...

Revolutions are supposed to devour their young; in the case of feminism, it has been the other way around. [Leslie] Sanchez says that she speaks for many women who are happy to live and work in a reformed and comparatively fair America but dislike the movement responsible for this transformation...

But though Sanchez and her sisters (thirty-seven per cent of women describe themselves as conservative, and three out of four women abjure the label “feminist”) may not like rowdy revolutionary posturing, we live in a country that has been reshaped by the women’s movement, in which the traditional family is increasingly obsolete. As of September, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than sixty per cent of American women aged twenty and over were working or seeking work, and, according to the Shriver Report, women are either the primary or the co-breadwinner in two-thirds of American families. For many of them, this isn’t an exercise in empowerment; it’s about making a living and, for working mothers in particular, often a hard living.

Feminism as an identity politics has enjoyed real victories. It matters that women serve on the Supreme Court, that they make decisions in business, government, academia, and the media. But a preoccupation with representation suggests that feminism has lost its larger ambitions.

We’ve come a long way in the past forty years; there’s no “maybe” about it. The trouble is that the journey hasn’t always been in the intended direction. These days, we can only dream about a federal program insuring that women with school-age children have affordable child care. If such a thing seems beyond the realm of possibility, though, that’s another sign of our false-memory syndrome. In the early seventies, we very nearly got it.

In 1971, a bipartisan group of senators, led by Walter Mondale, came up with legislation that would have established both early-education programs and after-school care across the country. Tuition would be on a sliding scale based on a family’s income bracket, and the program would be available to everyone but participation was required of no one. Both houses of Congress passed the bill.

Nobody remembers this, because, later that year, President Nixon vetoed the Comprehensive Child Development Act...

So close. And now so far. The amazing journey of American women is easier to take pride in if you banish thoughts about the roads not taken. When you consider all those women struggling to earn a paycheck while rearing their children, and start to imagine what might have been, it’s enough to make you want to burn something.

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