Thursday, July 26, 2007

Thoughts on Feminism

Here's an essay I originally wrote for the IBTP forum, in response to a question about how radical feminism has failed or succeeded. The IBTP thread can be found here. Writing this helped me clarify my thoughts about where I stand on the feminist spectrum, but I'm still not totally sure. I'm probably not quite a radical. I don't advocate complete revolution and building society up from the ground (I would have no idea how to proceed with such a monumental task), but I do think there are serious, deep-rooted ways in which our culture is sick, especially in its attitudes to women.

You can also see from this essay that I ascribe our cultural problems not to the "failure of feminism," ala Time Magazine and its obnoxious "Feminism is Dead" headlines, but to the failure of our leadership and society at large to listen and respond to feminist concerns.


I don't like to think of feminism itself as having failed, because then the blame falls on feminists. My conception is of a society that has failed to keep up with feminism; to respond to women's just demands.

Betty Friedan and other second-wave leaders were unhappy with radical feminism. They thought the radicals were moving away from the real work of feminism; they were taking on porn and sexual violence with "Take Back the Night," when the battles for equal pay, access to credit, and safe, legal abortion were far from won. (Here I'm paraphrasing "The Second Stage" as I remember it.) Friedan and her compatriots thought women should unite against economic injustice and leave the messy world of bedroom politics alone. It's certainly easier to talk to Congress about equal pay than domestic violence.

I think I understand where these women were coming from. They wanted real policy change, and to a certain degree, they got it, but not enough. Had Richard Nixon and his minions not fought the feminists at every opportunity, had full economic equality for women been won, had the ERA passed, we would be living in a very different society. The patriarchy would still be there, but would-be exploiters of women would fear the power of women's wallets and edit themselves. As I see it, this was the promise of non-radical, second-wave feminism: a world where the full personhood of women was reflected in their access to all the opportunities men have. In the US, access to opportunity is determined by economic status, so feminists fought for women to have economic and political power.

Unfortunately, the patriarchy is not just reflected in economics and politics--it lives in the minds of all human beings and infests personal relationships. The radicals realized that they were dealing with much more than lack of economic power. It's great for women to become doctors and lawyers, but what if they still come home to abusive husbands? Personal degradation is alive and well, and the systematic devaluing of women in private life most definitely inhibits our ability to function fully in the public sphere. So the radicals were right--the personal is political.

In fact, the 1970s radfem focus on pornography and violence was prophetic. Had other feminists, had society at large, taken the rads' concerns seriously, they could have saved us from the free and available internet porn that's poisoning our conceptions of sexuality. Seriously, has there been any generation in the past that had free and easy access to hard-core porn? Now we see young high-school girls with bare bellies and thongs showing over the tops of their jeans, their sexual consciousness shaped by Girls Gone Wild.

The sexual revolution was most definitely not a revolution that served women. It left us free to be used, with no consequences for the men who use us. I think the rads realized that once the genie of sexual freedom was out of its bottle, it would immediately be co-opted by the patriarchy to demean women. If only their concerns had been heard. The sexual revolution called for an immediate re-evaluation of personal relationships, which did not happen. That was society's failure to listen to hard-thinking women who told uncomfortable truths.

I don't know where radical feminism should go from here, but I agree with Jack-Booted Thug that consciousness raising is a necessary first step. Young women need this more than anything. They absolutely have to have some intervention from the pornsick culture if they're going to grow up respecting themselves at all.

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