As the right-wing anti-feminist backlash escalates, and the battle over women’s votes in the upcoming election intensifies, it’s time to explore the state of feminism: where it is, where it’s going and what it means. And because intergenerational stereotypes (and differences) have led to misunderstandings between second- and third-wave feminists, In These Times organized a dialogue — too rare these days — between two feminists three decades apart in age: Susan J. Douglas, 62, ITT columnist and author of, most recently, Enlightened Sexism: The Seductive Message That Feminism’s Work is Done, and Sady Doyle, 30, an ITT staff writer and founder of the anti-sexist blog Tiger Beatdown. Then we invited members of the Women, Action & the Media Listserv to respond to the discussion.
In the past year, Republicans have launched a major assault on women’s health and reproductive rights, demonized Planned Parenthood and just recently blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act in the Senate; meanwhile, right-wing provocateur Rush Limbaugh referred to a law student as a “slut” for supporting access to contraceptives. Yet the Republicans have been slammed for mounting a “War on Women,” Susan G. Komen for the Cure faced a PR disaster when it proposed severing its relationship with Planned Parenthood, and Limbaugh’s remarks ignited outrage. What does all this say about the state of feminism today?
SADY: The first thing to note is that we’re hearing about it — and almost instantaneously, at that. The right-wing play against issues traditionally marked as “women’s” — such as reproductive healthcare access, choice, domestic violence and equal pay — has backfired in a spectacular way. And as plenty of people have noted, that’s due in large part to the huge groundswell of online feminist writing and activism. And not even just “feminist,” really. People are writing about all sorts of lived oppressions, and the issues that matter to undoing oppression, and plenty of them don’t identify with “feminist” as a label.
SUSAN: The media have stereotyped feminists — especially second-wavers — as strident, humorless, man-hating ninjas who are now irrelevant, especially to younger women. But if you travel around the country to college campuses, women’s groups and women’s resource centers, you’ll see that under the radar — rarely noticed by the media — women are working against domestic violence, for women’s reproductive rights, against sexism in the media, for marriage equity and a host of other issues. And this includes young women. Feminism may not be out in the streets like it was in the ’70s and early ’90s, but it is hardly dead.
There can be, and are, differences and tensions between older and younger feminists, commonly referred to as second- and third-wave feminists. What do you think are the most unfair stereotypes about your generations?
SADY: Young feminists are supposedly lazy and entitled, just like the rest of the millenials. That we’re slutty, or frivolous, or that we lack the intellectual seriousness of our forebears. I suppose the stereotypical younger feminist is hanging out drunk in a bar on Main Street, typing out a blog post on her iPhone about why no one at work takes her seriously.
SUSAN: That the women’s movement of the ’70s was primarily by and for privileged white women, that we hate men, that all we want to do is scold younger women, that we are all now anti-sex.
But women of color, poor women and many lesbians felt that their issues and concerns were not addressed, or were even shunned, by the women’s movement. And you and various other feminists have decried the sexualization of women.
SUSAN: Many white women failed to appreciate how women of color were oppressed by racism and sexism, and their intersections, and that to choose feminism could mean being pitted against their men, who were also held down by racism. The media and the culture were totally homophobic back in the early ’70s, and moderate feminists like Betty Friedan were terrified that charges of lesbianism would undermine their efforts. But also the media in the ’70s ignored feminists of color except for Shirley Chisholm and Flo Kennedy, so their work and their presence were erased from our national memory.
SADY: The question of a feminism that only focuses on the life of a specific sort of woman did not end with the second wave. There are still plenty of people who call themselves feminists but who are openly disdainful and bigoted toward transgender people. There are still plenty of white feminists who don’t respect the complexities of race. People with disabilities have been highly critical of mainstream feminism for not honoring their experiences. Just so I don’t sound too self-righteous, I haven’t learned to think about these things because I’m perfect; I’ve learned to think about them because I’ve been slapped back when I screwed up.
What about the anti-sex charge?
SUSAN: Who do you think made the sexual revolution happen? Many of us had access to birth control by the early ’70s, we weren’t confronted by the lethal STDs circulating today, and millions of us were quite eager to drive a stake in the heart of the double standard. So anti-sex is the last thing we were — or are. What I and many feminists of my era are concerned about is the corporate construction of a very narrow definition of female sexuality, the commercial exploitation of young women’s desires for sexual agency and equity, the sexualization of girls at ever-younger ages, and the media’s insistence that presenting yourself as a sex object is somehow a power move.
How should young women respond to the message that being desirable, or “hot,” is empowering?
SADY: I don’t think that’s really the message they’re getting. There are two things being conflated here. First, compulsory “hotness,” and the idea that a woman must always look sexy in order to be socially acceptable — but not too sexy, or she’ll be told that no one could ever take her seriously or that she’s invited harm onto herself. Second, the third-wave message that honoring your own desire or feeling good about yourself physically is a good thing. The first message says that you have to look like someone else’s version of hot in order to exist; the second message says that it’s okay for you to want to feel hot, to want to feel desired, and to feel desire. One can be conflated into the other for the purposes of marketing — “empowerment” can always be turned into another marketing message. Just look at Virginia Slims, after all. But it’s important that we, as feminists, don’t assume they’re one and the same.
SUSAN: And the corporate media relentlessly repackage and sell this message back to young women as a mandate to always be hot and that the only way to be hot is to wear an Ipex bra and platform stilettos. The third wave’s radical stance here has been quite effectively co-opted.
What about the SlutWalk rallies, sparked in 2011 as a reaction against a Canadian police officer’s remark that “women should avoid dressing like sluts” so as not to be victimized?
SUSAN: While I am in complete sympathy with the statement these marches seek to embody, I don’t think they’re very productive. They invite the same sort of ogling and objectification they seek to call out, and that emphasizes that women will — and possibly should — get the most attention when they are scantily clad.
SADY: Oh, dear! I think this is part of the resentment some younger women have toward feminism: They think it exists primarily as a mechanism of judgment. The naked bosoms and pole-dancing were the least of my worries. Far more important were the questions raised by women of color about how the march failed to address their concerns or history as it related to sexual assault. The question of failure and privilege is not confined to the second wave. SlutWalk was so big, and so rapidly successful, that it seemed at times to stand in for “young feminism” itself. But it also became a lens through which to see the problems that exist within young feminism.
SUSAN: Are the SlutWalk rallies effective consciousness-raising events? I’m not convinced, in part because of how the media have focused on the women in lingerie, and not on the concerns of women of color or the other indignities and violence the walks seek to address.
As far as being one of those older feminists who is overly judgmental about what young women wear — I am conflicted. Sexual agency was crucial to the rise of second-wave feminism. So how can someone like me chastise young women who come into my class, as they do, in plunging necklines and mini-skirts? I see them having to devote so much time and energy to sexual display in a way guys simply don’t, and I still see them harassed, used, blamed and punished for dressing provocatively. This highly patriarchal and conformist definition of femininity is everywhere. So is it so wrong to wish that young women would collectively raise a giant middle finger to all this? How do we get out of this conundrum?
SADY: I counted lots of people at SlutWalk subverting beauty norms. Trans people were out there; people whose bodies don’t fit the mainstream beauty standard or definitions of femininity were out there. Sometimes, reclaiming your own body as beautiful — which is something that’s denied to many marginalized people — can include wearing those skimpy clothes, as a way of rejecting shame. Sometimes the girl in the skimpy dress is having the time of her life and feeling genuinely good about herself. And sometimes she’s wearing that dress because she’s afraid that no one will like her if she doesn’t. There has to be a difference in the way we speak to — and about — those two girls.
You became feminists in very different eras. How has that shaped you and the differences in your outlooks?
SUSAN: One generational difference is that second-wavers focused on legal and policy changes. There was so much to fight! It’s hard for young women today to fathom a time when job ads were segregated by gender, when there were quotas or prohibitions for women entering graduate and professional schools, when a woman doctor was considered really weird, when we couldn’t get credit cards or mortgages in our own names, when rape laws required that women demonstrate resistance to the assault in the form of broken bones or bruises in order to make a case, when sexual harassment was unnamed and perfectly acceptable, when we could be researchers at newsmagazines but not reporters, when abortion was illegal — the list of discrimination and oppression goes on. Challenging all of this, as well as challenging powerful men in your everyday lives, was the first order of business. But how naïve we were, and how overly optimistic the late ’60s and early ’70s made us! We thought we’d expunged the term “slut” from the English language. And once Roe v. Wade happened, we also thought we had wrapped that battle up.
SADY: My mother was single for a while, and always had a job; the thought of women not being able to have careers, or of women not being able to balance career and family, honestly never occurred to me. For people of my generation, in their 20s and 30s right now, we grew up with the message that feminism had already happened, and that all of its important goals had already been accomplished, and that there was no further use for it. Overcoming that perception, more than anything else — and asking what gains had yet to be made — defined both my own approach to feminism, and what I believe to be my generation’s approach to it.
And what gains have yet to be made? What is most important for women?
SADY: I have a different idea of what feminism needs to fix every time I read the news. But on its most basic level, I believe that feminism’s goals are the same as always: Ending gender-based inequality and oppression. Whether that means teaching girls to reclaim their agency in their personal lives, or agitating for structural and cultural changes, I think feminism’s basic promise has always been that women’s full humanity will be recognized by the culture.
SUSAN: Full equal rights for everyone in the LGBT community. Pay equity. And motherhood. We have the worst public policies of any developed country when it comes to supporting families and children. When a woman becomes a mother she often has to make impossible choices about work and family, some of them quite expensive financially and emotionally, in a way that most men are not expected to make. What we need is a truly feminist budget proposal that addresses these and the issues Sady has raised.
Are you optimistic about what feminism can accomplish?
SADY: I see so much work being done around broadening the terms, around broadening the scope of our engagement with social problems. Every year I discover new ways to see the work that is left to be done. Sometimes that means identifying new things in myself; sometimes that means looking to parts of the culture I hadn’t seen before, and learning about new theory. What I love is that I am able to witness so many dialogues happening, every day.
SUSAN: It depends on what day you ask me. The War on Women has been so determined, and here in Michigan our House of Representatives just passed one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the country despite massive protests. Sexism in various sectors of the media has become more blatant and ironic — sexism with a knowing wink, that we all know it’s stupid to be sexist, therefore it’s funny to be sexist, therefore it’s OK to be sexist. But despite everything, most women do not want to go back to 1956 — at all. And it may be precisely this kind of radical over-reaching on the Right that will galvanize women. Look at the national reaction to female legislators here being censored because one of them used the word “vagina” during the abortion bill debate. This went viral on Facebook and thousands flocked to watch these same legislators, along with Eve Ensler, perform “The Vagina Monologues” on the steps of the state Capitol. We have to remember that we are in it for the long haul. And my generation needs to remind younger women that while challenging patriarchy is hard and often dispiriting work, speaking truth to power is, in fact, fun.
Members of the Women, Action & the Media Listserv respond to the discussion:
KATHA POLLITT: Sady is awfully optimistic about the “war on women” backfiring. The Republicans go all-out, and only get a piece of what they demand — but they usually get something, and they also move the debate more to their side, so I would say the War on Women is going well. The Paycheck Fairness Act is dead, the Violence Against Women Act has to be reconciled between Senate and House, abortion restrictions are rampant, birth control is harder for poor women to get in some states. And the Republican war on “government workers” — mostly teachers — has been devastating for women.
If Romney wins, the War on Women will go better. I don’t think we should confuse the way Republican misogyny mobilizes progressives and the Dem base with how women in general are going to vote in November.
JENNIFER POZNER: Decrying the sexualization of women is not remotely the same thing as “being anti-sex.” Sexualization is commercial, societal, political — it tells young girls and women that they will only be valued for a very specific and limiting kind of beauty and outward sexuality, and that they must perform this virtually all the time.
But as Sady points out, that performance is about pleasing dominant notions of what is and isn’t OK for women and girls. But it also just flat-out ignores women’s sexual agency — when they want to say yes and when they want to say no, and to what. Sexualization is responsible for the horrifying onesie I saw being sold for infants: “I’m too sexy for this onesie.” Sexualization is primarily projected by media and gets internalized, to great damage.
It is an endless frustration and joke to me that feminists (aside from a few scholars and writers, who deserved the label) were branded anti-sex. Anti-sex is: anti-feminists on the Right in think tanks, activist groups, churches and Congress who oppose contraception, rail against those slutty-sluts who dare to testify at Congressional hearings, set women’s health clinics on fire, assassinate abortion providers, demonize poor mothers (usually of color) for having too many kids “out of wedlock,” harass teenagers about their clothing, rant against big government but are overly concerned with what goes in the privacy of LGBT people’s bedrooms… and the list goes on.
Pro-sex is: feminists in the 1970s fighting for sexual liberation, third wavers who came up in the 1990s in riot grrrl and zine culture who wrote and sang and marched about our rights to own and define our sexuality however we wanted and without punishment, and today’s millenial feminists’ fight for LGBT rights in general and trans people’s rights in particular as integral to feminism.
As for what I want feminism to accomplish: I founded Women In Media & News in 2001 because I wanted the emerging media reform movements to see women as a core constituency for media justice. And I wanted women’s rights groups and feminists to understand that the media is absolutely a feminist issue, from content to production and distribution to policy, including the many structural and institutional biases within the media industry.
A small feminist media movement thrives in this country. But mostly, when feminists think about problems with media they think about representation in content, or perhaps jobs in the industry. I don’t see women’s rights activists prioritizing media at a structural level. We cannot ever achieve our ultimate justice goals without access to free, independent, non-sexist media.
So, whatever your first issue, make media your second issue.
KATHA: Repro rights issues are bound to be front and center, given what we’re living with, but I was struck by how much of the discussion was about sex, sexuality, beauty, clothes, self-presentation. Why? Economic issues get only the briefest mention — in the form of the phrase “pay equity” which barely begins to get at the structure of gendered inequality that is the U.S. economy. Susan mentioned motherhood issues, which is so central, and gets so little attention here. Domestic violence and rape? Women’s political representation? The persistence of male dominance in every sphere of life (including the Left and unions and the Democratic Party)? Reactionary religion and its appeal to women? Barely a mention, while what to wear to a SlutWalk gets full discussion!
SUSAN: Katha, ITT asked us to confront generational differences, and Sady and I agree about the centrality of all the structural issues you cite. We discovered that our different attitudes about sexual display were not simply about clothes or sex, but about whether female self-presentation can reinforce, or challenge, patriarchal attitudes and practices that undergird the economic, social and political inequities still holding women down.
ERIN MATSON: I’m so glad Katha brought her perception on how feminism seems to be turning into “Sexiness, Good or Bad?” versus a discussion on “the deep issues,” which for me echoes Susan’s comments on second-wavers focusing on legal or policy changes. These issues are at the core of generational differences between feminists.
The systematic denigration and devaluation of women is expressed differently today. Whereas at one point laws and overt discrimination fenced in women as a class, today more subtle laws and practices operate to keep women and girls in a second-class status. When this status is pointed out, it is rarely defended on the grounds that “women are less” and more often by blaming individual women for personal defects that are holding them back from an alleged equality that already exists.
How could it be that as a class women are paid less because individual women are “making bad choices,” “don’t know how to negotiate,” “don’t speak up loudly enough,” etc.? How could it be we have a rape epidemic because individual women “wear the wrong thing,” “go on a sketchy date,” “don’t watch their surroundings”? How could it be that basic health care nearly all women use is not covered because individual women “are sluts” or “could choose to put aspirin between the knees?” It can’t be.
The idea that women’s individual defects are responsible for systemic inequality is false. Making that point over and over and over will remain one of the central arguments of younger feminism.
The one outlier, of course, is reproductive justice, where women are under extreme attack. The way the radical Right and even mainstream media deals with this is to shut women out of the discussions entirely.
KATHA: With all due respect, I don’t agree with you. Feminists removed most explicit legal barriers to equality in the ‘70s. There are very few laws that on their face deny women a right that men have. But, society is still organized to promote women’s inequality, including the legal and political organization of society. It’s just at the next level down. (Social Security and the income tax are two examples of massive government structures that discriminate against women and in various ways keep women out of the work force.) Lack of childcare is a huge government fail that affects mostly women. The ease with which child support can be evaded is another. How many women stay in their marriage for financial reasons? You are not equal in your marriage if you can’t leave and your husband can.
It’s true that women are told in many ways that their oppression is an individual problem. Who would dispute that? Susan wrote a whole book about how the media portrays all problems as solved. (Enlightened Sexism, it’s very good.) But what feminists don’t spend enough time on is taking this insight out of the psychological, the beauty industry and the media, to actually look at the material structure of our reality. If women had good childcare, a lot would change.
When women make a decision that disempowers them it may look as if they have been manipulated by sexist ideology, and sometimes that is indeed the case. But a lot of the time they are making a rational decision that has been shaped by actual conditions that discriminate against them. When a mother quits her job because it “doesn’t pay” to work, the reason it “doesn’t pay” is constructed by government policies — lack of affordable childcare, pay discrimination, channeling of women into lower-paid and lower-status occupations, etc. Just as it is not enough to tell women to solve their problems individually by learning to negotiate pay raises or whatever, it is not enough to urge them to solve their problems by resisting this message.
Affirmative action is basically dead. That’s a crucial feminist issue. Welfare reform is another huge feminist issue that has no traction in the movement.
ERIN: Resisting the message that any gendered disadvantages a woman is experiencing is all her fault is an important step and piece of the puzzle. Look at the recent shifts in policy toward gay rights, with culture and young people leading the charge. What word springs to mind? “Pride.”
We can’t move too quickly over the important cultural (and deeply political) feminist work that younger women are leading, largely online. All this work is rapidly building into a platform that has the power to force big policy changes, and that’s exciting.
Erin Matson is the Action Vice President of the National Organization for Women.
Katha Pollitt writes the “Subject to Debate” column in The Nation and is the author, most recently, of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.
Jennifer Pozner is the founder of Women in Media & News.