Sometime during the winter of 1998-99 I recall having a conversation with my sweetheart while we were cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. We were anticipating the next presidential election and talking about what types of candidates might emerge.
I made a blanket statement that evening:
"If a black man runs against a woman, the black man will win. Gender trumps race in politics."
He disagreed, but I stuck to my statement.
The Firebrand has two posts in her archive that discuss feminism. I've spent some time reading them and looking over her suggested readings, and at least one thing has become clear to me:
When it comes to individual evaluations of feminism, context is all.
When I say "context," I mean things like this:
- Your generation
- Your experience of discrimination, or lack thereof, in life
- Your family's history and traditions
(I'm sure there are other considerations that could be labelled "context," but for brevity's sake I'll stick with these three.)
Today's post is my reaction to Fourth Wave Part 1: My History of Feminism.
I read the piece more than once, and the first thing that struck me was a mismatch in our generations:
In 1963, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was published and the phenomenon I personally know as The Woman’s Movement began. I was too young in 1963 to understand what had happened but the echoes of the book rang down through my teenage years. Then the first issue of Ms. magazine appeared in January, 1972, halfway through my freshman year in college and I was in.
I was 9 in 1972. This does not mean I was untouched by feminist ideas in my youth, but they came from a rather unusual source- my father.
I remember when the first "gendered" studies of male vs female students began to hit the papers. One common theme was that female students displayed a weaker aptitude for math, and that this might have something to do with the actual structure of the female brain.
I remember a pre-adolescent breakfast when my father held up the paper and pointed to a headline.
"They've got a study in here that says girls can't do as well in math as boys," he said.
I still remember how he flicked the paper shut and tossed it on the table with disgust. He fixed my sister and me with a stern look.
"That does not fly in this house. Do you understand me?"
We were expected to achieve, and gender be damned.
(Decades later, my mother confided to me that when my sister and I were born, my father ransacked local bookstores for books on raising independent females. He must have taken the advice to heart: we were always pushed to succeed in school and work toward a college degree. I can't recall either of my parents ever raising the subject of marriage or motherhood, other than to emphasize that we should take our time pursuing both.)
My next experience with feminism came in grade school, with the President's Physical Fitness Test.
As a kid I was not much of an athlete. I couldn't catch ball or do chin-ups and scored miserably on most of the test, except for one thing:
I did 104 situps in a row.
In those days, the test had separate standards for girls and boys. Boys were supposed to do 100 situps. Girls were supposed to do 50. Having thoroughly embarassed myself on the rest of the test, I proudly went to my gym teacher (a woman) and announced that I'd completed 104 situps.
"Girls are supposed to do 50," she said.
"Well, I did 104," I said. I knew that this was more that any of the boys had done.
"Well, I'm putting down 50," she said, not looking up from her clipboard.
"But I did 104," I persisted.
She put down the clipboard, scowled at me, and snapped:
"You're a girl! You're supposed to do 50! I'm putting down 50!"
That is the sum-total of my experience with gender discrimination in childhood.
This is not to deny that sexism existed. I'm simply pointing out that my family worked overtime to inoculate us to it, and that I experienced very little of it in our particular community.
This is not to say that I was unaware of feminist ideas; the media was saturated with them while I was growing up. Norman Lear would not have been possible without feminism.
I'm just explaining some personal context.
The Firebrand's personal context differs from mine on more than a generational level.
After graduate school came my first serious full-time job which also took all the time and energy I had, then being a partner in my own company, ditto.
Sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s I found myself involved professionally with Incredibly Large Megacorp and it occurred to me, looking around, that it might be a good idea to sort of brush up on my feminism.
I never attended graduate school or attempted to open my own business. Perhaps if I had, I would have a different picture of the pervasiveness of sexism in American society. Similarly, in the 1980's I was stuggling along on minimum wage, having just fled a first husband who developed a substance abuse problem and became physically violent toward me.
I had little time for political theory. I was busy living out what I'd been taught long ago: to die on my feet rather than live on my knees. I was grateful for the many millions of women who had marched for the right to vote and worked to alter marriage laws because they made it possible for me to save myself. But I had no time or energy to "brush up" on current theory.
I did wish some of the 'experts' would do a little brushing up, however.
I was struggling to get through night school and needed funding, but everywhere I applied I was told that financial assistance was basically closed to me because I had no children. I was free to apply for loans and rack up debt, but there were not then- and so far as I know, are not now- any grants or scholarships for ex-battered wives who don't have children.
And thus began my impatience with feminist theory. I didn't realize it came in waves; I just knew that I fell outside it's most cherished stereotypes, and so, officially, I didn't exist.
I relied on the feminism I grew up with: the right to vote, to own property, to be self-supporting, to choose your life before someone else chose it for you.
Elise and I seem to agree here:
1) Women’s professional, political, social, and personal lives should be a consequence of their circumstances, interests, and abilities - not their gender.
I mentioned my father earlier, but now it's time to credit my mother and grandmother. My grandmother belonged to the first generation of women allowed to vote. (She spent her entire marriage gleefully voting the exact opposite ticket from her husband in every election.) She had also worked outside the home in are era when that was unusual, as a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse.
So I was shocked when my mother confided to me last Christmas that, when she was a young woman, my grandmother told her that if she wanted to have a job, she could become a nurse or a schoolteacher.
My mother demurred and eventually became a secretary. And for the duration of my childhood, she continuously chanted the same mantra: You can be anything you want to be, provided you're willing to work hard at it.
The Firebrand post has a rough history of U.S. feminism that starts with this:
First, there was Abigail Adams who wanted her husband to help the ladies out a little when the Constitution for the new country was written. He didn’t.
As it happens, I'm currently reading a new biography of Abigail Adams (Woody Holton's Abigail Adams), and I find this statement a little too dismissive.
It's true that John Adams did not persuade his compatriots to "remember the ladies" in creating the nation's founding documents. But this did not keep him from encouraging his wife to develope and use her talents- even to the point of breaking the law.
During his overseas appointments as ambassador for the new Republic, the American economy was extremely unstable. Like many people, Abigail Adams was searching for ways to augment her income, and decided to start a small import business. John Adams functioned as her supplier, sending trunks of goods manufactured in Europe to their home, where Abigail would in turn send them to various distributors. She turned a profit, grew the business with a canny eye for local markets, and after a while even branched out into currency speculation. Eventually she made enough money to begin speculating in land as well.
During this period it was literally illegal for women to own property or keep their own money, yet John Adams trusted his wife to do both. By the end of their lives she had managed her affairs so well that she was able to quietly lend money to relatives in need on a regular basis.
John Adams may not have persuaded the Founding Fathers to give women property rights, but he certainly had no problem with it himself.
(Maybe he was thinking: one thing at a time. "You gotta pick yer fights," my sweetheart always says.)
The famous partnership of John and Abigail Adams brings me to the (for me) difficult subject of Hillary Clinton.
Then came the 2008 Presidential campaigns. Hillary Clinton’s grace and grit in the primaries awakened the more tribal aspects of my feminism and watching other women rally around her made me hope that perhaps my version of feminism had merely been sleeping rather than being dead and gone.
I approach this subject with discomfort and regret because I've come to like and respect Elise (or, at least, that online version of her that I am acquainted with), and I simply can't share her enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton's candidacy.
I agree she came in for some very unfair, sexist treatment during the campaign. But in truth, I was unhappy that she ran at all.
When John Adams failed to "remember the ladies," he unwittingly set up a situation that could now threaten our democracy. In Adam's day, women did not vote or hold public office (apart from the occaisional Queen). He could not look down the years and envision a woman as President. If he had, he might have seen the threat that I saw in Hillary's candidacy:
A democracy in name only, where the reins are ceremoniously handed from husband to wife to eldest offspring....in perpetuity.
The requirement that the President be at least 35 years old was a decent barrier to creating defacto dynasties so long as women could not hold public office. It ceased being effective when they could.
We are now in a situation- exacerbated by campaign finance demands and the entrenched two-party system- where presidential dynasties can be created, with one family dominating the White House for decades at a time.
We need to have a discussion about this. A serious discussion. And until we have that discussion and make some decisions, I'm just as happy to see Hillary remain outside the Oval Office.
I'm equally uncomfortable when a Congressman's widow takes his seat, for the same reason. (And this would hold true if a Congresswoman's widower took her seat.)
I recall some editorials during the election that claimed the Senate now had as many inherited, family-dominated seats as the British House of Lords. I don't like that idea either, and for the same reasons.
But I'm uncomfortable with Hillary in other ways.
This is a response to an essay about feminism, and my second objection is rooted in classical feminism.
Hillary Clinton has too much in common with Elizabeth Edwards.
Like Elizabeth, Hillary was willing to tolerate Bill's constant philandering while at the same time supporting the public "good guy" facade. Worse still, (and this is where she reminds me most of Edwards) she was willing to subject her child to this dysfunctional, sham arrangement.
In this regard they are both sales reps for Doormat, Inc. An extremely poor example to girls.
My final objection is that I don't believe Hillary Clinton would have had a political career at the national level without using Bill's status. I believe she's smart and competent, yes, but like the wife of a career diplomat or famous artist, she would likely be unknown without access to her husband's influence and contacts.
So, while I recognize her great ability, as a feminist symbol she is anathema to me. I'm sorry to say it- she still commands my sympathy and respect- but her career sends a mixed message at best.
There is one more statement that I'm uncomfortable with, and I'll address it briefly before I finish:
2) Women should have each other’s backs. That doesn’t mean women should never criticize each other. It means sexist criticism, sexist slurs, sexist attacks against any woman should be unacceptable to all women. Situations pitting one group of women against another for the benefit of a man or men should be unacceptable to all women. When one woman is attacked, insulted, denigrated, or shamed because she is a woman or because she is a particular kind of woman, all women suffer. Sisterhood is powerful.
This is a lovely sentiment and I wish I could say it were true. But, returning to context, I have never really experienced it.
When I finally completed school I landed a job at an Ivy League library. I was thrilled. Even better, the entire organization was female-dominated: the head of my department was female, the head of my work-unit was female, the head of the whole enterprise was female. 95% of the staff was female.
It was the most vicious place I've ever worked.
I quickly learned that the non-heirarchical "sisterhood" functioned as a cudgel to keep everyone in line. The supervisors who crowed the most about the rosy horizontal structure of their organizational chart were the first to pull rank, often for the sake of something horribly petty, like a parking space or the chance to get out of the office early.
No "sister" ever "had my back" except to stick a knife in it.
Not long ago I listened to an interview with an expert on 'girl bullying.' Nearly every tactic described was in use at my workplace: gossip, social ostracism, emotional manipulation. The workers seemed to be divided in two rough groups: those so steeped in the toxic culture that they couldn't see it, and those keeping their heads down until they found their way out the door.
After a number of years, I joined the latter group.
I had worked with men (at one point I was the only woman on a loading dock) and found it a much more straightforward process. My male bosses appreciated concrete, measurable results. They didn't pressure me to join some cultural cult (i.e., "sisterhood.") They were uninterested in my personal life, unlike the "sisters" who pried and snooped for details to ridicule and humiliate fellow employees. Male bosses were not interested in how I 'defined the female experience', while the female-driven organization pressured workers to display a certain amount of orthodoxy in order to advance.
The experience became so bitter and bizarre that after over a decade my sweetheart, for the first time in our marriage, actually asked me to obey him in one demand:
To pull up stakes and quit.
As I said earlier, context is all. The context of my age, family and life experiences cause me to view some things with suspicion. It doesn't mean my judgement of those things is infallible or even fair. It doesn't mean that future experiences won't alter my perspective.
But it does mean that you really, really should hustle on over and check out The Firebrand's post.
It's good stuff.