The Feminism Gap

"Feminists Don't Know What to Think," declared U.S. News & World Report in late September. Pointed editorials in the Atlanta Constitution and the New York Daily News condemned "Feminism's Double Standard" and "Silent Feminists' Shame." Maureen Dowd even proclaimed in her New York Times column that feminists had committed "mass suicide" by failing to condemn Bill Clinton. Time magazine wondered—on its cover—in June: "Is Feminism Dead?"

Well, isn't it?

In the cultural realm, Ally McBeal, the highest-rated show on television with a female lead, features a thirtysomething Ivy League lawyer in microskirts, whose every courtroom argument alludes somehow to her need to find a boyfriend. Bridget Jones's Diary, a runaway best-seller in both England and America, details the life of a thirtysomething editorial assistant obsessed with counting her calories and finding Mr. Right. And The Rules, which sat atop the best-seller list for much of the mid- to late 1990s, advises women how to land a husband by accepting "essential"—that is, traditional—truths about male and female sexual behavior.

In the political realm, the refusal of feminists to abandon President Clinton (Patricia Ireland of the National Organization for Women has announced that her organization continues to support the President) brands them as hypocrites: Why, after denouncing Clarence Thomas and Robert Packwood for similar behavior, are they standing by their man Clinton? Have they abandoned principle on sexual harassment?

But before conservatives begin dancing on feminism's grave, they should at least wait until the body has been identified. What the right is doing its best to bury belongs not to feminism but to a caricature of it created by both the media and the right's own propaganda machine. Symbolic public figures—Monica Lewinsky, Hil lary Clinton, Ally McBeal, and Bridget Jones—have been elevated to gauges of feminism's survival. But the measure of feminism is not a given stance on Monica or Ally, any more than the measure of conservatism is a given stance on Murphy Brown or Newt Gingrich or Nancy Reagan's astrologer. Media depictions of the death of feminism may say more about the right's superior ability to manipulate symbolic politics—and about the media's own tendency toward tabloid oversimplification—than about the condition of feminism itself.

Is the Personal Political?

The media defends its obsession with feminism's supposed internal contradictions by depicting feminists as victims of their own rhetoric. Women asked for it, the media implies; if the personal is political, shouldn't feminists have to establish firm positions on personal relationships and individual expressions of sexuality? And wasn't the trajectory that led to the public floggings of Clarence Thomas and Bob Packwood one traced by feminists? Aren't we inconsistent when our view of Bob Packwood is harsher than our view of Bill Clinton?

But take a closer look. First, there is a clear difference between the unwanted advances of Packwood and Thomas and the clearly invited advances of Bill Clinton. And the House Judiciary Committee's more jaundiced view of Bill Clinton hardly means they have developed more evolved feminist sympathies since the Anita Hill hearings. (Besides, Clinton hasn't exactly been spared; far more lurid details of his private life have been made public than ever were about Packwood or Thomas.)


Subscribe to The American Prospect


Second, what we're seeing today is a perversion of basic feminist ideas about the ways in which the personal is political. Paying attention to what were previously considered "private" issues in the aggregate has shed light on the barriers that prevent women from achieving social and economic equality—domestic violence, sexual assault, and inadequate child care provisions, to name a few. Making the personal political helped enable change to occur and political action to grow stronger where it is most effective—at the local level, as people began to take a hard look at the ways in which women were being treated in their families, neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. But while feminists were attempting to base their decisions about the personal on consensuality, power, liberty, and the ways in which partners in relationships treat each other—all judgments difficult to make from afar—the right's concern with sin and pathology have tended toward paternalism and unfair demands for absolute judgments.

Now we are told that the barometer of feminism's strength is its ability to cohere for or against a single personal relationship. And women's enthusiasm for "postfeminist" fictional characters such as Ally McBeal and Bridget Jones is supposed to represent feminism's bankruptcy, the selling out of their feminist elders by all young women. Abandonment of Monica is seen to be abandonment of principle. But this ignores the central goals of feminism—to expand choices and opportunities for large numbers of women. That's not to say that critical evaluation of pop culture and relationships can't tell us anything about the condition of women—but what it tells us is inherently subject to contentious debate. And when (surprise, surprise) women disagree about whose interpretation of these symbols is most "feminist," the media gleefully reports that a crisis is eating away at the movement's core.

Consider that in the same issue U.S. News declared "Feminists Don't Know What to Think," they also published an opinion poll about Hillary Clinton. Fifty-six percent of Americans think it likely that Hillary will divorce Bill. Sixty-eight percent think she looked the other way while 20 percent think she was an unknowing victim. Forty-eight percent say that the Clintons' relationship is practical and businesslike, while 18 percent say it is a loving marriage with troubles. Clearly, as these numbers indicate, any judgment women might pass on Hillary is based on speculative impressions of the nature of her relationship with her husband. Is she standing by her man or standing by her political ideals and ambitions? It's impossible to know. Thus it's not surprising that feminists/women would be conflicted about Hillary's status as a feminist symbol.

Likewise, asking a woman what she thinks of Ally Mc Beal is not like asking her what she thinks of the latest child care bill. The second issue is fairly transparent—its costs and benefits can be measured, its usefulness to one's daily life calculated. But Ally McBeal's motivations are unclear—her message depends largely on what the viewer brings to the sofa. No matter how much the pundits would like us to think otherwise (Time magazine's cover showed a series of feminist leaders—Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem—fading into Ally McBeal), Ally's popular success does not contradict well-documented majority support for essentially feminist views on equal rights, child care provisioning, welfare, education, and abortion.

Defining Feminism

Underlying the postfeminist attacks on feminism are classic antifeminist arguments in a novel disguise. Syndicated columnist Mona Charen writes in the National Review that "feminists invented sexual harassment to restore some of the protections for women [like chiv alry] that had been in place for thousands of years." Conservatives use the Lewinsky scandal and feminism's response to show some essential truth about how the genders behave, which feminists have violated at their own peril—only chivalry and romance, they say, can protect women from men's biological sexual aggressiveness, as represented by Clinton's actions. Such views presume a genetic basis for gender roles and assign all responsibility for preventing sexual assault and promiscuity to women (men are only following their "natural" instincts). "It takes a village to keep a man faithful," writes GOP political strategist Laura Ingraham. "Sister hood used to be about women standing up for each other's marriage and commitments." Women are supposed to rally together based on their biologically defined roles rather than their political demands for equality.

It is true that defining sexual harassment is complex and contentious, even among feminists. And feminists do make self-interested political calculations. But asserting that support of the Presi dent is somehow hypocritical places a ridiculous expectation on feminism—that it be a political movement that does not behave politically. Perhaps this expectation betrays lingering traces of the old "republican motherhood" justifications for women's political action—only their superior and "apol itical" morality makes women's participation in the public sphere acceptable. Thus by supporting an adulterer who has served their political interests, feminists are seen to have abandoned their role as moral guardians, and therefore relinquished their right to a political presence.

Few people took notice when conservative advocates of family values enthusiastically supported President Reagan, despite his less than ideal family values record (a messy divorce and estranged, bitter children) and irregular church attendance. When women re fuse—in spite of differing opinions on just how grossly Clinton has acted, and legitimate debates about sexual harassment—to allow these differences to overshadow a broad base of consensus on other policy issues, they are revealing not the weakness of the feminist movement, but its strength.

Perhaps, as Margaret Talbot suggested in the New Republic, this scandal will be a milestone in the development of feminist thought on such issues. The growth of the gender gap in 1996 and its persistence throughout the scandal indicates that the gap is driven by women's policy stances on issues such as education, health care, child care, and Social Security. But the sad lesson that can be taken from the treatment of Lewinsky and McBeal, this season's icons, is that the media and the right have been largely successful in usurping the definition of feminism in the public mind.

The real disparity, it seems to me, is not between feminism's stated theories and its actions in light of the Lewinsky scandal, or between women's political and personal desires in light of Ally McBeal. It is between the way in which feminism defines itself and the way in which it is defined by others. By perpetuating this disparity through the politics of symbols, the media gets its story, and the right gets its obituary. But the real headline should proclaim feminism's surprising strength in the face of these attempts to define it into oblivion.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement