snatched from the jaws of victory
FEMINISIM THEN AND NOW
Rothenberg is a Senior Fellow at The Murphy Institute, CUNY
and the author of Invisible Privilege: A Memoir About Race,
Class and Gender. She can be reached at
was the summer of 2002 and I was traveling through a medium-sized
town in Hungary when I looked up and saw a young woman coming
toward me. Fifteen or sixteen years old, she wore a shirt that
proudly proclaimed her to be a "Dirty Girl."
months later, in Philadelphia, I found myself speaking at a
women's studies conference to an audience which included several
young women wearing shirts with "Cunt" or "Bitch"
written on their chest in an angry scrawl. Shortly after, I
found myself in Panama watching a rotund 7 year old prance around
in a hot pink tank top that shouted "Bling, Bling."
When I checked the web upon returning home, I discovered that
"Dirty Girl" had been updated to "Stupid Dirty
Girl" while another T-shirt insisted, "As long as
I can be on top."
the young women wearing such T-shirts liberated women who have
taken control of their own bodies and now reap the benefits
of the women's movement -- or are they simply dupes? These experiences,
and countless others like them, raise a broader question for
me. They make me ask how the insights and goals of the Women's
Movement have been transformed and translated as they have been
integrated into popular culture and daily life?
Women's Liberation Movement that began in the 60s was originally
a radical movement seeking deep and fundamental change. It identified
the ways in which male and other forms of privilege had been
woven into every social, political, economic institution and
cultural practice in our society and went on to challenge white
supremacy, heterosexist privilege, class divisions as well as
the images of gender that had been normalized and in this way
rendered invisible. The Women's Liberation Movement I remember
argued for the need for a radical transformation of all our
institutions. It urged women to rethink every aspect of our
lives, always asking us to reflect on whose interests were served
by the ways in which society was organized and by the values
we had been taught to embrace.
to this project was the distinction between sex and gender.
In order to challenge the conservative view that women's social
role was determined by her nature, many feminists argued that
while one is born either a man or a woman and that is a function
of biology (and yes, many of us mistakenly thought that there
were only two possibilities at that time), gender roles were
determined by society. Women began to notice that how we were
taught to define ourselves -- what it meant to be a real woman
-- served the interests of men and capitalism. This made us
suspicious of what we had been taught were our "natural"
tendencies or inclinations and made us wonder about our so-called
important article of the period, a true classic, was entitled
Homogenizing the American Woman: The Power of an Unconscious
Ideology written by Sandra Bem and Daryll Bem. The authors
pointed out that even if discrimination were to end tomorrow,
nothing very drastic would change, because discrimination is
only part of the problem. "Discrimination frustrates choices
already made. Something more pernicious perverts the motivation
to choose. That something is an unconscious ideology about the
nature of the female sex." In other words, many of us began
to realize that we had been socialized to want things that would
replicate and reinforce the status quo.
Women's Liberation Movement of the Second Wave rejected prevailing
standards of beauty, the Barbie doll image (being thin and blonde),
that were virtually unattainable by anyone who wasn't white
and by most of us who were white as well. The critique took
the form of recognizing and challenging the ways prevailing
standards of beauty and rules of dress and decorum both reflected
and reinforced the existing race, class and gender hierarchy
in society. Women of the Second Wave were tired of being turned
into sex objects by the fashion industry and so they threw out
their high heels, which were understood to be on a continuum
with Chinese foot binding practices -- a way of circumscribing
women's movement and keeping them dependent -- took off their
girdles and bras, stopped trying to be a size 2, and focused
on healthy eating -- healthy for them and the planet.
we look at popular culture today, what do we see? Well, Barbie
is back with a vengeance. Little girls start dieting in fourth
grade and never stop. This used to be more of a problem among
white girls but it has spread to all ethnic groups. And dieting
isn't the half of it, anorexia and bulimia are occurring in
many young women want to dress like, Paris Hilton, Brittany
Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Mariah Carey, and L'il Kim. And it is
not just women in their teens and older who are dressing this
way; we have 4-year olds and 6-year olds dressed as sex objects.
Cleavage is everywhere and we women can't get enough of it so
we go out and buy more.
fact, women have been sold a bill of goods. We were told that
the Women's Movement was about the right to choose. Corporate
capitalism and patriarchy happily co-opted the slogan of the
Second Wave so that any choice was defined as a liberated and
empowering choice. But what did "the personal is political"
really mean? I remember when it meant that what appeared to
be purely personal choices made by women of their own free will
(to marry, to have children, to dress and behave a certain way,
to engage in certain sexual practices, the choice of whether
or not to work and if we worked which career path to follow)
needed to be understood in the context of a system of domination
where issues of race/ethnicity, class and sexuality intersected
with gender to radically restrict women's opportunities and
possibilities. This system had been so effective because it
is virtually invisible, because the privileges at its core have
been effectively rationalized and normalized in a myriad of
ways through out time.
the late 60s and through out the 70s, as women shared their
stories, what had been normalized, gradually, or in some cases,
suddenly, stood out and demanded our attention. We found out
that what appeared to be my problem, my failing, my fear, my
pain was in fact shared by other women, was part of their experience,
too. We came to understand that "the personal is political"
in an empowering sense. It wasn't just that I couldn't get certain
jobs; other women had the very same problem, not because I/we
weren't good enough but because of a pervasive race and gender
bias within the workforce. It turned out that I was paid less
than my male coworkers, not because women were inherently weaker
or less competent or less productive, but because jobs and pay
scales were defined in ways that valued work more and described
it differently simply because it was done by a man whether he
wore a tie and a jacket, a sweatshirt or a uniform.
came to understand that our dissatisfaction with aspects of
our personal lives, our family structures, our most intimate
relationships or our parenting responsibilities, did not necessarily
grow from some deep, personal inadequacy or some psychological
deficiency of our own but was rooted in the way that society
was organized and the way gender (race, class, and sexuality)
had been constructed.
say then that "the personal is political" was to point
out that you could start with individual women's lives and move
straight from their realties to institutionalized privilege
and hierarchy. We began to understand that what looked like
individual choices were really social in nature and reflected
the values and interests of those in power. As a result, we
came to be highly suspicious of our choices.
the personal is simply personal. And that understanding has
been incorporated into popular culture in the absence of any
political context or analysis. Katha Pollitt puts it this way:
"Women have learned to describe everything they do, no
matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive
or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized
because personal choice is what feminism is all about."
feminism in the 60s and 70s demanded the right to choose for
women, it was in the context of recognizing the coercive force
of institutionalized racism, sexism, heterosexism, and class
privilege. Women had begun to understand that what appeared
to be individual issues turned out to be social problems for
which there were few if any individual solutions. Women looked
at the things that limited and coerced our choices and asked
how we could change them, not just for ourselves, but for all
women, all people.
there are no social problems. Thanks to the efforts of recent
Republican administrations in Washington and the efforts of
the conservative right in general, we live in a world where
there is no longer a social dimension and there are no social
problems. There are now only individual human beings who are
worthy or unworthy, deserving or undeserving. The complex web
of interlocking factors that once required serious and respectful
attention to every aspect of social and economic life has been
replaced by a simplistic and reductionist worldview. Social
problems require broad solutions, changes in the way we do business.
Individual problems get individual solutions.
depression, very much in the news a few years back after Brooke
Shield gave birth to her first baby, was a problem to be solved
exclusively through medication rather than by looking at the
social context in which the illness occurs. In the old days,
we would have at least considered the possibility that women's
depression after childbirth had something to do with the social
conditions of parenting and the organization of the family and
that it might be improved by re-thinking gender roles and childcare
options. If a man becomes a father and doesn't want to spend
time with his child, do we label him ill and prescribe anti-depressants?
a doctor appearing on a morning television program discussed
research findings that showed more adult women are being diagnosed
with Attention Deficit Disorder. He described their problem
as something like "woman rushing from task to task, unable
to concentrate or complete them." The solution was to get
them on medication. But the medical condition he described sounds
to me very much like the daily life of the average super mom
in today's high power society. Perhaps re-thinking social roles
and responsibilities rather than diagnosing a new medical condition
might be the answer.
the summer of 2002, Clara Harris was found guilty of manslaughter
after she ran over her husband who had been having an affair
with his receptionist. By her own account, when she first discovered
his infidelity, she immediately hired a personal trainer, dyed
her hair blonde, started working out and made an appointment
with a plastic surgeon. At the height of the Women's Movement,
she might have placed her individual situation within a broad
social context and might have sought the support and council
of a women's consciousness raising group rather than collagen
injections and liposuction.
upon a time women facing high rates of unemployment, unequal
pay, non-existent or inadequate benefits, lack of affordable
(or often any) childcare, and a welfare system that channels
them into dead end jobs and denies them funding for education,
would have organized around issues of poverty and discrimination.
Now instead of challenging racism and classism, highly touted
solutions to these problem suggest that women should create
charities to collect used business attire for these unfortunate
job seekers. If only they dressed better! But according to 2004
figures, 12.7% of the population live in poverty -- approximately
one out of every eight people. And poverty is a social problem.
It should be obvious that women living in poverty are not poor
because they lack the correct fashion sense.
victory of conservatives in this country has been to severely
limit class action lawsuits. During the 1970s and 1980s, class
action suits racked up one victory after another for women and
men who had been discriminated against because of their race
or their gender or both. Such law suits were the ultimate reflection
of "the personal is political" because they grew out
of an awareness that meanings were social and that patterns
of behaviour could establish intent. Today it is necessary to
demonstrate that an individual was specifically discriminated
against. This change in policy effectively denies the existence
of racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia. By refusing
to recognize patterns of behaviour that establish on-going discrimination,
current practice denies history.
upon a time the personal really was political. Today, it is
simply personal. Capitalist patriarchy has once again showed
its extraordinary ability to take radical movements and demands
that challenge the system, and re-package them in ways that
actually reinforce that system and preserve the existing distribution
of power and privilege in society. How convenient for capitalist
patriarchy that young women today think that dressing like every
man's sex fantasy is a sign of their liberation and that the
women's movement was all about getting the right to choose and
had nothing to do with making hard decisions about what values
and what social vision should be reflected in our choices.
well the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It seemed, briefly,
to hold out the hope that women might finally control their
bodies, control their own sexuality But it soon became clear
that the new sexual freedom simply meant more opportunity for
men, not a new kind of experience for women, and that line comes
from a 1972 article by Linda Phelps which first appeared in
Women: A Journal of Liberation 34 years ago. In that
article, Phelps wrote: "Our cultural vision is the projection
of solely male experience." Has that changed? She went
on to say, "Women are bombarded with the same sex stimuli
of the female body as is a man -- hence females often respond
in a narcissistic way to their own body and what is being done
to it. The female is taught to be the object of sexual desires."
Sounds painfully familiar. "Women are socialized to relate
to a false world of erotic fantasies and images that are defined
and controlled by men." In fact, women are beginning to
realize that nothing new happened at all. "What we have
is simply a new, more sophisticated (and thus more insidious)
version of male sexual culture. Sexual freedom has meant more
opportunity for men, not a new kind of experience for women.
And it has been precisely our own experience as women which
has been decisive in developing the Women's Liberation critique
of the sexual revolution."
such a world, going through the mime of empowerment defined
by a masculine culture in the name of feminism is all the more
disempowering and degrading. Empowerment, we are now asked to
believe, is not about getting an education, not about becoming
economically independent, not about taking control of our bodies,
not about saving the environment, not about working toward social
justice, but dressing a certain way and wearing the newest version
of what ever T-shirt or body piecing we choose. And whose interests
does this serve? Today cultural practices continue to occur
within the context of unequal power relations. Racism, sexism
and class privilege are still alive and well. They frame our
choices and define the meaning of what we choose. The women's
movement of the Second Wave talked, not about "equality,"
but about liberation, because believe me, equality is not enough.
We have gone from seeking to challenge and change the ways in
which institutionalized privilege and hierarchy limit and coerce
our choices to the illusion that the battle for women's rights
and civil rights is over and done. We have been duped into trading
social critique and collective action for a vision of feminism
that offers us personal choice without social responsibility
and without social context. We have exchanged the possibility
of genuine change for feminism light and designer water. And
in the end, we know whose interest that serves.