Are women equal? The unthinking, knee-jerk reaction you'll get from most Americans would be something like, "Of course!" But is it true? A great many women would take issue with that assertion. There are a great many ways in which women do not enjoy equal protection under the law, equal opportunity in the workplace, or equal treatment in our culture. How those inequalities might be rectified is a matter of political debate -- and there's also difference of opinion on what "equal" would really mean -- but the inequalities do exist, even though we as a country like to pretend that they don't.
Part of that pretending is how "feminism" has become marginalized as an offensive word. Rebecca Traister's Salon article on the word "feminism" takes a peek at this:
When asked to consider what other terms besides "feminist" might be useful descriptors of the movement she helps to lead, National Organization for Women president Kim Gandy laughed and said, "Nothing has really swept anyone off their feet, but 'egalitarian' is one that always comes up. There's 'humanist.' Sometimes 'womanist.'"
Gandy isn't suggesting that anyone rub the word "feminism" off their bumper stickers or refrigerator magnets. But she did acknowledge that she has had informal conversations -- both with people who work at NOW and with those she meets on the road -- about agitation from some within the movement who believe it's time to retire "feminism's" number.
"There's nothing inherently wrong with the word," said Gandy, invoking Dame Rebecca West's famous assertion, "I ... have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is; I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute."
But, she said, we cannot pretend that "feminism" has escaped the fate of "liberalism" before it. "This is what the right-wing has done to our language," she said. "'Liberal' is a proud term. But at a certain point, it became very difficult for people to call themselves liberal. If you asked them about issues they would say, 'I'm not liberal, I'm progressive.' Excuse me, you are a liberal! But the right made that a bad word. They've done the same thing with 'feminism.'"
We've all seen that, too. Like the Democrats who scattered like mice in the late '80s at the mention of the word "liberal," many women seem to bristle at the word "feminist," even if feminism fairly describes their views. The "feminist" cause seems to have scattered to the winds. Fear of the black hat has led to fear of the word the black hat has used as an epithet. And that has led to the loss of any feminist thought by any name in the public discourse.
For my own part, I take some issue with NOW's approach to politics. By trying to be all things to all people, the fundamental message that all of this, at its core, is about women's equality, has gotten lost in the mad issues scramble. Also, I have to admit, my own views are colored by how NOW has endorsed changes to the ERA language.
In March of this year, S.J. RES. 7 was introduced by "Mr. KENNEDY (for himself, Mrs. MURRAY, Ms. CANTWELL, Mr. CORZINE, Mr. KERRY, Mr. LIEBERMAN, Mr. SARBANES, Ms. MIKULSKI, Mrs. BOXER, Mr. LAUTENBERG, Mr. LEVIN, Mr. DURBIN, Mr. SCHUMER, Mrs. FEINSTEIN, Mr. HARKIN, and Mr. DODD)." Using the traditional ERA language, this proposed amendment states:
SECTION 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
SECTION 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
SECTION 3. This article shall take effect 2 years after the date of ratification.
This is pretty much the language of the proposed amendment for the past several decades. What appeals to me is the simplicity. This is something anyone can understand. Nobody is advantaged. "Women" are not mentioned at all. It just says "no" to sex discrimination under the law.
However, NOW now endorses a "Constitutional Equality Amendment":
Women and men shall have equal rights throughout the United States and every place and entity subject to its jurisdiction; through this article, the subordination of women to men is abolished;
All persons shall have equal rights and privileges without discrimination on account of sex, race, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnicity, national origin, color or indigence;
This article prohibits pregnancy discrimination and guarantees the absolute right of a woman to make her own reproductive decisions including the termination of pregnancy;
This article prohibits discrimination based upon characteristics unique to or stereotypes about any class protected under this article. This article also prohibits discrimination through the use of any facially neutral criteria which have a disparate impact based on membership in a class protected under this article.
This article does not preclude any law, program or activity that would remedy the effects of discrimination and that is closely related to achieving such remedial purposes;
This article shall be interpreted under the highest standard of judicial review;
The United States and the several states shall guarantee the implementation and enforcement of this article.
I would call this the "something for everybody" amendment, drafted presumably because of people like Lucian "The reason I don't support womens rights" who argue:
I'm all for equality between all individuals, but I'm not a woman so I'm not going to get involved in issues which do not concern me. I'll get involved if you wish to broaden the debate.
And so now NOW supports the kitchen sink amendment that, despite its specific abortion language, does anything but focus on the unique and uniquely disturbing trend against women's equality in this country. I'm not saying that racial equality is not an important issue, and maybe the political calculus is such that gender and racial equality have to be bundled together in order to get racial minorities to buy into women's equality. But what is lost in the new language is the simple, fundamental truth that women do not have equal protection under the law, and if the Republicans have their druthers, the lot of women is going to get a whole lot worse. It's a disconnect between the rhetoric of the left and the chauvinistic attitudes that blind so many to the realities that women face each and every day.
Is either racial equality or gender equality served by blobbing them all together into an amendment proposal that reads like committee-speak? Might it would be better to introduce two separate amendments, and get people to own up to both or explain why they are against women's equality or racial equality?
Then again, I'm no professional political consultant, with decades of experience at losing elections and dismantling all discussion of liberal and progressive values. What could I know?
I also realize that this position opens me up to accusations that if I don't insist on tossing all of discrimination's eggs into one basket, then I am a racist. Alice Walker seems to hold this view:
"The left is getting our collective ass kicked because of just this kind of romantic, naï¿½ve attachment to movement narratives and aesthetics of 20 and 30 years ago." She also pointed out that "many women of color do not feel an affinity with the term because, among other things, we know firsthand that people who call themselves feminists are not always our friends," she said. "They have not de facto done their work around race ... though [they] would become appalled if we suggested that some 'feminists' were also racist."
... which strikes me as the "if you're not with me, you're against me" kind of rhetoric the right employs so well. Maybe I'm racist for seeing gender equality and racial equality as separate, though equally important, issues. I could turn around and say things like, "The most misogynistic cultures are those of minorities," but what would be the point? Would it even be true? Am I a racist if I focus on gender inequity?
The simple fact is that racism and sexism both are embedded in the very texture of our society. I don't think either is addressed well by mixing them together into warm fuzzy notions of "equality for all." We all already say "equality for all" -- even Bush says it -- but it doesn't mean anything.
It's time to get specific.
Sadly, Melody Berger has ditched the irony of the title of her recently-launched The F-Word online magazine, by dropping the word "feminism" from the tag line, after receiving hate male mail from women saying that the word "feminist" is closely connected with racism. [Inadertent typo, please don't read anything into it. -Ed.] Berger tells Traister, "Maybe it isn't worth fighting to reclaim a word. There are much bigger things we need to be fighting for."
The problem with that attitude is this: Running away from the word does not escape any stigma, but reinforces it -- and does nothing for the cause the word represents. We saw this with "liberal." In the 1988 presidential debates, George H.W. Bush called Governor Michael Dukakis a liberal, and Dukakis began sputtering how he wasn't a liberal ... and since that nationally televised retreat, the Democrats have found themselves scrambling on quicksand.
Where does liberalism stand today? Did fleeing the word help at all?
Feminism is the radical notion that women are people. ~Cheris Kramarae and Paula Treichler
In other words, the real problem is that, except for almost knee-jerk avowances of "I am pro-choice," many (male) leaders of what we call "the left" are not all that interested in what they call "women's issues." I suspect that many of them simply don't like the idea of right-wingers messing with the lives of women -- their women. But do they actually support women's equality? Will our equality ever count as part of the "important shit"?
It's attitudes like these, held by men (and many women) on the right and left, that I think also lead to the repeated disavowals of the word "feminist." Hostility to the idea has led to hostility towards the word, and that has led to a retreat from the word. Unfortunately, that also means a retreat from the ideas behind the word.
As Rebecca says at the opening of her article,
A couple of years ago I interviewed a big-eyed activist-actress whose work and politics I have always admired. I asked her a question related to feminism. Her response? That she didn't like the word "feminist" and preferred "humanist."
What a crock, I thought, with the same disdain I once felt for a high-school classmate who memorably piped up that though she was "totally not a feminist," she wondered if Mr. Rochester's willingness to treat Jane Eyre badly and imprison Bertha in an attic might indicate a low-level misogyny. It was a fair observation, I thought at the time. Why did she have to preface it with personal disavowal? Did she think that the expression of such a sentiment brought her close enough to a militant conception of feminism that her lissome 10th-grade body might dramatically sprout armpit hair?
According to her article, Jessica Valenti, founder of feministing.com sees some blame of abdication of the word on the Second Wave:
She described meetings for young feminists where the young women talk "while famous feminists are sitting there taking notes and watching you like you're some National Geographic animals." She said that the very suggestion that "feminism" could be disposable in any way makes her feel like saying, "Hey! This is your word! You started this and I took it on. I have been working hard for you. And now you're going to just give up on it?"
And we we find ourselves today, with ERA supporters divided over a word, the ERA itself a mere footnote in Congressional records, and the right's attacks on women treated by the media as a simple unavoidable fact of life -- not even worth mentioning as anything but a political "debate."
Christine at Ms.Musings seems to think that fear of the f-word is a uniquely American phenomenon:
In the U.K., younger activists have embraced "feminism" in the titled of The F-Word
magazine and its excellent blog
(not to be confused with the new Philadelphia-based ezine the F-Word
). There's also the syndicated Feminist Blogs UK
, which operates like Feminist Blogs
It's time to call all feminist bloggers outside the U.S. -- I'm wondering whether to start a global feminist blog section, or if blogs from other countries should be incorporated into the existing lists. It may depend on the number of submissions. Send me a note with a description of your blog and where you live.
That is: send Christine a note if you're a non-US feminist blogger. It's time to integrate a global dialogue on feminism.
Meanwhile, here in the US:
co-founder Amy Richards said she isn't too worried about the women's movement agreeing on one word. In her work on campuses, she said the number of projects she sees young women taking on -- from prison reform to AIDS funding in Africa to living-wage fights for university staff -- is enough to satisfy her that there is tremendous life in the movement, even if no one knows what to call it. "The thing that's different from 30 years ago is that young women are moving beyond organizing around reproductive issues and violence against women. It's not that those issues aren't relevant to them, but I think they're just tired of them."
And yet here we are today: Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has retired, and the people in power in the government have openly declared their intention to overthrow Roe v. Wade, take away access to birth control, fill sex education programs with lies ("condoms cause cancer") and hand-wringing sermons preaching abstinence and ignorance, and make women who get pregnant into servants of the state.
Hopefully it won't take a disaster to get past qualms about a word and apathy about the issues for people to wake up to what's happening in this country. But the math is against us. It's time to stop fretting over a word and indulging in apathy and wake up and smell the coffee.