Thursday, February 19, 2004

On The F-Word

It's a lot more pleasant to be a goddess than a feminist. Even on the Olympos. I recently attended a cocktail party there and in the course of the usual chitchat mentioned to some obscure monster that I was a feminist. He latched on to me the way his kind do:"And when did you become a hairy-legged manhater? Why do you want to kill babies?" I mumbled something about him having confused me with some other goddess and, clutching my nectar glass to my chest, made a beeline to the other side of the room. Weak, you think? Well, yes, but there is only one properly divine answer to such accusations, and I had already eaten that day.

The dictionary definitions of feminism mention nothing about feminazism or misandry or even a desire to abort every single fetus ever created. They talk about boring stuff such as the belief that women and men are of equal worth and should be offered the same opportunities for a meaningful life. I'm the boring type of a feminist, but these days it's largely only the dictionaries which take me at face value. In most other contexts, mentioning that you are a feminist elicits a response that was probably very familiar to medieval leprosy sufferers: avoidance, loathing, fear and anger. Maybe every feminist should carry a little bell to warn the honest, God-fearing people that something nastier than communism is just around the corner?

The story how the meaning of feminism metamorphosed into something so frightening would be very interesting to tell, though of course its exact plot would depend on the teller. I myself see the mainstream media in countries like the United States one of the culprits; they think that it's much more fun to write about bra-burning or reverse discrimination than about why there are hardly any women in public positions of power or why most of this world's poor and illiterate are female. The conservative media pundits are especially to blame: they have offered women, and especially feminists, as the answer to almost every problem this country has faced in the last three decades: divorce, latchkey children, juvenile crime, boys' problems at schools, rising male depression rates, even serious threats to our national security: all these have been laid at the feet of the feminist. Heady stuff, isn't it? Makes one wonder how feminists achieved this all with minimal resources, hardly any access to mainstream media and tremendous resistance from such powerful groups as the Christian right-wing.

After roughly thirty years of this kind of slamming, it would not be surprising if feminism as a movement was suffering from some breathing problems. This should be a cause for joy amongst the anti-feminists, but it seems that they are never satisfied. Take Rush Limbaugh: he may have done more than any other living person in labeling all women who believe in equality as feminazis, and he has spent priceless hours of bitter commentary on the futility of feminist goals. Yet now he suddenly wants the movement resuscitated and active! When Justin Timberlake ripped off Janet Jackson's breast shield at this year's Super Bowl's half-time show, Rush raged:

...the feminist movement has totally lost every inch of ground that they got and are back to square one. Women are portrayed as victims. They cannot be secure and powerful on their own any longer. ...In the old days, the feminists would have been howling at this, they would have said that is simulated assault, and you're going to have all these young people thinking that's okay. Girls are going to be okay to have it happen to them.

Makes your head spin, doesn't it? Rush is like a little child who took a toy apart in anger and now stomps his foot because it refuses to work.

Though of course feminists ' howled' at this. They are just invisible to the mainstream media (and certainly to the right-wing media), unless what they do can be translated into something negative and juicy. This invisibility is nowhere more evident than in Nicholas Kristof's writings in New York Times. Katha Pollitt points out his apparently near-total ignorance of the international work that feminists do:

Kristof profiled Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia and wondered why "most feminist organizations in the West have never shown interest in these women." Perhaps, he wrote, "the issue doesn't galvanize women's groups because fistulas relate to a traditional child-bearing role." Right, we all know that feminists only care about aborting babies, not delivering them safely. The Times got a lot of letters (and published some, including one from me) pointing out that feminists, in fact, were behind numerous efforts to combat fistula and other maternity-related health problems in Africa, including the work of the UNFPA, praised by Kristof, whose funding was eliminated by the White House to please its right-wing Christian base.

This was last spring. Then more recently, in a series about the international sex slave trade, Kristof concluded:

Senator Paul Wellstone helped direct the fight against trafficking, but since his death, leadership on the issue has passed overwhelmingly into Republican hands. Likewise, most mainstream women's groups, like the National Organization for Women and the Feminist Majority Foundation, have been shamefully lackadaisical about an issue that should be near the top of any feminist agenda.

I like 'shamefully lackadaisical': it conveys Kristof's moral outrage after spending days, weeks and months looking in vain for some sign of feminist activity in this field. Except he didn't spend any time on it at all. He didn't even bother to learn that NOW is a national women's organization, not one aimed at international problems, or that the FMF has spent most of the last decade and its funds fighting to get some publicity and relief to the horrendous treatment of women under the Taliban. He didn't learn what I did by a simple act of googling: that there are lots of feminist organizations fighting the international trafficking of sex slaves. It would have spoiled his argument, I guess.

Why these sudden demands for more feminist activity from pundits as different as Limbaugh and Kristof? I can think of several conspiracy theories here, but the most likely is that the sport of feminist-bashing has just taken a new form. When 'feminazi' can be used as a matter-of-fact description of Hillary Clinton in a New York Times book review, the old baiting game has clearly grown uninteresting. Something new is in the making, some novel epiteths to be used on feminists, some delicious distortions of feminist ideas. Cocktail parties won't get boring any time soon. Especially as I plan to diet before the next one.

You should read the Katha Pollitt article I link to in the text. It's excellent. So is the discussion of Kristof in ms. musings. And thanks for ms. Lauren for the link to Rush Limbaugh's views.