Friday, September 01, 2006

Echidne the Mythbuster!

Who're you gonna call when you need busting of the false myths about feminism? Try me! Here is a short list of some of the more commonly repeated myths about feminism and the busting needed:

First Myth: Gloria Steinem said that "a woman needs a man as a fish needs a bicycle".

I always found different versions of this funny, but the anti-feminist wingnuts often start long rants of hate with this statement, and the implication is that if one of the most famous feminist writers of the second wave felt this way about men then all feminists do.

Well, Gloria Steinem didn't say this. An Australian feminist named Irina Dunn did:

The letter below, from famed feminist Gloria Steinem, appeared in Time magazine sometime in September or October 2000.

In your note on my new and happy marital partnership with David Bale, you credit me with the witticism 'A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.' In fact, Irina Dunn, a distinguished Australian educator, journalist and politician, coined the phrase back in 1970 when she was a student at the University of Sydney. She paraphrased the philosopher who said, "Man needs God like fish needs a bicycle." Dunn deserves credit for creating such a popular and durable spoof of the old idea that women need men more than vice versa.

Gloria Steinem

Irina Dunn has confirmed this story, in an e-mail of January 28, 2002:

Yes, indeed, I am the one Gloria referred to. I was paraphrasing from a phrase I read in a philosophical text I was reading for my Honours year in English Literature and Language in 1970. It was "A man needs God like a fish needs a bicycle". My inspiration arose from being involved in the renascent women's movement at the time, and from being a bit if a smart-arse. I scribbled the phrase on the backs of two toilet doors, would you believe, one at Sydney University where I was a student, and the other at Soren's Wine Bar at Woolloomooloo, a seedy suburb in south Sydney. The doors, I have to add, were already favoured graffiti sites.

Second Myth: The second wave feminists burned their bras.

I have never found a single witness statement that would have said this actually happened. This quote is representative of most I've read on the supposed bra burning event:

I found a new book recently on women's history -- in general, a good overview, designed for high school or college introductory courses, judging from the level of writing.

But there it was, in a chapter on the 60s feminist movement: a reference to feminist bra-burning. I wanted to scream!

As far as any serious scholar has been able to determine, NO EARLY FEMINIST DEMONSTRATION BURNED BRAS!

The best guess is that images of draft card burning and images of women tossing bras into trash cans merged in many minds, and thus was created a vivid memory that just wasn't so.

Media commentators, the same ones who renamed the women's liberation movement with the condescending term "Women's Lib," took up the term and promoted it. Perhaps there were some bra-burnings in imitation of the supposed leading-edge demonstrations that didn't really happen, though so far there's been no documentation of those, either.

The infamous demonstration that gave birth to this rumor was the 1968 protest of the Miss America contest. Bras, girdles, nylons and other articles of constricting clothing were tossed in a trash can.

One report has the New York Times quoting Robin Morgan saying that bras would be burned; I have been unable to find such an article (and would love a verifiable copy, if one exists).

The symbolic act of tossing those clothes into the trash can was meant as a serious critique of the modern beauty culture, of valuing women for their looks instead of their whole self. (Older feminists may remember that romantic line savvy men began to use, "I love you for your mind?") "Going braless" felt like a revolutionary act - being comfortable above meeting social expectations.

It's always possible that some feminist somewhere burned her bra. But such an act clearly had no real impact on the feminist movement, and using it as the defining myth is wrong.

Third Myth: The feminist scholar Catherine MacKinnon has said that all sex is rape.

She said something much more complicated. This is what says about the question:

Quote: Feminist Catharine MacKinnon said "All sex is rape."

Status: False.

Origins: Feminist
legal theorist and anti-pornography crusader Catharine A. MacKinnon is no stranger to controversy. During her more than twenty-five years in the public eye, she has placed herself at the heart of a number of storms raging through the realm of public opinion. She has asserted that rape laws are written to protect the perpetrators rather than the victims, and that pornography is a violation of civil rights. She is notable for the part she played in bringing about Canada's tougher anti-pornography laws, and in persuading the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt the view that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination.

MacKinnon is not universally respected or liked, even within the ranks of feminism. Her outspoken nature and strong opinions have created enemies for her, and she has become a convenient target for anyone looking to run down the movement by caricaturing one of its prominent member as a strident harpy who has loudly asserted as fact any number of fool-headed opinions. It is therefore not surprising that she would be tagged with having made a pronouncement such as "All sex is rape," a statement that calls into question the sanity of the person who utters it even as it alienates most everyone who hears it.

MacKinnon never made the statement which has been attributed to her. (The quote she never gave has since been variously rendered as "All sex is rape," "All men are rapists," and "All sex is sexual harassment.") Critics of MacKinnon's work argue she implies all men are rapists, but the quote given here was created by MacKinnon's opponents, not MacKinnon herself.

Fourth Myth: Hairy armpits on a woman means that she is a feminist.

This is a very American myth. Women don't shave their underarms in many parts of the world (remember that Modigliani painting of the naked woman with abundant tufts of armpit hair?). The United States has a phobia about body hair on women. The idea is that gods and goddesses made a mistake in letting hair grow on women's arms or armpits and legs and that women must take care of this mistake stat. To go with the will of the divine and to let the hair grow is somehow a very rebellious act here. Funny, especially considering the large number of wingnuts who otherwise believe in no tampering with the divine intentions.

In any case, the argument for hairy armpits in the second wave of feminism was really part of the general argument for letting women be less constrained by girdles and high heels and the need to dehair every day. It's not required for the feminist membership card.

Fifth Myth: All feminists hate men.

Now this is a really silly myth, and can be disproved by finding just one feminist who doesn't hate men. And that's me! I love men! Especially with some garlic and cranberry sauce.