Sunday, March 07, 2010

Things That Never Happened (by res ipsa loquitur)

  1. Bob Casey Sr. denied a speaking role at the 1992 Democratic National Convention because of his opposition to abortion
  2. Hippies spitting on Vietnam veterans
  3. Bra burning
About that last one ...

When I was a kid -- can't have been more than ten or so -- an older neighborhood boy said to me, "Oh, go burn your bra". Never mind that I didn't have much of anything to fill a bra; I'd said something and this was how he chose to put me in my place. I got the association alright (bra burning! feminists! ERA! hairy legs!), but I remember laughing, because it wouldn't have occurred to me in a million years to burn a bra, because I knew I wasn't like "those women".

These days, when asked, "Are you a feminist?", I just shrug my shoulders and say, "Sure". What I'm trying to telegraph with the shrug, I think, is, "Well, duh, how can I not be?" But there are still plenty of people of my generation and social class who use that, "I'm not a feminist, but ... " construction on a semi-regular basis. They still don't want to be like "those women".

I was going through some papers this week and I came across this New Yorker article about Gail Collins' book, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present. I'd clipped it because of the subheadline, "Why is feminism still so divisive?" so that I could read it a few more times and hopefully figure out, well, why is feminism still so divisive?

Back to bra burning. When Levy writes, "There are political consequences to remembering things that never happened and forgetting things that did" all you have to do is think of the "Al Gore invented the internet" lie to know that she's onto something. Levy talks about feminism being "plagued by a kind of false-memory syndrome", with people making up stuff that never happened (bra burning) and projecting their fears ("If women take 'all the jobs' what will be left for the men?") or hopes ("There's no more gender discrimination because Hillary Clinton almost won the primaries and is now Secretary of State") onto stuff that has happened. A guy recently told me that the entire economic collapse could be blamed on women going into the workforce en masse. The gist of his argument was that millions more (female) workers made trillions more dollars flow into the economy, causing inflation which pushed house prices so high that people had to borrow more than they could afford to buy a house. (Echidne's eyes are probably popping out of her head right now.) My sister tells me that this argument has been pushed by conservatives for years.

Anyway, the whole Levy article is worth a read (and I just put the Collins book on my library "hold" list). At one point Levy posits that after a string of successes in the '70s, feminism became a "politics of liberation [that] was largely supplanted by a politics of identity":
But, if feminism becomes a politics of identity, it can safely be drained of ideology. Identity politics isn’t much concerned with abstract ideals, like justice. It’s a version of the old spoils system: align yourself with other members of a group—Irish, Italian, women, or whatever—and try to get a bigger slice of the resources that are being allocated. If a demand for revolution is tamed into a simple insistence on representation, then one woman is as good as another. You could have, in a sense, feminism without feminists. You could have, for example, Leslie Sanchez or Sarah Palin.
I'm not sure what I think about the identity politics argument, but I keep wondering if identity politics (the fallout of which bedevils the Democrats to this day) is where some of the ambivalence is coming from. Levy talks about how identity politics' "preoccupation with representation suggests that feminism has lost its larger ambitions." I still think representation is a worthwhile goal (I'd be happy if this woman ran for president some day and as a smart lady wrote me, "[E]ven Thatcher had the ultimate benefit in the U.K. of making a woman Prime Minister seem possible"), but those larger ambitions (Levy's example is child care) will touch a lot more people's day to day lives. (Lily Ledbetter is a really big deal.) My own larger ambitions have been, chiefly and in order of importance (a) equal pay for equal work; (b) equal pay for equal work; and (c) equal pay for equal work. After all, it's lovely that Meg Whitman was the CEO of eBay, but I'd feel better if I knew that all the women that worked for her had received a comparable wage to the guys that did.