Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Fourth Wave?*

The New York Magazine has an article on a possible feminist revival, caused by the sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton in these elections (note that I'm not saying that all the criticism Clinton gets is sexist or undeserved, but I am saying that she has gotten a lot of misogynistic and sexist criticisms). A taste of the article:

Not so long ago, it was possible for women, particularly young women, to share in the popular illusion that we were living in a postfeminist moment. There were encouraging statistics to point to: More women than men are enrolled at universities, where they typically earn higher grades; once they graduate, those who live in big cities might even receive higher salaries—at least in the early years of employment. The Speaker of the House is female, as are eight governors and 16 percent of Congress (never mind that this is 11 percent fewer than Afghanistan's parliament). Many women believed we had access to the same opportunities and experiences as men—that was the goal of the feminist movement, wasn't it?—should we choose to take advantage of them (and, increasingly, we just might not). There was, of course, the occasional gender-based slight to contend with, a comment on physical appearance, the casual office badminton played with words like bitch and whore and slut, but to get worked up over these things seemed pointlessly symbolic, humorless, the purview of women's-studies types. Then Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy, and the sexism in America, long lying dormant, like some feral, tranquilized animal, yawned and revealed itself. Even those of us who didn't usually concern ourselves with gender-centric matters began to realize that when it comes to women, we are not post-anything.

This reads like a letter from some foreign country to me, you know, because I spend my days watching that supposedly tranquilized feral animal, sexism. The reason so many women don't see it is that a) it's a domesticated pet in too many households and b) they have learned to not see it, because seeing it is painful and life is short. Then of course there were all those articles about the death of feminism, the new post-feminist era of complete equality (with one female Supreme Court Justice in the U.S. for instance and zero female Popes ever), the era when feminism was icky and old-fashioned and real women didn't want it anyway, because something else was the new fad of the day.

But I do get the deeper point, of course, and I'm being unfair to the author, because the article is on the whole excellent in describing the psychological consequences of the sexist treatment of Hillary Clinton by the media and of the attempts to discuss it around the waterfountains and at the kitchen tables. It also asks why sexism is not taken seriously in the public discussion (it is not, on the whole), and notes that the learning experience the recent events have offered is an eye-opening one for many younger women.

And here is the really interesting question in the article:

The past few months have been like an extended consciousness-raising session, to use a retro phrase that would have once made most of us cringe. We've parsed the gender politics of the campaign with other women in the office, at parties, over e-mail, and now we're starting to parse the gender politics of our lives. This is, admittedly, depressing: How can we be confronting the same issues, all these years later? But it's also exciting. It feels as if a window has been opened in a stuffy, long-sealed room. There is a thrill at the collective realization. Now the question is, what next?

Why would the concept of a consciousness-raising session be something to make young women cringe? There it comes again, the idea that feminism of the 1970's was something rather icky, something outdated, something perhaps even dangerous. How very well the Rush Limbaughs of this world have done the job of painting feminism in unacceptable colors.

But I digress again. What I really wanted to say is that the article suggests a possible new feminist awakening. The alarm clocks of the media pundits have rung in too many American living-rooms, it seems.

Perhaps. But note that the vast majority of Americans, women and men, don't follow this political bickering at all. The vast majority of American women are not upper-class educated women who could compare their own career problems with those of Hillary Clinton. It could be that the next wave begins with incidents like this one. But something more is needed for feminism to spread into all parts of the society.
*On the title of this post: I doubt that history would count a new feminist reawakening at this point the fourth wave, but I'm going to use that term because it is currently the one people would choose.