Monday, February 01, 2016

From Betty Friedan to Beyoncé. Or Making Waves in The Pond Of Feminist Thought.

"Betty Friedan to Beyoncé: Today’s generation embraces feminism on its own terms."  is an interesting recent piece in the Washington Post.  It belongs to the general genre of articles which analyze generational change in feminism, usually only within the United States, and almost always with a focus on young women.

This version is a nice one.  It asks several great questions, offers nuanced answers to many of them and also gives survey evidence on the beliefs and values of some in the "today's generation" of feminists.  Its treatment of the role of popular culture and the Internet in feminism is worth reading and so are the juxtapositions it makes between the second wave of the 1960s and 1970s and what is happening today.

So I enjoyed reading the piece.  Still, most of me finished that reading with a strong desire  to interrogate* bits and pieces it mentions, including the comments of many of the interviewed individuals, and to use the article as a springboard for diving into some deeper feminist waters.  To make more waves.  And that's what the rest of this post attempts.

I wish to begin with the definition of the New Wave feminism in the WaPo article:

This New Wave feminism is shaped less by a shared struggle against oppression than by a collective embrace of individual freedoms, concerned less with targeting narrowly defined enemies than with broadening feminism’s reach through inclusiveness, and held together not by a handful of national organizations and charismatic leaders but by the invisible bonds of the Internet and social media.  

Emphasis is mine.

I don't think the second wave of feminism was the kind of monolithic belief system the WaPo article later suggests.  It just looks like that in the rear view mirror of history.  But I do agree that an emphasis on inclusiveness is a central and important aspect of today's feminist conversations.

What does being inclusive mean here, exactly?   

I'd guess that it is about making sure that feminist analysis and activism works for all types of people/women/men**, that it pays attention to the ways women and men with different incomes, ethnicity, religion and so on are affected by their gender or the society's treatment of that gender, that it doesn't ignore how racism can interact with sexism in the experiences of women of color.

And all those changes are crucially important and useful.  They make feminist analysis not only more relevant but more truthful.  

On the other hand, I'm not equally eager about another type of inclusiveness which consists of interpreting what to me are topics of interest to all humans as somehow specifically feminist topics.  

Climate change would be an example of such a topic.  It should be of concern to all breathing humans, not just to feminists.  Directing scarce feminist resources to writing about it looks to me like a waste of resources, something where generalists replace the work better done by people who specialize in the topic and something which cannot be compensated for by people in the climate change field taking up various feminist topics in return***.  The idea of inclusiveness is very much a feminist ideal and nowhere near equally stressed in other fields of activism or other social justice movements.

See what I mean by interrogating stuff in the WaPo article?  I go where I choose to go with the concepts, because I'm defining feminism in my own way (heh). 

 And that means going next to the last part of this sentence:

This version of feminism is, by definition, more inclusive than the versions that came before. It is more in tune with what academics call “intersectionality” — gender, race and sexuality coming together to inform a single identity — and less concerned with women’s-only spaces, in part because gender is increasingly viewed as something that is fluid, as opposed to binary.

 Emphasis is mine.

Gender is, indeed, viewed as something that is fluid, especially in academic circles.  But are gender roles equally likely to be viewed as fluid now?  

The two "fluidities" don't have to be related.  Take the extreme example of Iran, where it is fairly easy to access gender reassignment surgery but where gender roles are extremely rigid, where women are legally and religiously second-class citizens with fewer rights than men.   

Thus, it's important for feminism (of my type, natch) not to lose sight on the need to make gender roles more fluid, while acknowledging the overall message of that sentence part in the above quote.

That's two ideas, so far.  The third is this:

“I think the critique that our generation is very individualistic is misguided,” said Alyssa Peterson, 23, an associate editor for the Center for American Progress and a former student of Velez’s at Georgetown. “The conversation surrounding feminism in pop culture and about femininity as a construct is very political. We’re negotiating the political landscape in different ways, because previous generations already achieved so much. Our battles are against more subtle forms of discrimination.

Emphasis is mine. 

Peterson's views are correct in the American context.  In most countries of the world women face more stringent and limiting forms of legal and religious discrimination.  At the same time, I'm not sure if it's that easy to see the overall battles yet to be fought, given that we all immersed in our time the way fishes in an aquarium are immersed in their little water world.

Many young women in the 1930s saw the goals of gender equality reached because of the winning of the vote in the 1920s.  It was only the later generations who tackled other problems.

And such problems are likely to rear their ugly heads soon enough.  To give just one example, as long as the care of children is regarded by the majority as mostly the duty of mothers,  women, on average,  will be handicapped in the labor markets, and labor markets will treat men and women differently because of that assumed division of tasks.

And that brings me to my final concern about this article, interesting as it is, and the whole genre of such articles.  They define "new waves" of feminism by focusing on women at the threshold of adulthood, and older, past, waves by the opinions of still-living older women (and men).  Yet people can live pretty long lives and during those lives their ideas about various isms, including feminism, are likely to change.  Neither do people stash away their feminist activism with their prom dresses or college diplomas. 

To assume that each wave consists of nothing but the very youngest of women can be misleading.  The concerns of that age group are not always the same as the concerns of other age groups, and excessive focus on the youngest feminists tends to make certain topics invisible:  The gendered division of child-rearing, the problems mothers, and all women suspected of becoming mothers, face at work.   But they are important topics for feminism to tackle.

As a final note, the WaPo article's focus on political activism, what that means and why formal political activism isn't more highly rated by those who participated in the survey the article analyzes**** deserves a separate post.  I'm not going to write that during the primaries, however.  For obvious reasons.


*Interrogate in the sense of academic jargon, not in the sense of turning on some glaring lights, cuffing an argument to a sturdy chair and then using the electric tongs to get more truthful answers.  Though that, too.

** A quote from the article:

“We have this weird and often damaging tendency to [divide people], where you’re either one thing or you’re not,” said sophomore Grace Smith, a government and women’s and gender studies double-major from Troy, N.Y. “ ‘You’re either a man or a woman.’ ‘You’re either a feminist or you’re not.’ And I think there is a gray area, and I think being a feminist takes all different forms, and at the core of it is being inclusive and not excluding.”

Velez mostly keeps her own views to herself in class, in the interest of sparking the students’ own discoveries. But here, she spoke up.
“One of the things I am struck by is your desire to be inclusive,” she said, addressing the class collectively. “Y’all are saying: ‘We don’t want to exclude somebody. We want feminism to be broader and inclusive.’ [But] the thing I want you to focus on for a minute is [that feminism] is not about breaking through barriers in your own life. It’s not about being successful as a CEO. Those are personal goals we might have. [But] the word has to mean something. It’s got to have some boundaries. Because otherwise it’s just this feel-good kind of word that [means], ‘Hey, we’re all feminists; we’re all in this together.’

***  The obvious and important exception to this is the analysis of any differential impact climate change has for men and women in various demographic and economic classes. I'm talking about general climate change above.  Other similar topics are general analyses of poverty or wars and so on. 

****  I'm talking about this quote:

Despite those realities, the Post-Kaiser poll reflected feminism’s lack of political will or any visible momentum at the grass-roots level. Asked to choose their “top priorities for improving women’s lives,” 84 percent of respondents selected “reducing domestic violence and sexual assault,” making it the top choice, and 75 percent selected “equal pay for equal work.” Thirty-two percent chose “getting more women elected,” making it the lowest-rated of the 11 available choices.