The “so what?” feminism
plateau is familiar to us in the west: 40 years after the second wave, the standstill is obvious. Western women are stuck populating middle management and pink-collar ghettos. A small fraction of elite women have fabulous careers, supported by the low-wage childcare and domestic work of other women. In news coverage, women remain pegged at about 15% of bylines and subjects. They run no more than 5% of Fortune 500 companies. And so on. The wage gap has narrowed by a few points, but men still out-earn women by about twenty percentage points for the same work. Men do a few hours more domestic work a week than they used to.
Legally, the gains are stronger. Abortion rights and equal access law are established in most western countries. Recently in the US, though, a new legislative push to subject women to intrusive vaginal ultrasound scans, if they contemplate abortion, has come in to play. Many European countries have daycare and family leave – but not the US. Rape and sexual harassment are almost never prosecuted successfully – 6-12% of reported rapes in the UK and the US ever go to trial at all. The mainstream media are more filled than ever with rigid fashion and beauty ideals.
Data for anorexia and bulimia in the west are static. Young western women report less and less interest in identifying themselves with “the- F-word” – feminism; they say that the movement seems a relic of their mothers’ era – humorless, sexless, hostile to men and judgmental of young women. There is a lot of exciting new online publishing activity, from Feministing
, to Bust
, to Bitch
; but the next generation still lacks strong institutions or a clear feminist political agenda.
The malaise is widespread: in 2009, sociologist Marcus Buckingham reported than since second-wave feminism, women in the west who “have it all” have become actually less satisfied. The most educated, privileged, affluent women I know – women whose lives give them a million great “choices” – that buzzword of “our” feminism – do not generally say they are happy. They feel a vague sense of lack of fulfilment: “Is that all there is?”
This stasis has to do with a flaw in how we in the west see “feminism”, where we are raised to believe that the feminism we inherit “is” feminism. But I argue that it is just one of several possible intellectual framings of feminism – and it is not necessarily the best of the choices for us for this historical moment. “Our” feminism descends from three main sources: the 19th-century ideal of the “Angel in the House”, existentialism and advanced capitalism. These turn out to fail, over time, as matrixes for a satisfying, effective feminism.
Modern western feminism was codified by middle-class white suffragists in Britain, and crossed to the United States
. These women, though they struggled against it, were immersed in an ideology described by the poetCoventry Patmore
as the “Angel in the House”: women’s influence was to be emotional, not logical; they were to create a “separate sphere”, apart from the rigors of the male world; women were to be higher, purer and less sexual than men; and their role was to exert moral judgment. Unsurprisingly, Victorian feminists framed their arguments in just this language, making the case that the vote for women would “elevate” society; and showcasing female sexual victimization at the hands of men as a way to push for laws to address the sexual and legal double standard, as well as reform in divorce and property law.
Thus they focused on the emotions felt by victims of male oppression and appealed to men’s sense of justice. This approach was, in many ways, successful: in 1864, 1866, 1885, 1894, until they gained the vote in 1919-20. Even subsequently, they used this framing to make laws more equitable.
The trouble is that this way of pushing for equality
is now seen as western feminism’s template. It leads to what I have called elsewhere a withdrawal into “victim feminism” – at the expense of aggregating women’s equally real strengths. It led to feminism’s reluctance to soil its hands, in Victorian terms, with the “male” material of money, or of the media, or of hardball legislative work. It also leaves us with a tendency to be judgmental about other women’s choices – excluding from the feminist “sisterhood” women who have different backgrounds or policy goals from “ours” (such as women in the military, or conservative or “pro-life” women).
The 19th-century tradition also leads to organizational paralysis, as women’s groups fetishize “consensus”. It has led to feminism being so afraid of offending anyone that we have ironically recapitulated the voicelessness of the original “angel in the house”. A discomfort with conflict has reproduced conventional feminist wisdom at the expense of bracing and productive debate.
That has led to a kind of passivity in many western democracies, where a tradition of seeing oneself as being at the mercy of a powerful authority leads women in EU countries, or nations that have “women’s rights officers”, to yield the job of female assertion to official, even government, bodies. Western women have been left ill-prepared to do what is urgently needed: to field their own candidates, run for office themselves, to raise their own money, start their own institutions, draft their own laws and inaugurate their own media.
The Contagious Diseases Acts
were a formative experience for the framing of western feminism. In Britain, in the 1860s, a push by the military to stop the spread of sexually transmitted disease led to a campaign: disguised officials were empowered to kidnap any woman who looked as though she might be a prostitute. Since prostitution was so casually defined then, any woman was subject to detention by the state – especially women who looked as if they might have sexual experience. In “lock hospitals”, they were forcibly vaginally examined in front of strangers, and held against their will for up to nine months. The sweep was so broad that the official in charge of bringing the system to London warned that it would take the equivalent of 12 full-scale hospitals to house all the women to be abducted. The campaign lasted for years.
Josephine Butler, a middle-class feminist, fought the acts successfully: this was the first organized feminist action. The acts were repealed in 1886. But those laws and Butler’s success was imprinted on western feminism. Many women still feel, rightly, that they are vulnerable to a lack of state protection – say, in a rape case – if there is any sexual agency in their background. And because of this fight, a strong strain of Puritanism, and difficulty in dealing with female sexual agency, are part of our western feminist legacy.
There is a second unfortunate antecedent: 20th-century existentialism. Second wave feminism descends in the US from the 1949 book bySimone de Beauvoir
, The Second Sex. Betty Friedan’s 1963 bestseller, The Feminine Mystique, drew on it heavily. French existentialism is an unhelpful philosophy
in which to couch modern feminism: born from the ravages of the second world war, it is a cynical, individualistic school of thought that posits the self and personal choice as the measure of life’s entire meaning. It defines the self in isolation from the world of families, social roles, mutual obligations and concerns for one’s childrens’ future. It was this powerful individualism that led De Beauvoir to her radical notion that women, too, had autonomous selves, which were not to be defined by others. But existentialism’s focus on the individual’s choice at the expense of everything else led western feminism down a destructive path.
Friedan popularized that stark worldview for the masses: she called it the “Problem That Has No Name”, as women with degrees questioned their roles while they loaded laundry:
“Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries … she was afraid to ask even of herself: is this all?”
So, from two accidents of intellectual history, our version of feminism was born. Added to this was the great consumer push of postwar advanced capitalism, when all those products sought consumers, who needed to be obsessed by individual choice. The fact that this materialist wave swept up women and men simply meant that both sexes had freedom redefined as “freedom for the self’s choices over all”. And for women, this liberation was labelled “feminism”: and so, the personal was political – but to the exclusion of other ideals.
Western women became very good at identifying what was crying out in their souls and kicking away the hindrances to self-fulfilment. That had value. Unfortunately, however, this message of self-assertion above all dovetailed neatly with the needs of consumer capitalism. From the 1970 onwards, our culture told both sexes that individual expression was paramount. And for women, that was defined as the right to choose an interesting a career, a high-status mate, the desirable handbag or vacation, the perfect family size, and a definitionally fruitless quest for “perfection”. This focus is why so many “feminist” debates tend to become lifestyle discussions: should women have facelifts? What about hiring nannies? What about stay-at-home moms versus working mothers? Frankly, if I – as a passionate feminist – am bored by two decades of such discussions, it is no surprise that everyone else is, as well. Lifestyle choices are not meaningful if no bigger questions are being asked.
Given that history, is it any wonder now that so many women report a sense of being unfulfilled? Here is my proposal.
We need to look outward to non-western feminisms – as well as back to a hidden wellspring of our own true inheritance. I would say the “truest” intellectual heritage of western feminism – though one often buried or misunderstood – is the Enlightenment. The same impetus that led Mary Wollstonecraft to write Vindication of the Rights of Women is the same wellspring that led Tom Paine to write Common Sense, and Jefferson to phrase the declaration of independence in terms of natural rights bestowed by God, making all men (sic) equal. This antecedent places feminism as a natural position on the spectrum of rights in the global struggle for freedom and democracy.
This inheritance orients feminism towards the clamor for self-determination and democracy that has recently occurred in Tahrir Square – an uprising that, unsurprisingly, was led by young women – and in similar struggles in Syria, Bahrain, Greece and Spain. Feminism understood in the Enlightenment tradition is not a set of policy outcomes. It does not say, you must be pro-choice or vegetarian; it says, simply, you must be free, all of you. It seeks, as the Enlightenment ideals did, for type of government and society that will provide the fullest expression not of individual lifestyle choice, but of popular self-determination. It sees the struggle for free speech and freedom of expression as an inherent part of feminism, because feminism simply says that just as all people must be free, women, who are the majority of people, must be free. And so they must be free to speak as they wish, worship as they wish, and choose representation in government to reflect their priorities in a democratic manner.
This feminism is not special pleading, or even partisan. It is simply the very basis of democracy. True democracy, though, will have many different outcomes in policy. Victorian feminists made the mistake of making membership of the sisterhood conditional on signing up to a particular policy agenda. Marxist feminists made a similar mistake of saying, you can’t be a real feminist unless you join with miners, the unions, the vegans … Those are all great issues, but they are not this feminism’s necessary coalition partners.
This feminism’s coalition partner is the great movement for democracy and human rights
around the world. This feminism – which I will call Enlightenment Feminism, with the caveat that the Enlightenment does not belong to Europe, or the Europeans, but to anyone who now lays claim to its ideals and its constitutional language – belongs to everyone globally. Enlightenment feminism’s coalition would include those who are fighting for democracy and freedom for the disabled, for journalists, for women who are trafficked; for indigenous peoples
whose rights are denied, for women working in sweatshops in China who are forbidden to unionize or voice their complaints … Enlightenment feminism looks at how gender
is used to silence and oppress women but its matrix of values and associations is that of universal human rights.
Global feminism gets this, which is why you are seeing emerging global feminist leaders fighting for economic rights in western Africa, for instance, to end genital mutilation in Mali, to publish blogs in Cairo, to bring traffickers to justice in Bosnia, and so on. Most instructive is the image scarved and bareheaded, religious and secular young women fighting hard for Enlightenment freedom and Enlightenment feminism in Muslim countries – without feeling that the headscarf or religious affiliation divides them. Indeed, feminists in India, Pakistan, Bosnia, Liberia and other developing or traditional societies are creating discourses about raising the status of women that are completely integrated with family and community life. Unlike us, they have not inherited the existentialist opposition between individual and community that we have.
I believe that feminism in the developing world has charm and excitement, cachet and intellectual vigor, and is immensely attractive to young women – even as feminism in the west remains static and intellectually stale. The Enlightenment framing that underpins global feminism offers a truly radical future: who wouldn’t like this definition of feminism? Who wouldn’t want to embrace it, male or female?
If we redefine our feminism in this way, we will immediately become far more relevant, far smarter and far more powerful. We, as western women, will be aligned, rather than at cross purposes, with the cutting-edge feminisms emerging in the developing world. We can lay to rest forever the absurd notion that feminism is anti-male or that it posits a war between the sexes. And we can get on with the exciting task of engendering freedom.