Friday, March 8, 2013

The feminist nightmare continued

Here is Emily Bazelon writing about Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and getting it wrong:
When I actually opened the book and started reading (as opposed to hearing about it for all these years), what hit me was Betty’s howl of frustration. It’s primal, and you feel its desperate force on almost every page. God, did she feel trapped among the slipcovers of the suburbs and in the pages of the women’s magazines she wrote for, where big ideas and questions were entirely unwelcome.
The problem is one of context. Friedan was never trapped in the suburbs, she had left them to live in radical circles. The frustration that screams out from every page of The Feminine Mystique is not Friedan's own but what she theorizes must be the case for those women who did live in the suburbs.

That was probably inevitable. Rebels are often people who are already partly outside the norms of the community they seek to lead to freedom. The problem is not that Betty Friedan misrepresented herself. No, the problem is that she was the wrong person to lead the movement. A fact, as I will get to below, that most women had no trouble grasping.

And it is important to note what a cliché her hatred of the suburbs was. The suburbs definitely have their problems (although it ought to give us pause that millions of people still willingly choose to live in them) but intellectuals hatred of them was a commonplace thing throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Friedan's "rage" in The Feminine Mystique was nothing more than reboiled potatoes and about as tasty.

Generations of women have experienced it that way. Feminism's nightmare is not that lots of women who don't have sympathy for the objectives of the movement reject it but that women who do have sympathy for the objectives of the movement continue to reject the feminist label. 

Let's go back to Taylor Swift as an example. She was asked if she was a feminists (every female celebrity is pressured into declaring herself a feminist, a rather troubling thing all by itself). Here is her answer and one feminist's response to it:
Next, Setoodeh asks: "Do you consider yourself a feminist?"

Taylor Swift replies:
I don't really think about things as guys versus girls. I never have. I was raised by parents who brought me up to think if you work as hard as guys, you can go far in life.
Yes, what you're describing is equality, and equality is what feminism is all about!
Notice the assumption: If you believe in equality then you have to support feminism! Well, No, you don't. Feminism is a battery of theories and strategies and no one has to publicly align themselves with it just because they believe in equality. They are perfectly free to look outside feminism.

To get back to Friedan, it's telling that Bazelon admits in her piece that she had never managed to read The Feminine Mystique even though she knew Friedan quite well and had even received an autographed copy from the author decades ago. And it's not just that she didn't get around it, she admits that she skimmed it. Of course she did. The problem with the book is that it is mind numbingly boring to most people. Even now that she says she has finally gotten around to reading it, she credits the introduction for helping her to grasp the value of it.

And therein lies the central truth about any movement of rebellion including second wave feminism. It's origins are not in lived experience but in theory. And Marxist theory at that. The attack on the suburbs didn't come from nowhere. It came from the radical left and it was revolutionary ideology, which is to say its intent was to encourage discontent.

Okay, you may say, but that doesn't matter because there was lots of discontent and the proof is in the very existence of second wave feminism. And you might further say that this is a point I've made cheerfully in other areas; that it doesn't matter if the movement's founder is a bit of a fraud if what she says catches the imagination of millions. And you'd be right to say that. With one important caveat.

And that caveat  is that it was never the case that the majority of women embraced feminism. It has always been, and probably always will be, a minority movement. And the reason it always will be is precisely Betty Friedan and Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Andrea Dworkin, Kate Millet, Germaine Greer and many others. Because they made the ideologies that women have to sign onto when they call themselves feminist.

This is not, by the way something unique to feminism. Every movement starts off as a feeling of discontent and then becomes a theory. And every movement starts after change has already become possible. It's always the person who is halfway out of the old ways, as Friedan was, who leads the charge.

That tells us something else important: that theories about why life should change always springs up after life has already begun to change. Realizing that deflates the importance of theory. Nothing is less important to feminism than Betty Friedan. No one should feel obliged to read her.

If feminism is to succeed, it needs to have the courage to stop romanticizing its past. Friedan was important at one time but no longer is. A big part of her current lack of appeal is her radicalism, that ugly streak of the hate-filled radical politics of the post-war left that drove so much of early feminism. Trash it.

That said, it isn't that important that second generation survive in any form. If it dies, as it currently appears to be doing, it will be replaced. What, if anything, it will be replaced by is up to young women themselves. I think they can be trusted to decide for themselves.

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