Thursday, November 10, 2011


I have been reading Stephanie Staal's book Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life. In it, Stall describes her progress through feminism in terms that are very similar to my own. She says she grew up fairly confident that the gains of second wave feminism had been won. She had a working mother, was expected to get a good education and have a career and did not feel any obstacles to her success based on gender. Rather than a complacent post-feminist, she describes herself as being energized by feminism in the late 1980s, in relation to Anita Hill and other contemporary events. She transferred to a women's college, and took women's studies classes. But, she says, it wasn't until she got married, then had a child, that she truly experienced any of the issues related to feminism -- that she felt the burden of being a woman in expectations about household chores, maternity leave, work vs. home divides, parenting, etc. She re-encounters Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique at a crisis point in her life, and finds it surprisingly relevant in ways she had not when she was an undergraduate. So, she decides to go back to school and audit the year-long Feminist Texts course she took as an undergraduate at Barnard. What she finds through her participation in the class is both how much she has changed and how different the current generation of feminists are from when she was young.

In many ways, this book is one of those about which I think "Oh, I wish I had written this" and "Oh my goodness, she is writing about me." As I have said, my own experience of feminism was largely academic until I hit my thirties, got married and had kids. And now, I feel all the issues and contradictions of feminism's gains and limitations daily. Like Stall, I have had the opportunity to revisit feminist texts, but, in my case, as a professor not as a student. While I had been teaching feminist theory in film studies for years, just last year, as Director of Gender Studies, I had to teach a survey of feminist theory ranging from Mary Wollstonecraft and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to the present. Some of it was material I had never read and some I had not read in decades.

We talk a lot about generations in relation to feminism -- dividing feminist history into first, second and third waves, and worrying about post-feminist and whether the gains of feminism have been lost or what the future will be. In my class (and in all my classes), the divide is enacted often between the teacher and students. My students are sometimes much more hooked into contemporary gender issues than I am. For example, they have a working everyday familiarity with transgender people that I do not. At the same time, they have adopted many attitudes I would view as post or anti-feminist, such as the idea that stripping or making out with another woman at a bar for male pleasure is "empowering" and a question of "choice." Most professors I know have expressed some frustration that students do not "get" it, that they think all our problems are solved; and many students I know have reverted to a view of feminism and feminists (meaning us, their teachers) as whiny or as forcing issues unnecessarily.

But my experience of reading or re-reading feminist texts has also put me in a dialectic with my younger self and with younger stages of feminism. Like Staal, I have found some texts that had seemed dated to me before to be newly relevant. In other cases, texts that carried radical promise and were exciting to me when I was younger can sometimes feel dated because they did not lead anywhere.

More than anything, though, what I love about dipping back into the history of feminism is accessing the anger. I miss the sense of righteous indignation and moral certainty in the current climate of irony, eye rolling, and complacency. I love reading something like "The Redstockings Manifesto" from 1969 that says "Women are an oppressed class. Our oppression is total, affecting every facet of our lives. We are exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labor. We are considered inferior beings, whose only purpose is to enhance men's lives." Compare this to the "Riot Grrrl Philosophy" of 1995 which exists "because us girls crave records and books and fanzines that speak to US that WE feel included in and can understand in our own ways" or "The Third Wave Manifesta" of 2000 that addresses a host of issues including health care, access to the military, equality in the workplace, reproductive rights and more, but all in gingerly inclusive language such as this: "To have equal access to health care, regardless of income, which includes coverage equivalent to men's, and keeping in mind that women use the system more often than men do because of our reproductive capacity." If the 70s gave us the film A Question of Silence in which a group of women who have never met before jointly beat a man to death, then refuse to speak about it and laugh hysterically in court -- a film I find bizarrely exhilarating and that my students find deeply offensive and immoral -- today we have Bridesmaids or Sex in the City which articulate female frustration but suggest that it can be solved through better friendships, better men, and a good drink.

These newer forms of feminism address many of the issues that were seen as failures of second wave feminism. They aim to include a diverse range of positions, and people, including not just women of color, or women in poverty, but also men, and the many diverse and expanding LBGT and queer communities. The enemy is no longer obvious, the issues are complex and contradictory, and the goals are unclear. As Staal discusses, the students in today's Fem Texts class parse every situation with incredible sophistication. But they lack the sense of friction and anger that initiated many movements and that drives many of us old gals back to the old texts and old ways of thinking.

1 comment:

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