The first time I ever heard of feminism, I was twelve years old, it was 1963, and I thought I had used it to kill my grandmother...
Specifically, I thought I had used it to kill my father's mother, a short, fat, sturdy, emphatic Greek woman who was possibly the most feminist human being ever to walk the planet -- IF you define "feminism" to mean that women should have the same access to power and achievement as men. On that score, Ourania Gregorios Papazoglou was a paragon. Other Greeks might be content to get to America sailing steerage. My grandmother set herself up in business making crochet and lace for rich girls' weddings to put the money together to come over in a proper steamship cabin, with a proper trunk full of even more properly new clothes. Other Greek immigrant women might settle into the local Greek Town, join the Greek Orthodox Church, and try to preserve as much of the old country as they could. My grandmother set herself up in one business after another -- including bootlegging ouzo during Prohibition -- until she had the money to buy herself a nice large property in an entirely unGreek part of town. Other Greek immigrant women might settle down to playing second fiddle to a dominant husband. When my grandmother died, my grandfather was lost, never to be completely found again, although he outlived her by twenty years. She had run his life, their money, their businesses. He had no idea what to do with himself when she was not there to tell him what he was for.
To understand why I thought I had used feminism to kill my grandmother, you have to understand what it was like to be a girl like me in 1963. Betty Friedan had already published The Feminine Mystique, but for all the good it did girls in small towns in Connecticut, she might as well have published it in Japanese. I had just come through an excruciatingly lonely childhood, convinced that no matter what happened in the future, it couldn't get any worse. I was wrong. I hit adolescence and junior high school like a freight train at full throttle hitting the side of Pike's Peak. Girls who had been content to ignore me suddenly found the need to correct my every mistake, out loud, in public -- and I made a lot of mistakes. For one thing, I talked a lot in class. For another, I brought books to read in the cafeteria at lunch, and not acceptable books, like David and Lisa and I Never Promised You A Rose Garden. At one point, I was reading my way through the collected works of Ernest Hemingway. At another, I was trying to plow my way through Nietzche's Beyond Good and Evil. Then, to make matters worse, my ambitions were all wrong. Other girls wanted to be teachers or nurses or, if they were pretty, actresses. Asked in a Civics class what I wanted to do when I grew up, I answered innocently, "get a Ph.D. in chemistry and be like Marie Curie"--and never lived it down.
"Don't stand here," the most popular girl in my junior high school class said to me, as she pushed me, physically, out of a little group of girls huddled in a knot near the door of the auditorium at our class's first boy-girl mixer. "If you stand here, none of the boys will come over and talk to us."
The shove she gave me sent me staggering into the harshly lit empty center of the room, in full view of everybody. Her voice could have been heard in New Jersey.
Looking back on it, I know I could have gotten away with all my eccentricities, if only I had had the self confidence to carry them off. Unfortunately, my lack of self-confidence was nearly total. Not only was I convinced that I was the ugliest human being who had ever lived, but I was quite certain I was stupid, too. Other girls--more conventional girls--got better grades than I did, and I didn't know enough about the world to realize that that had less to do with my intelligence than with my nearly obsessive need to challenge authority. I was sure that I was doing something terribly wrong, terribly bad and terribly shameful, all the time. When my standardized tests came back with good scores, I decided I was lazy and undisciplined, and to punish myself I stopped eating solid food for six straight days. I existed on sweet tea and diet soda. I got up every morning at four thirty to sit at the typewriter in the corner of my bedroom and pound out short stories to send to The New Yorker and The Atlantic Monthly, who, of course, always turned them down. I was convinced not only that I was a failure, but that I could never be anything else.
It was in the middle of all this that I found feminism, not by stumbling across Betty Friedan's then best-selling book, but by accident, by following a set of references in an introduction to a paperback edition of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty. I don't remember why I'd bought the Mill in the first place. Once a month, my mother would take me in to New Haven to have my eyes checked by a specialist. They had been badly crossed and surgically corrected when I was very young, and she still wasn't sure of them. As part of our day, I was allowed to pick any store I wanted and pick out a present for myself there, and my mother was somewhat nonplused to find that the only store I ever wanted to go to was the Yale Co-op. These were the days before superstore book chains. The only book store in my little town doubled as a gift shoppe--and I use the spelling deliberately. It sold more handmade doll's house furniture and lacework antimacassars than books.
The feminism that I found was of course woefully out of date. It was the feminism of Harriet Taylor Mill, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and Susan B. Anthony, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. I especially liked Lucy Stone, who refused to change her name when she married. I especially hated Carrie Nation, who seemed to me to be the kind of blue nosed conventional prude that all those Popular Girls were working so hard to become. What struck me most forcefully, though, was that there had once been an entire movement dedicated to the proposition that it wasn't wrong for a girl to want to "get a Ph.D. in chemistry and be like Marie Curie"--or "unfeminine" for her to argue with her teachers and refuse to back down when she didn't think she was wrong.
Now we come to the point in the story where,
having had my epiphany, I should ride off into the sunset in
a burst of creativity and self-esteem, but of course it didn't
happen. What happened instead was that I mouthed off once too
often to the wrong people about the rights of women, and got
told--in no uncertain terms--that God Himself had decreed that
women were always to be the helpmates of men and not their competitors,
and that if I wouldn't listen to God He'd probably do something
to punish me. Never mind the fact that my father was more or
less an agnostic and my mother was about as serious about religion
as she was about bridge, which she played maybe once a year.
And never mind the fact that my grandmother herself was a full
blown atheist in everything but name, and had no use whatsoever
for churches, priests, religion or tales of the supernatural
and paranormal. The lecture was delivered to me by the priest
of the local Greek Orthodox Church, in the hallway of the hospital
where my grandmother lay dying in the wake of her first and only
heart attack. Two hours later, she was dead--and I knew, absolutely,
that it was all my fault.
Lately, I have found myself thinking often of those events in 1963 -- not because I still carry the hot, rancorous guilt I did for several years afterwards, but because with the coming of the new millennium they have begun to seem eerily prophetic. Antifeminism, it seems, is the Next New Thing -- and not the esoteric "antifeminism" of Reagan-era organized-feminist paranoia, either. Seventies feminism failed to accomplish many things, but the one thing it did accomplish was a social consensus that validated the abilities--and ambitions--of women. Of course, there were always some dissenters, but they seemed outrageous and irrelevant at the start, and then increasingly funny. George Gilder's Sexual Suicide declared feminism a prescription for making old maids and rogue males, but after a brief bright spurt of popularity its sales fell apart, and its anniversary edition--renamed Men And Marriage--had to be issued by a small press. Alan Carlson and the Rockford Institute declared that the only way to save civilization was to end the equal-pay-for-equal work laws as they applied to women, and restrict women's access to law and medical schools--but even most conservative Republicans weren't quoting Carlson in public, and the ones who did were easily written off as a fundamentalist religious fringe. Abortion rights were a contentious issue. The right of women to lives of ambition and achievement was not.
Maybe that was the problem, in the long
run. The idea that women had a right to careers, that they could
and should be ambitious for themselves and not just for their
husbands, that they were fully capable of succeeding at any job
that didn't require them to fend off an attack by Godzilla with
their bare hands--that idea began to seem so right, so obvious,
that it also began to seem as if it had always been there. Women
only ten years younger than I was sometimes had no acquaintance
at all with sex discrimination. Nobody had ever told them that
it wasn't ladylike for a girl to want to be a lawyer, or that
they'd better watch themselves in math class if they didn't want
to be unattractive to boys. What was much odder was that women
my own age and even a little older seemed to be going through
some kind of cultural amnesia. If they had ever experienced
sex discrimination, they didn't remember it, and they certainly
didn't remember anybody ever telling them that girls weren't
able to grow up to be anything they wanted to be. It was as
if the Fifties and early Sixties had never existed, and the collective
efforts of everyone from Betty Friedan to Ti Grace Atkinson to
Andrea Dworkin had been absolutely futile. At the very least,
those efforts had been rendered invisible. Once, trapped at
a nightmare of a conference on America and the Family at a small
college in upstate New York, and sick to death of listening to
a smug woman in a navy blue blazer blast on about how unredeemably
awful she found all feminists and all feminism, I launched into
my standard feminist rant: equal pay for equal work! equal opportunity
in jobs and education! social respect for women of intellect
Well -- what does any of that have to do with feminism? On the surface, the question looks idiotic. In spite of all the talking heads complaints about victim ideology and identity politics, if you asked ten stray women on the street what to call a woman who believed in equal pay for equal work, equal opportunity in jobs and education, and the right of women to ambitions outside the home, ten out of ten would probably answer, without hesitation, "a feminist." Even the kind of feminist who is deeply involved in what is now a vast network of self-proclaimed feminist organizations would answer that way--at least sometimes. This is that perennial thorn in the side of movement feminism, the "I am not a feminist, but--" syndrome. "I am not a feminist," women proclaim, "but--" And then they real off just that set of beliefs about equal pay and equal opportunity. "Aha," feminists say. "These women really are feminists, they just don't like the label."
But--consider the case of Cathy Young. Young was born in the Soviet Union in 1963, and came to America at 17, just in time to go to university. Since then, she's parlayed her knowledge of life in Soviet Russia into an impressive career as a media pundit, with a regular column in the Detroit News, op-eds in everything from The New York Times to The Washington Post, and frequent appearances on CNN. She definitely believes in equal pay for equal work and equal opportunities for women in education and employment, and she's not shy about taking on what she sees as the stupidity of Republican politicians trying to engineer a return to the Fifties in regard to women's rights. So -- is Cathy Young a feminist?
Not according to Susan Faludi and Ms. magazine
she isn't. She's a "faux feminist," one of those women
who calls herself a feminist but is really an antifeminist reactionary
instead. In Faludi's eyes, there's not much difference between
Young and women like Danielle Crittenden, who believe that women
would be happier if they learned to settle in as full time housewives
when their children are small, or F. Carolyn Graglia, whose 1999
book Domestic Tranquility managed to resurrect the myth of the
vaginal orgasm at the same time it declared that higher education
makes women incapable of any orgasm at all.
But it's not just the economic questions that make Young an "faux feminist" by Faludi's standards. It's Young's take on civil liberties as well. The old joke about libertarians is that they say they want to get the government out of your life -- and they mean it. Young opposes censorship of pornography and of books and movies showing violence against women (and anything else), hate crimes laws (for criminalizing ideas and speech), government-sponsored mandatory "diversity" training for students in public schools, and a whole host of other social control legislation that has recently become fashionable on both the state and the federal level.
The result is that Young, and the women like her -- Wendy McElroy, Virginia Postrel -- are branded not only "faux feminists" but conservatives, and this in spite of the fact that conservatives actively hate them. It doesn't take much research to find out why. As libertarians, these women are opposed to hate crimes laws--but they're opposed to sodomy laws as well, and they think that no government should be able to tell homosexuals that they can't marry. They're opposed to government funding of abortions, but they're in favor not only of legal abortion but of the full panoply of reproductive options and family options, from cloning to gay adoption.
To call women like these "conservatives"
is bizarre. To brand them "antifeminists" is just
plain suicidal. On a number of issues, Cathy Young and her colleagues
at the Women's Freedom Network are closer to the views of most
American women than Susan Faludi or anybody else who writes for
Ms. Most women do support the continued legal availability of
abortion and don't support government funding of it, not because
they're antifeminists but because they--like most Americans--don't
support the government funding of much of anything.
In the meantime, of course, the right wing organizations know what they're fighting when they fight feminism, and isn't an extended Medicaid program for working poor mothers (although they may not like that either). Look at the latest issue of James Dobson's Family magazine, and you'll find a Focus on the Family writer complaining that feminism tricked her into thinking she had to have her own career, her own bank account, and an equal voice in family decisions, when what she really needed was to learn to "give" herself by staying home with her children and deferring to her husband. Look at any of the attacks on "feminism" by right wing women writers, and their first line of fire is against women's achievement outside the home, and against the very idea that women are capable of such achievement.
I'd like to suggest that one of the reasons why those attacks are increasingly successful is that they no longer meet with vigorous resistance from any but a small number of women -- those "faux feminists" Faludi has no time for. Real feminism, by Faludi's definition, is about the support of an expanded welfare state--and all that stuff about achievement and careers is suspect anyway, because it's probably "male identified." The chorus has been getting louder for years, from the very sources we once counted on to defend our right to compete in the world and to win: women have different "ways of knowing" than men; women are communal and emotional rather than competitive and logical. F. Carolyn Graglia would approve. Of course, she'd call all those selfish career women "unfeminine" instead of "male identified," but somehow, in practice, it seems to come down to the same thing.
The mistake the women like Faludi make,
however, is to think that it is possible to defend women's rights
on any level unless you defend the rights of women to independence
and achievement first -- or that it's possible to win those rights
without the support of all the women who want them. There really
is a feminist majority in the United States. It only looks like
a minority because women like Faludi have declared half its members
to be "faux."