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Is Feminism Still the “F-word?”

In Life in Society on March 17, 2012 at 1:46 am

 Answer: Yes, because we’re all still insecure about it.

Part One in a Series

By Bekah McNeel

I once heard feminism referred to as “the f-word.” A brilliant play on words really, because I thought, Yes, in some circles, calling a woman a feminist might have exactly the same impact as calling her some other vulgar name. In other circles, calling a woman a housewife would have the same effect. Women are pretty sensitive about which camp they are in.

Nothing seems to swallow a woman’s identity like where she stands on the feminism debate.

To illustrate this point, here’s a conversation from my book club a few months ago –the participants were a married middle-school teacher, and a married ministry professional – neither of whom have children:

Teacher: My house is never as clean as I’d like it to be.

Ministry Professional: Mine either. I just can’t keep up! I constantly feel guilty about it.

Teacher: Yeah. I blame the feminists.

Ministry Professional: Really? I blame the traditional housewives!

The two women stared at each other.

The Ministry Professional thought to herself, “How could feminists possibly be to blame for the guilt I have about my dirty house? Feminists are all about NOT feeling guilty for that stuff.”

The Teacher thought to herself, “Traditional housewives? They are all about taking their time to beautify their homes! If we were all like them, our houses wouldn’t be dirty, so we wouldn’t need to feel guilty!”

What keeps the topic so heated is the intangible sense that most women have that they are being judged. By society, by men, and especially by other women. They can feel the seething condemnation like laser beams, whether it’s aimed at their performance as a wife, a mother, or a worker.

This is not just my own observation. I had already started writing this essay when I heard an interview with the stage actors for the show “God of Carnage” [which has been adapted for the silver screen under the shortened title “Carnage”]. The play takes place in the apartment of a couple seeking to have civilized conversation with the parents of the boy who struck their own boy with a stick during free-playtime at school. Two sets of educated, wealthy, urban adults, seeking a calm resolution. It devolves from there into total chaos, as the couples duke it out over whose parenting style and personal issues are to blame for the rift between the children (obviously many factors come into play).

The interviewer asked the actress who plays one of the mothers why she thought the play was able to escalate so convincingly, over something so trivial as a playground brawl. The actress answered, “I feel like everyone I know who’s a mother has to defend the way [she] raises her child and I think a lot of women judge each other.”

(http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2012/01/31/god-carnage-huntington, accessed Feb 2, 2012)

Did you catch that? It’s not that women just feel judged. It’s that they are judged. The performance culture, in which parenting, domesticity, and productivity are all presented to the world for evaluation, did not create itself. We created it. We the men and women of the Divided States. With insecurity and judgment for all.

Women who feel judged often respond defensively. In an effort to justify our own choices, we belittle those options we forwent and fully espouse those we did.  I noticed this tendency even in college students; to align one’s whole self with the choices one makes. So the conversation is NOT:

Emily: I like chocolate! I don’t care for vanilla.

Jessica: That’s cool; I like vanilla better than chocolate.

Emily: Great! Here’s the vanilla ice cream. I’ll take the chocolate.

Instead it is more like:

Emily: I’m a chocolate-lover. Whomever does not like chocolate stands in moral opposition to me.

Jessica: Well I am a vanilla-lover. I stand in opposition to your identity as a chocolate-lover.

Emily: Well, then. We will never be friends.

Now, motherhood, professionalism, and marriage are not as trivial as ice cream, obviously. But we still stake our whole identity on every choice we make. We put forth that we chose the RIGHT choice. Not because we wanted to, but because there is some cosmic court in session to determine the moral imperative of the feminine gender and we are all pleading our case.

Stuart Hall lists feminism as one of the five major “de-centerings” of the 20th century. It radically shook up the social order. It took the realm of “private” matters and made them “public.” When our private lives are broadcast, when our assumptions are publically challenged, we feel the need to defend ourselves. We feel that we are on stage, and we must give a good performance. It’s been this way since the beginning.

First-wave feminism started as a plea for agency and citizenship. Women wanted to vote, hold property, work, etc. They wanted to be citizens.  The feminist cause was also a moral one. Early feminists wanted protection from the STD’s their husbands were bringing home from brothels (their solution was to promote chastity and monogamy). They wanted to be able to live and move in society before they were married. These women were judged. And they judged back in ways that often landed them in jail. The private lives of women like Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) were under the kind of scrutiny that would have stripped Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin of their public position. Women like Emmeline Prankhurst (1858-1928) of England advocated a militant approach to protest, and she found herself a frequent occupant of the British prison system. These were not always friendly women.

Over time, as the United States government became more friend than foe, feminism took on corporations. They used their status as equal citizens to carry the cause into the workplace.  Since industrialization women have been in the workplace. Jobs that were once necessary at home were now taking place in factories. So the woman who worked at home became the woman who worked in the factory. Thanks to industrialization and World War II efforts, working women were nothing new by the 1960s, but soon women wanted equal pay, and that was new. They protested, went on strikes, and litigated. They spoke harshly and were harshly spoken to.

Slowly but surely they challenged institution after institution, until they reached the intangibles, like marriage, gender roles, and reproductive rights. Just like the classic slogan, “The private is public” or “The personal is political” soon the moral became the legal. Second-wave feminism was born when women discovered that formal equality was crippled by the cultural inequality experienced by most women during the so-called “decade of the housewife,” the 1950s. The cause of feminism now challenged not only legal and civil rights, but also the choices of women and the influences upon them.

Second-wave feminism is where most of us get our impression of “the f-word.” We think of man-haters, femi-nazis, and the like. Women fought sterotypes by flaunting their sexuality and rejecting anything “inflicted” by society. They glorified the natural female and refused to let bras, razors, or makeup interfere. This is what Christina Hoff Sommers calls “gender feminism.” Before, the prevailing ideal had been “equality feminism,” the desire that women should be given the same opportunities as men (Sommers, 1992). Second-wave feminism was deliberately provocative, and invited those who would judge them not so much to a dialogue but to a debate.

Throughout all of this, women had found their alliances powerful but volatile. Unity around a common cause could quickly be dissolved by disapproval over religious, political, or private differences. Feminism was happening by degrees. It was not until the 1980’s that the most appealing and all-inclusive movement emerged: post-feminism. [There’s also talk of a third-wave of feminism centering around the LGBT movement, but that is outside the scope of this essay.]

Post-feminism encourages women to pursue “having it all.” Women realized that in order to “have it all” (the power, the love, the happiness, the equality) they really had to be not just a woman, but a superwoman. They had to “bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man. (1980 ad for Enjoli perfume).” This post-feminist mentality – that for a woman to have it all, she’s got to do it all – pervades playgroups, magazines, television, and corporate daycares across the nation. This is where we meet the anxiety-ridden mother whose child is not speaking…at 10 months. Or the guilty professional who says things like, “I’d lose my sense of self if I didn’t work…but I feel like a terrible mom.”

Feminism is still the f-word, because it’s a threat to others’ approval of our performance. How can I have it all, do it all, and enjoy it all, if people don’t approve of my performance? Because approval, honor, and admiration are part of that “all” that I’m trying to “have!”

Many of our African and Middle Eastern sisters are still fighting battles long disappeared into our history. Their journey is just beginning. I hope that a society emerges that can find true solidarity in the many paths available to free women. I hope that one day the stay-at-home mom and the CEO can sit down for coffee without trying to one-up each other on whose life is harder or more fulfilling. Or that the homemaker and the professor can watch their kids play together on a Saturday afternoon without fear that their child will reflect badly on their lifestyle. I hope we can vanquish this great repressor of women, the Performance Culture, and support each other in our diverse and unique callings.

I think that the conversation at our book club reflected part of the resolution to this dilemma. Here’s how it ended:

Teacher: I feel like feminism tells me that I have to work in order to be valuable. So I work, and then I’m too busy and tired to clean. I feel like I would be judged if I stayed home and cleaned like I want to!

Ministry Professional: Well, I feel like traditional housewifery tells me that my value comes from the spotlessness of my house. I like working and have no desire to stop, but then I feel guilty when I’m too tired to scrub the white grout or sweep up for the 9th time in an evening. I feel judged by every speck of dust!

The two friends laughed and reflected on their opposing anxieties, and in the process they remembered that they were just that: friends. In each other, they had an ally who viewed the world differently. That point of view was valuable and challenging, but it didn’t have to be condemning. A common enemy – The Performance Culture – had snared them both, in different ways. They realized that in their differences they had the power to set each other free.

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  1. Maybe you’ll address this later, but it seems to me that feminism is all about being ABLE to make choices for ourselves that may or may not be predetermined. Today, I choose to be a female professional in the business world. Next year, I may choose to start a family and stay home to take on the homemaker role.

    How is one more feminist than the other? I just don’t see the difference. It is just as empowering to embrace one role as the other. Why? Because it’s MY choice as a woman. In my opinion, a working woman telling me that I CAN’T be a homemaker and be a ‘strong’ or ‘good’ woman is anti-feminist, just as a homemaker admonishing a working mother for her role is anti-feminist.

    Thoughts?

    • Excellent point, Stephanie. The talk about this subject does often sound as if “working” is only “outside the home,” and that doing that is what makes a “feminist.” Your comment also makes me think that it’s kind of strange to even need a label like “feminist.” Why can’t all people simply live their lives – kindly and the best they know how…? Working hard, trying to find that which they were meant to do (but which can change and flux over time) in life. Also, raising children and running a home – and all the many, many variations thereof – of that job – can look so very different from person to person.
      There isn’t a similar masculine term like “feminist” either, is there (“masculinist”)? There’s mysogynist – maybe that’s revealing – but no similar one for “man-hater?” Yikes. Again, back to the performance culture concept: “are we what we do; or what we are called; or are we just US – valuable, each one?” It’s all about identity, I guess. So much to talk about on this subject! Thanks for your contribution – please share more if you like.

  2. Bekah, thank you for fleshing out the definition of a feminist. I am always discouraged when I hear people who share my worldview limit feminism as a ideology that is against conservatism, men in general, and stay at home mom’s in particular.

    No I say!

    To limit the definition in such a way is to turn a blind eye to the amazing work of feminists throughout history. It is an injustice to the women and men who worked tirelessly and sacrificed a great deal to secure social, economic, and political equality for women.

    I think the reason there is not a masculine term like “feminist” is due to the fact that men in general have not been historically marginalized. Men did not have to fight for the right to vote, own property, earn equal pay, etc. They did not need a term encapsulating a male fight for freedom because they already enjoyed freedom.

    • You’re probably right – the term comes from the necessity for encapsulating a social effort or point-of-view change. The role of words in all this is also so interesting. Another issue, with men “already having freedom,” is that of course I see what you mean, but I’ve also discovered that they didn’t either, under the old ‘regime’ – in a certain way. They were not free to be — homemakers, for instance. Or stay-at-home dads; or working from home while their wives worked at an office. When there is too much of a false kind of patriarchal system, it’s limiting for men as well as for women. Current cultures here in 2012 that still have this kind of set-up, constrict, separate and limit both genders. Angry types of “feminism” or whatever a person’s zealous cause might be – with it’s list of proscribed rules – has this same opportunity to marginalize, warp, and insult. That’s partly why too, in our celebrity-obsessed current culture, it’s odd to think there exist a few (nameless-to-society-at-large) women (and men!) in their 80’s & 90’s and above, who as “feminists,” were “housewives;” raised children; took care of their neighbors (and let their neighbors take care of them); or their parents as they got older; and contributed in an endless variety of ways to their communities in general, both within and outside of those roles — and lived at peace and with a feeling satisfaction in their work. True freedom means respecting, encouraging & acknowledging each human’s worth & gifts – and then … there’s the joy of working together! Goodness, lots of thoughts!!

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