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Whither Feminism?

It is really difficult to know how to write about feminism these days. One thing I do know for sure is that we are no more a post-feminist society than we are a post-racial one. The fact that we are still talking about women’s “place” or “role” in society, still worrying about how we come off: slutty, bitchy, angry, all means that we have a long way to go. Baby.

My eighteen year old daughter and her friends still wait for their boyfriends to ask them to “go with them” even if they have been seeing the boy for months. It’s not official until he says it’s official. These are the same girls, though, we don’t see race like our generation used to, who grew up with the freedom to be who they wish to be in ways my generation was just starting to imagine. But. But they wait. Even knowing, as they say, with eye rolls galore, that boys are just, well, silly. My generation, who participated in sexual liberties that our parents could not even comprehend, felt the same way. Boys and men are silly in ways we continue to not understand. Can we embrace our differences without giving over ourselves? And how do we do that and respond to the continuing prejudice and violence against women?

Slut Walks, marches for women’s right to wear what they want and still not be raped, are in the news. So is the backlash against them. If we have made progress and we have– I well remember when I worked with battered women and if the woman didn’t file a complaint the issue was dropped and I also well remember when the police began to press charges no matter what—it seems that in many ways we are still fighting the same old battles. We still are not taken seriously if we dress “inappropriately” and law enforcement’s reaction to that is still mixed; those in the Neanderthal camp may be small but they exist and they are loud and we still have to react to them. Just because misogyny is not universal doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and it doesn’t have an impact.

And yet we are still arguing about whether violence against women is a real issue or an overblown one. In responding to the Slut Walks, a columnist for the Canada’s The Globe and Mail takes a decidedly critical tone: she wants women to fight about other more “important” things and takes issue with the reporting accuracy of the numbers of women who have been sexually assaulted. Yet, as a blogger points out in response, women are fighting for the big issues: equal pay, equal rights, equal status. It is all of a piece, though, when women are still seen as objects of desire before and sometimes instead of being seen as anything else. And there continue to be articles asking if women are “too nice.” When was the last time an article about men being too nice was published? I think never.

When men in power think that because they have power they can do what they wish to any woman they wish we still have a problem. Regardless of whether Schwarzenegger’s liaison was consensual, it was still an exercise of his power over a woman who had much less. Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s purported rape of a hotel maid wasn’t even marginally consensual. But what to make of the latest congressional scandal involving Anthony Weiner and his sexting? The women he sexted obviously responded and no one called him out on it at first. What were they thinking? They knew he was married and yet they had phone sex, internet sex, and text sex with him for months. And what about Newt Gingrich’s mistresses, each of whom took up with him when he was still married? Haven’t we yet gotten to the point where we respect the wife or partner of a man who approaches us? I admit to my own share of moments with married men, none of which I am proud of and all of which I feel guilty for. All of them were stupid and none of them were worth what they made me feel about myself. But our sexuality, our own power versus the power of others is still an issue. How we behave is complex and defined by ourselves and our culture as Linda Martin Alcoff points out recently in her wonderful article in the New York Times. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. And so I wonder and have done so for a long time: has the message delivered by the sexual revolution drowned out the rest of feminism’s tenets?

We can now fuck like men but we still don’t earn what they do. We are still second-class citizens in countries around the world, and even in the great old US of A the debate over our rights and privileges continues. We are not done yet by a long shot. In some ways, I wonder if we have gotten far enough away from Silas Weir Mitchell who proposed the infamous “rest cure” for women who were too mouthy, too independent and too “hysterical.” If it is not a joke when men accuse of PMSing if we get pissed or annoyed with them, it shouldn’t be a joke when we devalue ourselves, either.

What does it mean that men still hold so much of the power in our society and so many women are still clearly conflicted about what they want to do and who they want to be? There was an old cartoon in the seventies that had a woman asking if she could be a feminist and still like men. It’s a good question. We love our men and many of them are wonderful, kind and liberated. But too many of them are not, and sending us their junk by tweet is just one thing that proves it. Yet the crux of the thing may be that we are still our own worst enemy. Shows like the “real” housewives franchise stereotype women in terrible, terrible ways. As do “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette,” “Girls Gone Wild” and others too numerous to mention. We can’t behave like that and expect to be taken seriously. And too many women, especially those of the younger generation, pick and choose from the list of liberties as though it were a Chinese take-out menu. The fact is that we can’t take a stance in one area of our lives and lie down in the other. Our sexual liberation has to be bolstered by our desire to be independent in general and independent of men in specific. We need to make our own money, make our own lives, and be our own people before we get into relationships. Otherwise the same old issues that have been surfacing for years will continue to surface. And we will be dissecting feminism and what it means for another hundred years.