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Who Gets to Call Herself a Feminist Matters More Than We Might Think

Within the past few days, young and famous feminist Jessica Valenti defended her decision not to take part in a panel based on More magazine’s recent list of hip and important young feminists and Nora Ephron all but dismissed the old-line feminist movement of the Seventies by esstentially calling women of that era “irritable” in a Huffington Post article taken from her new book.

Is feminism schizophrenic or what?

Although I have disagreed with Valenti on several occasions and have always found Ephron dead on and funny, I now find myself agreeing with Valenti and wanting to throttle Ephron.
Valenti took exception to an invitation to Alison Kasic, to also appear on the panel (which included Valenti and several prominent feminists) because while Valenti ” could go on the panel to argue about the definition of feminism and the co-opting of the movement… when I agree to be on a panel I’m accepting the terms of a debate – and it’s not a debatable point whether people whose policies actively harm women are feminists.” (emphasis Valenti)

It appears that Kasic, is a senior fellow with the Independent Women’s Forum, which, despite it’s claim that “All Issues Are Women’s Issues,” wants only to appeal to “mainstream women, men and families,” clearly a sign that women in non-traditional roles, lesbians, single mothers, and so on, are not included. From position papers on the bad effects of Title IX, to conservative opinions on health care and business, among other issues, it doesn’t look like the IWF has a truly feminist bone in its body. Like many of today’s feminists who begin their defense of women’s “rights” with the phrase “I’m not a feminist, but….” there is a disconnect between what has gone before, where we are now, and where we simply must go. Despite some claims that our society has achieved gender and race and religious equity, any thinking person knows that that is simply not so: misogyny, racism, anti-Semitism, and growing anti-Muslim sentiments abound, no matter how we wish it were not so.

Good on Valenti, then. Mama Grizzlies like Palin, apologists like Kasic, and wannabes like Christine O’Donnell do a great disservice to the modern women’s movement. But, I would argue, so does Ephron by not acknowledging that divorce in her era was about far more than women merely being pissed off and wanting to “find themselves.”

Once again, it seems, women are being pitted against each other. And we are doing a lot of the pitting ourselves.

Nothing new there, really. Save for the issue as to who gets to call herself a feminist these days.

In the October 2010 issue of Harper’s, Susan Faludi dissects the differences between the new and old feminists while providing a historical context, her thesis being that “while American feminism has long, and productively, concentrated on getting men to give women some of the power they used to give only to their sons, it hasn’t figured out how to pass power down from woman to woman, to bequeath authority to its progeny. Its inability to conceive of a succession has crippled women’s progress not just within the women’s movement but in every venue of American public life.”

Which is why women seem to be fighting the same old battles over and over. Many of them against ourselves.

In the Seventies, while many women passionately embraced Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room as a book that finally spoke to them as real people, others thought the book’s radical agenda and over-the-top story squelched all serious discussion. The naysayers lost: what French did was continue a dialogue that is still going on today. Because we need it to. I sincerely believe that women would love to be in the position of never having to consider feminism as a cause again–which, of course, would mean we had achieved true equality with men in terms of wages, rights, and society’s acceptance–but until that happens, the conversation must continue. And continue in a constructive, instructive way. Not with us at each other’s throats.

I was one of those women who grew up and came of sexual age in the early to mid-Seventies> Young women often aren’t interested in our stories and I can’t quite blame them, but they shouldn’t think that their sexual adventures or “liberation” is anything new. And like those of us who came earlier, they shouldn’t think that sexual freedom necessarily means equality. Our generation learned, sadly enough, that that freedom came with some very high prices. Yet, as Faludi points out, this issue divides older and newer feminists even now, and very much poses problems for those of us in the middle. As she writes,

“At the age of fifty-one, and by birth cohort a member of neither the second nor the third wave, I am not exempt. Sometimes I find myself in rooms where, by default and despite my years, I’m expected to represent the youthful feminist viewpoint because there’s no one younger around. More often, a middle-aged grumpiness tends to place me on the “old” side, as when I open a leading feminist work and find a prominent third-wave feminist defending her “extreme bikini wax” or read a feminist blog in which a young woman avers that “wearing a Wonderbra is a statement of empowerment” and expounds on the pleasures of “choosing between ‘apricot sundae’ and ‘mocha melt’ eye shadow.” Well, fine, I think. Who cares? When I first began writing about women’s rights nearly two decades ago, I liked to say that feminism was the simply worded sign hoisted by a little girl in the 1970 Women’s Strike for Equality: i am not a barbie doll. Now I’m not so sure.”

Faludi goes on to talk about the schism in today’s feminism and admits that it isn’t wholly responsible for the movement’s problems. But when we fight amongst ourselves we will, absolutely, get less done for all women.

Simply put, we need to figure out ways to work with our differences, as opposed to against them.
But the biggest single connector should be the notion that women’s rights and issues matter, not just to and for women, but to and for everyone.

There are those who argue that any woman can call herself a feminist, merely because she wants to. But I come down on Valenti’s side of the equation: anyone can call herself a feminist if she doesn’t advocate policies that infringe on the rights of other people, especially, but not particularly women. In other words, a feminist can be against abortion for herself personally, as long as she is not out there trying to get laws changed so that no one has a choice. In other words, a woman can call herself a feminist as long as she doesn’t summarily dismiss the accomplishments of women in favor of lesser achievements of men, and a woman can call herself a feminist as long as she doesn’t brand an entire generation of women who were trying mightily to make their way in a time more difficult for woman than we live in today with the broad brush of “irritable.” In fact, that word calls to mind the diagnoses of hysteria and other “women’s” complaints that physicians such as Silas Weir Mitchell used to keep women at home, in bed, and under the thumb of their men. Or, worse, rotting away in an institution.

If influential women like Ephron dismiss the anger of the second wave feminists as mere irritability, if conservative women co-opt the term feminist for an agenda which is anything but, and if young women persist in thinking that sexual freedom equals equality, we will be stuck where we are for a long time yet to come.