Feminism's Identity Crisis

The most effective backlash against feminism comes from within

Feminism and the careerism it entails are commonly regarded as a zero-sum game not just for women and men but for women and children as well, Ellen Levine believes: wage-earning mothers still tend to feel guilty about not being with their children and to worry that "the more women get ahead professionally, the more children will fall back." Their guilt does not seem to be assuaged by any number of studies showing that the children of wage-earning mothers fare as well as the children of full-time homemakers, Levine adds. It seems to dissipate only as children grow up and prosper.

Feminists who dismiss these worries as backlash risk trivializing the inevitable stresses confronting wage-earning mothers (even those with decent day care). Feminists who respond to these worries by suggesting that husbands should be more like wives and mothers are likely to be considered blind or hostile to presumptively natural sex differences that are still believed to underlie traditional gender roles.

To the extent that it advocates a revolution in gender roles, feminism also comes as a reproach to women who lived out the tradition, especially those who lived it out unhappily. Robin Morgan says, "A woman who's been unhappily married for forty years and complains constantly to her friends, saying 'I've got to get out of this,' might stand up on a talk show and say feminism is destroying the family."

The Wages of Equality

Ambivalence about equality sometimes seems to plague the feminist movement almost as much today as it did ten years ago, when it defeated the Equal Rights Amendment. Worth noting is that in the legal arena feminism has met with less success than the civil-rights movement. The power of the civil-rights movement in the 1960s was the power to demonstrate the gap between American ideals of racial equality and the American reality for African-Americans. We've never had the same professed belief in sexual equality: federal equal-employment law has always treated racial discrimination more severely than sex discrimination, and so has the Supreme Court. The Court has not extended to women the same constitutional protection it has extended to racial minorities, because a majority of justices have never rejected the notion that some degree of sex discrimination is only natural.

The widespread belief in equality demonstrated by polls is a belief in equality up to a point—the point where women are drafted and men change diapers. After thirty years of the contemporary women's movement, equal-rights feminism is still considered essentially abnormal. Ellen Levine notes that middle-class family women sometimes associate feminism with lesbianism, which has yet to gain middle-class respectability. Homophobia is not entirely respectable either, however, so it may not be expressed directly in polls or conversations; but it has always been a subtext of popular resistance to feminism. Feminists have alternately been accused of hating men and of wanting to be just like them.

There's some evidence that the fear of feminism as a threat to female sexuality may be lessening: 77 percent of women recently surveyed by Redbook answered "yes" to the question "Can a woman be both feminine and a feminist?" But they were answering a question in the abstract. When women talk about why they don't identify with feminists, they often talk about not wanting to lose their femininity. To the extent that an underlying belief in feminine virtues limits women to feminine roles, as it did a hundred years ago, this rejection of the feminist label is a rejection of full equality. In the long run, it matters what women call themselves.

Or does it? Ironically, many self-proclaimed feminists today express some of the same ambivalence about changing gender roles as the "I'm not a feminist, but..." women ("...but I believe in equal opportunity or family leave or reproductive choice"). The popular image of feminism as a more or less unified quest for androgynous equality, promoted by the feminists' nemesis Camille Paglia, is at least ten years out of date.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional, and a past recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. More

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic who has been a contributing editor of The Atlantic since 1991. She writes about law, liberty, feminism, religion and popular culture and has written eight books, including Worst InstinctsFree for All; Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials; and I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional. Kaminer worked as a staff attorney in the New York Legal Aid Society and in the New York City Mayor's Office and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1993. She is a renowned contrarian who has tackled the issues of censorship and pornography, feminism, pop psychology, gender roles and identities, crime and the criminal-justice system, and gun control. Her articles and reviews have appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The American Prospect, Dissent, The Nation, The Wilson Quarterly, Free Inquiry, and spiked-online.com. Her commentaries have aired on National Public Radio. She serves on the board of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the advisory boards of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the Secular Coalition for America, and is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

'Stop Telling Women to Smile'

An artist's campaign to end sexual harassment on the streets of NYC.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more


Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.


What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world



More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In