Feminism's Identity Crisis

The most effective backlash against feminism comes from within

In the 1980s this debate about sex and law became a cottage industry for feminist academics, especially post-modernists who could take both sides in the debate, in celebration of paradox and multiculturalism. On one side, essentialism—a belief in natural, immutable sex differences—is anathema to postmodernists, for whom sexuality itself, along with gender, is a "social construct." Sensitivity to race-and class-based differences among women also militates against a belief in a monolithic feminine culture: from a postmodern perspective, there is no such category as "woman." Taken to its logical conclusion, this emphasis on the fragmentation of the body politic makes postmodern feminism an oxymoron: feminism and virtually all our laws against sex discrimination reflect the presumption that women do in fact constitute a political category. On the other side, to the extent that postmodernism includes multiculturalism, it endorses tribalism, or identity politics, which for some feminists entails a strong belief in "women's ways." Thus the theoretical rejection of essentialism is matched by an attitudinal embrace of it.

Outside academia, debates about sex and justice are sometimes equally confused and confusing, given the political and ideological challenges of affirmative-action programs and the conflicting demands on women with both career aspirations and commitments to family life. Feminists often have to weigh the short-term benefits of protecting wage-earning mothers (by mommy-tracking, for example) against the long-term costs of a dual labor market. Sometimes ideological clarity is lost in complicated strategy debates. Sometimes ideological conflicts are put aside when feminists share a transcendent social goal, such as suffrage or reproductive choice. And sometimes one ideological strain of feminism dominates another. In the 1970s equal-rights feminism was ascendent. The 1980s saw a revival of protectionism.

Equal-rights feminism couldn't last. It was profoundly disruptive for women as well as men. By questioning long-cherished notions about sex, it posed unsettling questions about selfhood. It challenged men and women to shape their own identities without resort to stereotypes. It posed particular existential challenges to women who were accustomed to knowing themselves through the web of familial relations. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton observed more than a hundred years ago, equal-rights feminism challenges women to acknowledge that they are isolated individuals as well. Stressing that like "every human soul" women "must make the voyage of life alone," Stanton, the mother of seven and a political organizer who spent most of her life in crowds, exhorted women to recognize the "solitude of self."

This emphasis on individual autonomy didn't just scare many women; it struck them as selfish—as it might be if it were unaccompanied by an ongoing commitment to family and community. Twenty years ago feminists made the mistake of denigrating homemaking and volunteer work. It's hard to imagine how else they might have made their case. Still, the feminist attack on volunteering was simplistic and ill-informed. Feminists might have paid attention to the historical experiences of middle-class African-American women combining paid work, volunteering, and family life. They might have paid attention to the critical role played by the volunteer tradition in the nineteenth-century feminist movement. Women's sense of their maternal responsibilities at home and in the wider world was at the core of their shared social conscience, which feminists ignored at their peril. Feminism will not succeed with American women, as Constance Buchanan notes, until it offers them a vision that reconciles the assertion of equal rights with the assumption of social responsibilities.

That's the vision Hillary Clinton is striving to embody, as a family woman and a feminist, an advocate of civil rights and a preacher of a caring and sharing politics of meaning. I wish her luck: the difficulty she encountered during the campaign persuading people that she has a maternal side reflects the strong popular presumption that a commitment to equality is incompatible with a willingness to nurture.

We should know better. In fact millions of American women working outside the home are exercising rights and assuming responsibilities—for better or worse, that's one of the legacies of feminism. Women who sought equal rights in the 1970s have not abandoned their families, like Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer as anti-feminists predicted they would. Instead they have overworked themselves, acting as breadwinners and primary caretakers, too. Given the absence of social and institutional support—family leave and day care—it's not surprising that women would turn for sustenance to traditional notions of sex difference. The belief that they were naturally better suited to child care than men would relieve them of considerable anger toward their husbands. As Victorian women invoked maternal virtue to justify their participation in the public sphere, so contemporary American women have used it to console themselves for the undue burdens they continue to bear in the private one.

Notions of immutable sex differences explained a range of social inequities—the plight of displaced homemakers, the persistence of sexual violence, the problems of women working double shifts within and outside the home. The general failure of hard-won legal rights to ensure social justice (which plagued civil-rights activists as well as feminists) might have been considered a failure of government—to enforce civil-rights laws and make them matter or to provide social services. It might have been considered a failure of community—our collective failure to care for one another. Instead it was roundly condemned as a failure of feminism, because it provided convenient proof of what many men and women have always believed—that biology is destiny after all. Equal-rights feminism fell out of favor, even among feminists, because it made people terribly uncomfortable and because legal rights were not accompanied by a fair division of familial and communal responsibilities.

Feminism Succumbs to Femininity

The feminist drive for equal rights was supposed to have been revitalized last year, and it's true that women were politically activated and made significant political gains. It's clear that women are moving, but in what direction? What is the women's movement all about?

Vying for power today are poststructural feminists (dominant in academia in recent years), political feminists (office-holders and lobbyists), different-voice feminists, separatist feminists (a small minority), pacifist feminists, lesbian feminists, careerist feminists, liberal feminists (who tend also to be political feminists), anti-porn feminists, eco-feminists, and womanists. These are not, of course, mutually exclusive categories, and this is hardly an exhaustive list. New Age feminists and goddess worshippers widen the array of alternative truths. And the newest category of feminism, personal-development feminism, led nominally by Gloria Steinem, puts a popular feminist spin on deadeningly familiar messages about recovering from addiction and abuse, liberating one's inner child, and restoring one's self-esteem.

The marriage of feminism and the phenomenally popular recovery movement is arguably the most disturbing (and potentially influential) development in the feminist movement today. It's based partly on a shared concern about child abuse, nominally a left-wing analogue to right-wing anxiety about the family. There's an emerging alliance of anti-pornography and anti-violence feminists with therapists who diagnose and treat child abuse, including "ritual abuse" and "Satanism" (often said to be linked to pornography). Feminism is at risk of being implicated in the unsavory business of hypnotizing suspected victims of abuse to help them "retrieve" their buried childhood memories. Gloria Steinem has blithely praised the important work of therapists in this field without even a nod to the potential for, well, abuse when unhappy, suggestible people who are angry at their parents are exposed to suggestive hypnotic techniques designed to uncover their histories of victimization.

But the involvement of some feminists in the memory-retrieval industry is only one manifestation of a broader ideological threat posed to feminism by the recovery movement. Recovery, with its absurdly broad definitions of addiction and abuse encourages people to feel fragile and helpless. Parental insensitivity is classed as child abuse, along with parental violence, because all suffering is said to be equal (meaning entirely subjective); but that's appropriate only if all people are so terribly weak that a cross word inevitably has the destructive force of a blow. Put very simply, women need a feminist movement that makes them feel strong.

Enlisting people in a struggle for liberation without exaggerating the ways in which they're oppressed is a challenge for any civil-rights movement. It's a particularly daunting one for feminists, who are still arguing among themselves about whether women are oppressed more by nature or by culture. For some feminists, strengthening women is a matter of alerting them to their natural vulnerabilities.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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