My favorite political moment of the 1960s was a Black Panther rally in a quadrangle of Smith College on a luxuriant spring day. Ramboesgue in berets and ammunition belts, several young black males exhorted hundreds of young white females to contribute money to Bobby Seale's defense fund. I stood at the back of the crowd watching yarn ties on blonde ponytails bobbing up and down while the daughters of CEOs nodded in agreement with the Panthers' attack on the ruling class.
It was all so girlish—or boyish, depending on your point of view. Whatever revolution was fomenting posed no apparent threat to gender roles. Still, women who were not particularly sensitive to chauvinism in the counterculture or the typical fraternity planned to attend graduate or professional school and pursue careers that would have been practically unthinkable for them ten years earlier. Feminism was altering their lives as much as draft avoidance was altering the lives of their male counterparts.
Today, three decades of feminism and one Year of the Woman later, a majority of American women agree that feminism has altered their lives for the better. In general, polls conducted over the past three years indicate strong majority support for feminist ideals. But the same polls suggest that a majority of women hesitate to associate themselves with the movement. As Karlyn Keene, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has observed, more than three quarters of American women support efforts to "strengthen and change women's status in society," yet only a minority, a third at most, identify themselves as feminists.
Many feminists take comfort in these polls, inferring substantial public support for economic and political equality, and dismissing women's wariness of the feminist label as a mere image problem (attributed to unfair media portrayals of feminists as a strident minority of frustrated women). But the polls may also adumbrate unarticulated ambivalence about feminist ideals, particularly with respect to private life. If widespread support for some measure of equality reflects the way women see, or wish to see, society, their unwillingness to identify with feminism reflects the way they see themselves, or wish to be seen by others.
To the extent that it challenges discrimination and the political exclusion of women, feminism is relatively easy for many women to embrace. It appeals to fundamental notions of fairness; it suggests that social structures must change but that individuals, particularly women, may remain the same. For many women, feminism is simply a matter of mommy-tracking, making sure that institutions accommodate women's familial roles, which are presumed to be essentially immutable. But to the extent that feminism questions those roles and the underlying assumptions about sexuality, it requires profound individual change as well, posing an unsettling challenge that well-adjusted people instinctively avoid. Why question norms of sex and character to which you've more or less successfully adapted?
Of course, the social and individual changes demanded by feminism are not exactly divisible. Of course, the expansion of women's professional roles and political power affects women's personality development. Still, many people manage to separate who they are in the workplace from who they are in bed, which is why feminism generates so much cognitive dissonance. As it addresses and internalizes this dissonance and women's anxiety about the label "feminism," as it embarks on a "third wave," the feminist movement today may suffer less from a mere image problem than from a major identity crisis.
It's difficult, of course, to generalize about how millions of American women imagine feminism and what role it plays in their lives. All one can say with certitude is that different women define and relate to feminism differently. The rest—much of this essay—is speculation, informed by conversations with editors of women's magazines (among the most reliable speculators about what women want), polling data, and ten years of experience studying feminist issues.
Robin Morgan, the editor in chief of Ms., and Ellen Levine, the editor in chief of Redbook, two veterans of women's magazines and feminism, offer different views of feminism's appeal, each of which seems true, in the context of their different constituencies. Morgan sees a resurgent feminist movement and points to the formation of new feminist groups on campus and intensified grass-roots activity by women addressing a range of issues, from domestic violence to economic revitalization. Ellen Levine, however, believes that for the middle-class family women who read Redbook (the average reader is a thirty-nine-year-old wage-earning mother), feminism is "a non-issue." She says, "They don't think about it; they don't talk about it." They may not even be familiar with the feminist term of art "glass ceiling," which feminists believe has passed into the vernacular. And they seem not to be particularly interested in politics. The surest way not to sell Redbook is to put a woman politician on the cover: the January, 1993, issue of Good Housekeeping, with Hillary Clinton on the cover, did poorly at the newsstands, according to Levine.
Editors at more upscale magazines—Mirabella, Harper's Bazaar, and Glamour—are more upbeat about their readers' interest in feminism, or at least their identification with feminist perspectives. Gay Bryant, Mirabella's editor in chief, says, "We assume our readers are feminists with a small 'f.' We think of them as strong, independent, smart women; we think of them as pro-woman, although not all of them would define themselves as feminists politically." Betsy Carter, the executive editor of Harper's Bazaar, suggests that feminism has been assimilated into the culture of the magazine: "Feminism is a word that has been so absorbed in our consciousness that I don't isolate it. Asking me if I believe in feminism is like asking me if I believe in integration." Carter says, however, that women tend to be interested in the same stories that interest men: "Except for subjects like fly-fishing, it's hard to label something a man's story or a woman's story." In fact, she adds, "it seems almost obsolete to talk about women's magazines." Carter, a former editor at Esquire, recalls that Esquire's readership was 40 percent female, which indicated to her that "women weren't getting what they needed from the women's magazines."
Ruth Whitney, the editor in chief of Glamour might disagree. She points out that Glamour runs monthly editorials with a decidedly "feminist" voice that infuses the magazine. Glamour readers may or may not call themselves feminists, she says, but "I would call Glamour a mainstream feminist magazine, in its editorials, features, fashions, and consumerism." Glamour is also a pro-choice magazine; as Whitney stresses, it has long published pro-choice articles—more than any other mainstream women's magazine, according to her. And it is a magazine for which women seem to constitute the norm: "We use the pronoun 'she' when referring to a doctor, lawyer, whomever, and that does not go unnoticed by our readers."
Some women will dispute one underlying implication of Betsy Carter's remarks—that feminism involves assimilation, the merger of male and female spheres of interest. Some will dispute any claims to feminism by any magazine that features fashion. But whether Ms. readers would call Harper's Bazaar, Mirabella, and Glamour feminist magazines, or magazines with feminist perspectives, their readers apparently do, if Betsy Carter, Gay Bryant, and Ruth Whitney know their audiences.
Perhaps the confident feminist self-image of these upscale magazines, as distinct from the cautious exploration of women's issues in the middle-class Redbook, confirms a canard about feminism—that it is the province of upper-income urban professional women. But Ms. is neither upscale nor fashionable, and it's much too earnest to be sophisticated. Feminism—or, at least, support for feminist ideals—is not simply a matter of class, or even race.
Susan McHenry, a senior editor at Working Woman and the former executive editor of Emerge, a new magazine for middle-class African-Americans, senses in African-American women readers "universal embrace of women's rights and the notion that the women's movement has been helpful." Embrace of the women's movement, however, is equivocal. "If you start talking about the women's movement, you hear a lot about what we believe and what white women believe."
For many black women, devoting time and energy to feminist causes or feminist groups may simply not be a priority. Black women "feel both racism and sexism," McHenry believes, but they consider the fight for racial justice their primary responsibility and assume that white women will pay primary attention to gender issues. Leslie Adamson, the executive secretary to the president of Radcliffe College, offers a different explanation. She doesn't, in fact, "feel" sexism and racism equally: "Sex discrimination makes me indignant. Racial discrimination makes me enraged." Adamson is sympathetic to feminism and says that she has always "had a feminist mind." Still, she does not feel particularly oppressed as a woman. "I can remember only two instances of sex discrimination in my life," she says. "Once when I was in the sixth grade and wanted to take shop and they made me take home economics; once when I visited my husband's relatives in Trinidad and they wouldn't let me talk about politics. Racism has always affected me on a regular basis." Cynthia Bell, the communications director for Greater Southeast Healthcare System, in Washington, D.C., offers a similar observation: "It wasn't until I graduated from college that I encountered sexual discrimination. I remember racial discrimination from the time I remember being myself."
Black women who share feminist ideals but associate feminism with white women sometimes prefer to talk about "womanism," a term endorsed by such diverse characters as Alice Walker (who is credited with coining it) and William Safire. Susan McHenry prefers to avoid using the term "women's movement" and talks instead about "women moving." She identifies with women "who are getting things done, regardless of what they call themselves." But unease with the term "feminism" has been a persistent concern in the feminist movement, whether the unease is attributed to racial divisions or to residual resistance to feminist ideals. It is, in fact, a complicated historical phenomenon that reflects feminism's successes as well as its failures.
That feminism has the power to expand women's aspirations and improve their lives without enlisting them as card-carrying feminists is a tribute to its strength as a social movement. Feminism is not dependent on ideological purity (indeed, it has always been a mixture of conflicting ideologies) or any formal organizational structure. In the nineteenth century feminism drew upon countless unaffiliated voluntary associations of women devoted to social reform or self-improvement. Late-twentieth-century feminism has similarly drawn upon consciousness-raising groups, professional associations, community-action groups, and the increased work-force participation of middle-class women, wrought partly by economic forces and a revolution in birth control. Throughout its 150-year history feminism has insinuated itself into the culture as women have sought to improve their status and increase their participation in the world outside the home. If women are moving in a generally feminist direction—toward greater rights and a fairer apportionment of social responsibilities—does it matter what they call themselves?
In the nineteenth century many, maybe most, women who took part in the feminist movement saw themselves as paragons of femininity. The great historic irony of feminism is that the supposed feminine virtues that justified keeping women at home—sexual purity, compassion, and a talent for nurturance—eventually justified their release from the home as well. Women were "the less tainted half of the race," Frances Willard, the president of the National Woman's Christian Temperance Union, declared, and thus were the moral guardians of society.
But in the long run, identifying feminism with femininity offered women limited liberation. The feminine weaknesses that were presumed to accompany feminine virtues justified the two-tier labor force that kept women out of executive positions and political office and out of arduous, high-paying manual-labor jobs (although women were never considered too weak to scrub floors). By using femininity as their passport to the public sphere, women came to be typecast in traditional feminine roles that they are still playing and arguing about today. Are women naturally better suited to parenting than men? Are men naturally better suited to waging war? Are women naturally more cooperative and compassionate, more emotive and less analytic, than men?
A great many American women (and men) still seem to answer these questions in the affirmative, as evidenced by public resistance to drafting women and the private reluctance of women to assign, and men to assume, equal responsibility for child care. Feminism, however, is popularly deemed to represent an opposing belief that men and women are equally capable of raising children and equally capable of waging war. Thus feminism represents, in the popular view, a rejection of femininity.
Feminists have long fought for day-care and family-leave programs, but they still tend to be blamed for the work-family conundrum. Thirty-nine percent of women recently surveyed by Redbook said that feminism had made it "harder" for women to balance work and family life. Thirty-two percent said that feminism made "no difference" to women's balancing act. This may reflect a failure of feminists to make child care an absolutely clear priority. It may also reflect the association of feminism with upper-income women like Zoe Baird, who can solve their child-care problems with relative ease. But, as Zoe Baird discovered, Americans are still ambivalent about women's roles within and outside the home.
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."
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.
Central to the dominant strain of feminism today is the belief, articulated by the psychologist Carol Gilligan, that women share a different voice and different moral sensibilities. Gilligan's work—notably In a Different Voice (1982)—has been effectively attacked by other feminist scholars, but criticisms of it have not been widely disseminated, and it has passed with ease into the vernacular. In a modern-day version of Victorian True Womanhood, feminists and also some anti-feminists pay tribute to women's superior nurturing and relational skills and their general "ethic of caring." Sometimes feminists add parenthetically that differences between men and women may well be attributable to culture, not nature. But the qualification is moot. Believers in gender difference tend not to focus on changing the cultural environment to free men and women from stereotypes, as equal-rights feminists did twenty years ago; instead they celebrate the feminine virtues.
It was probably inevitable that the female solidarity at the base of the feminist movement would foster female chauvinism. All men are jerks, I might agree on occasion, over a bottle of wine. But that's an attitude, not an analysis, and only a small minority of separatist feminists turn it into an ideology. Gilliganism addresses the anxiety that is provoked by that attitude—the anxiety about compromising their sexuality which many feminists share with nonfeminists.
Much as they dislike admitting it, feminists generally harbor or have harbored categorical anger toward men. Some would say that such anger is simply an initial stage in the development of a feminist consciousness, but it is also an organizing tool and a fact of life for many women who believe they live in a sexist world. And whether or not it is laced with anger, feminism demands fundamental changes in relations between the sexes and the willingness of feminists to feel like unnatural women and be treated as such. For heterosexual women, feminism can come at a cost. Carol Gilligan's work valorizing women's separate emotional sphere helped make it possible for feminists to be angry at men and challenge their hegemony without feeling unwomanly. Nancy Rosenblum, a professor of political science at Brown University, says that Gilliganism resolved the conflict for women between feminism and femininity by "de-eroticizing it." Different-voice ideology locates female sexuality in maternity, as did Victorian visions of the angel in the house. In its simplest form, the idealization of motherhood reduces popular feminism to the notion that women are nicer than men.
Women are also widely presumed to be less warlike than men. "Women bring love; that's our role," one woman explained at a feminist rally against the Gulf War which I attended; it seemed less like a rally than a revival meeting. Women shared their need "to connect" and "do relational work." They recalled Jane Addams, the women's peace movement between the two world wars, and the Ban the Bomb marches of thirty years ago. They suggested that pacifism was as natural to women as child-birth, and were barely disconcerted by the presence of women soldiers in the Gulf. Military women were likely to be considered self-hating or male-identified or the hapless victims of a racist, classist economy, not self-determined women with minds and voices all their own. The war was generally regarded as an allegory of male supremacy; the patriarch Bush was the moral equivalent of the patriarch Saddam Hussein. If only men would listen to women, peace, like a chador, would enfold us.
In part, the trouble with True Womanhood is its tendency to substitute sentimentality for thought. Constance Buchanan, an associate dean of the Harvard Divinity School, observes that feminists who believe women will exercise authority differently often haven't done the hard work of figuring out how they will exercise authority at all. "Many feminists have an almost magical vision of institutional change," Buchanan says. "They've focused on gaining access but haven't considered the scale and complexity of modern institutions, which will not necessarily change simply by virtue of their presence."
Feminists who claim that women will "make a difference" do, in fact, often argue their case simply by pointing to the occasional female manager who works by consensus, paying little attention to hierarchy and much attention to her employees' feelings—assuming that such women more accurately represent their sex than women who favor unilateral decision-making and tend not to nurture employees. In other words, different-voice feminists often assume their conclusions: the many women whose characters and behavior contradict traditional models of gender difference (Margaret Thatcher is the most frequently cited example) are invariably dismissed as male-identified.
Confronted with the challenge of rationalizing and accommodating profound differences among women, in both character and ideology, feminism has never been a tranquil movement, or a cheerfully anarchic one. It has always been plagued by bitter civil wars over conflicting ideas about sexuality and gender which lead to conflicting visions of law and social policy. If men and women are naturally and consistently different in terms of character, temperament, and moral sensibility, then the law should treat them differently, as it has through most of our history, with labor legislation that protects women, for example, or with laws preferring women in custody disputes: special protection for women, not equal rights, becomes a feminist goal. (Many feminists basically agree with Marilyn Quayle's assertion that women don't want to be liberated from their essential natures.) But if men and women do not conform to masculine and feminine character models, if sex is not a reliable predictor of behavior, then justice requires a sex-neutral approach to law which accommodates different people's different characters and experiences (the approach championed by Ruth Bader Ginsburg twenty years ago).
In academia this has been dubbed the "sameness-difference" debate, though no one on either side is suggesting that men and women are the same. Advocates of laws protecting women suggest that men and women tend to differ from each other in predictable ways, in accord with gender stereotypes. Equal-rights advocates suggest that men and women differ unpredictably and that women differ from one another unpredictably.
It's fair to say that both sides in this debate are operating in the absence of conclusive scientific evidence confirming or denying the existence of biologically based, characterological sex differences. But this is a debate less about science than about law. Even if we could compromise, and agree that sex and gender roles reflect a mixture of natural and cultural programming, we'd still have to figure out not only what is feasible for men and women but also what is just. If there are natural inequities between the sexes, it is hardly the business of law to codify them.
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.
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.
There has always been a strain of feminism that presents women as frail and naturally victimized. As it was a hundred years ago, feminist victimism is today most clearly expressed in sexuality debates—about pornography, prostitution, rape, and sexual harassment. Today sexual violence is a unifying focal point for women who do and women who do not call themselves feminists: 84 percent of women surveyed by Redbook considered "fighting violence against women" to be "very important." (Eighty-two percent rated workplace equality and 54 percent rated abortion rights as very important.) Given this pervasive, overriding concern about violence and our persistent failure to address it effectively, victimism is likely to become an important organizing tool for feminism in the 1990s.
Feminist discussions of sexual offenses often share with the recovery movement the notion that, again, there are no objective measures of suffering: all suffering is said to be equal, in the apparent belief that all women are weak. Wage-earning women testify to being "disabled" by sexist remarks in the workplace. College women testify to the trauma of being fondled by their dates. The term "date rape," like the term "addiction," no longer has much literal, objective meaning. It tends to be used figuratively, as a metaphor signifying that all heterosexual encounters are inherently abusive of women. The belief that in a male-dominated culture that has "normalized" rape, "yes" can never really mean "yes" has been popularized by the anti-pornography feminists Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon. (Dworkin devoted an entire book to the contention that intercourse is essentially a euphemism for rape.) But only five years ago Dworkin and MacKinnon were leaders of a feminist fringe. Today, owing partly to the excesses of multiculturalism and the exaltation of victimization, they're leaders in the feminist mainstream.
Why is feminism helping to make women feel so vulnerable! Why do some young women on Ivy League campuses, among the most privileged people on the globe, feel oppressed? Why does feminist victimology seem so much more pervasive among middle-and upper-class whites than among lower-income women, and girls, of color? Questions like these need to be aired by feminists. But in some feminist circles it is heresy to suggest that there are degrees of suffering and oppression, which need to be kept in perspective. It is heresy to suggest that being raped by your date may not be as traumatic or terrifying as being raped by a stranger who breaks into your bedroom in the middle of the night. It is heresy to suggest that a woman who has to listen to her colleagues tell stupid sexist jokes has a lesser grievance than a woman who is physically accosted by her supervisor. It is heresy, in general, to question the testimony of self-proclaimed victims of date rape or harassment, as it is heresy in a twelve-step group to question claims of abuse. All claims of suffering are sacred and presumed to be absolutely true. It is a primary article of faith among many feminists that women don't lie about rape, ever; they lack the dishonesty gene. Some may call this feminism, but it looks more like femininity to me.
Blind faith in women's pervasive victimization also looks a little like religion. "Contemporary feminism is a new kind of religion," Camille Paglia complains, overstating her case with panache. But if her metaphor begs to be qualified, it offers a nugget of truth. Feminists choose among competing denominations with varying degrees of passion, and belief; what is gospel to one feminist is a working hypothesis to another. Still, like every other ideology and "ism"—from feudalism to capitalism to communism to Freudianism—feminism is for some a revelation. Insights into the dynamics of sexual violence are turned into a metaphysic. Like people in recovery who see addiction lurking in all our desires, innumerable feminists see men's oppression of women in all our personal and social relations. Sometimes the pristine earnestness of this theology is unrelenting. Feminism lacks a sense of black humor.
Of course, the emerging orthodoxy about victimization does not infect all or even most feminist sexuality debates. Of course, many feminists harbor heretical thoughts about lesser forms of sexual misconduct. But few want to be vilified for trivializing sexual violence and collaborating in the abuse of women.
The example of Camille Paglia is instructive. She is generally considered by feminists to be practically pro-rape, because she has offered this advice to young women: don't get drunk at fraternity parties, don't accompany boys to their rooms, realize that sexual freedom entails sexual risks, and take some responsibility for your behavior. As Paglia says, this might once have been called common sense (it's what some of our mothers told us); today it's called blaming the victim.
Paglia is right: it ought to be possible to condemn date rape without glorifying the notion that women are helpless to avoid it. But not everyone can risk dissent. A prominent feminist journalist who expressed misgivings to me about the iconization of Anita Hill chooses not to be identified. Yet Anita Hill is a questionable candidate for feminist sainthood, because she was, after all, working for Clarence Thomas voluntarily, apparently assisting him in what feminists and other civil-rights activists have condemned as the deliberate nonenforcement of federal equal-employment laws. Was she too hapless to know better? Feminists are not supposed to ask.
It is, however, not simply undue caution or peer pressure that squelches dissent among feminists. Many are genuinely ambivalent about choosing sides in sexuality debates. It is facile, in the context of the AIDS epidemic, to dismiss concern about date rape as "hysteria." And it takes hubris (not an unmitigated fault) to suggest that some claims of victimization are exaggerated, when many are true. The victimization of women as a class by discriminatory laws and customs, and a collective failure to take sexual violence seriously, are historical reality. Even today women are being assaulted and killed by their husbands and boyfriends with terrifying regularity. When some feminists overdramatize minor acts of sexual misconduct or dogmatically insist that we must always believe the woman, it is sometimes hard to blame them, given the historical presumption that women lie about rape routinely, that wife abuse is a marital squabble, that date rape and marital rape are not real rape, and that sexual harassment is cute.
Feminists need critics like Paglia who are not afraid to be injudicious. Paglia's critiques of feminism are, however, flawed by her limited knowledge of feminist theory. She doesn't even realize what she has in common with feminists she disdains—notably Carol Gilligan and the attorney and anti-pornography activist Catharine MacKinnon. Both Paglia and MacKinnon suggest that sexual relations are inextricably bound up with power relations; both promote a vision of male sexuality as naturally violent and cruel. But while Paglia celebrates sexual danger, MacKinnon wants to legislate even the thought of it away. Both Paglia and Gilligan offer idealized notions of femininity. But Gilligan celebrates gender stereotypes while Paglia celebrates sex archetypes. Paglia also offers a refreshingly tough, erotic vision of female sexuality to counteract the pious maternalism of In a Different Voice.
To the extent that there's a debate between Paglia and the feminist movement, it's not a particularly thoughtful one, partly because it's occurring at second hand, in the media. There are thoughtful feminist debates being conducted in academia, but they're not widely heard. Paglia is highly critical of feminist academics who don't publish in the mainstream; but people have a right to choose their venues, and besides, access to the mainstream press is not easily won. Still, their relative isolation is a problem for feminist scholars who want to influence public policy. To reach a general audience they have to depend on journalists to draw upon and sometimes appropriate their work.
In the end feminism, like other social movements, is dependent on the vagaries of the marketplace. It's not that women perceive feminism just the way Time and Newsweek present it to them. They have direct access only to the kind and quantity of feminist speech deemed marketable. Today the concept of a feminist movement is considered to have commercial viability once again. The challenge now is to make public debates about feminist issues as informed as they are intense.
It's not surprising that we haven't achieved equality; we haven't even defined it. Nearly thirty years after the onset of the modern feminist movement, we still have no consensus on what nature dictates to men and women and demands of law. Does equality mean extending special employment rights to pregnant women, or limiting the Sixth Amendment rights of men standing trial for rape, or suspending the First Amendment rights of men who read pornography? Nearly thirty years after the passage of landmark federal civil-rights laws, we still have no consensus on the relationship of individual rights to social justice. But, feminists might wonder, why did rights fall out of favor with progressives just as women were in danger of acquiring them?
The most effective backlash against feminism almost always comes from within, as women either despair of achieving equality or retreat from its demands. The confident political resurgence of women today will have to withstand a resurgent belief in women's vulnerabilities. Listening to the sexuality debates, I worry that women feel so wounded. Looking at feminism, I wonder at the public face of femininity.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.