Feminism, Tradition, and the Path to Progress

by Janis Cortese

Who Is Defending the Roles of Women

It's become fashionable lately to accuse feminism of being anti-family, too wrapped up in man-hating, and disrespectful of the "traditional" values of womanhood, whatever that means. Obviously, the people who make these accusations have a very convenient memory, because if history can be believed, it has been the traditionalists who have thrown most of the roadblocks in the way of women pursuing "traditional" paths, and the feminists who have been most diligent at clearing them out.

It was feminists who fought for the vote so that women could affect positive change in the lives of poor people, minorities, and families. It was feminists who protested the liquor industry and drunkenness. The image of Carrie Nation breaking up taverns with her hatchet might be amusing now, but what those women were protesting was the (still) rampant problem of drunken wife-beating, and the drinking-up of family fortunes to leave children and women destitute.

It was feminists who instituted programs in inner cities for childcare, providing pure milk to women to raise babies, and educating women so that we could take our reproductive lives into our own hands, and have only the children we could care for.

It was feminists who pressed hard for laws that could be used to prosecute men who beat the hell out of their families; previously, it was simply seen as part of life. A man was the lord of his castle, and if that lord wanted to molest or render bloody his own children or wife, so be it.

It was feminists in the 1990s who pushed for the passage of the Family Medical Leave Act, insuring that anyone could take time off from their jobs to care for an ailing parent, spouse, or child, and not be fired or laid off.

By contrast, the traditionalists who claim to respect women's traditional roles are the ones who stood in the way of all of this -- the right wing fought bloody political battles to keep the FMLA at bay. They tried to prevent women from voting. They stand in the way of all reproductive education. They want stronger divorce laws to keep women in abusive marriages, and turn a blind eye to the sometime horrors of the home.

Who is the real defender of the traditional roles of women -- the right wing politician who mouths nice words on Mother's Day but tried to sink legislation to allow a woman to take care of a sick parent and keep her job? Or the "feminist" who questions the health and safety of the nuclear family but worked herself to the bone to insure the passage of the law that would let women carry out these nurturing roles without risking financial ruin?

Feminism's Traditionalist Cast: Ideological Gerrymandering

In fact, and here you'll probably find yourself in disagreement with me from here on in, I'm prepared to say that feminism has become a little too invested in traditionalism, in an effort to both widen the umbrella of women who can be defined as feminists, and to reassure people that we're really not all that scary.

I'm here to propose that a word that is defined so broadly as to encompass everyone is meaningless, and that not only are we that scary, but moreover we should be.

Feminism has put up with a tremendous amount of nastiness from the media and the right wing, who would have you believe that, contrary to the avalanche of family-oriented activism that I outline above, we are ready to dismantle the family and loose chaos upon the world. In reality, the only family we want to prevent is the one where the man is the lord of the manor, controls the lives of everyone there, and can beat or rape his wife or kids at will. Families where both partners are not equal are not families -- they are tiny serfdoms.

But the pressure is there. So, feeling under siege, we try to expand our ranks. And what's been happening, unfortunately, is that a lot of women are ready to define damned near anything as feminism just because a woman does it. Getting breast implants? Hey, great! Feminism is about choices, after all! Dropping out of medical school to raise your kids? Faaaabulous! Isn't it just peachy that you have the choice to do what you want with your life?

Who the hell are we kidding? Feminism is about giving women choices; it's not about never criticizing them. And I'm sorry, but no -- it's not feminist to get breast implants, barring something like a mastectomy where you're missing a body part for pete's sake. It's kowtowing and sad. And while you may want to celebrate your "choice" to let your degree gather dust so you can stay home 24/7 to raise Katelynn and Dylan, talk to me in 20 years and tell me how fulfilled and in touch with yourself you feel then.

Cone on, people. Since when did "feminism" mean that any choice a woman makes is automatically feminist? And if it is, then what does feminism mean? Whatever a woman does? What the hell is the use of the word if it's been defined so broadly as to lose any impact?

Feminism is not about doing whatever the hell you want and just redefining it as feminist. Feminism is not about doing the same old shit women have been doing for millennia and just saying it's feminist now. Whee! We're all feminists now! Feminism's won! Our lives haven't changed one iota, but we're all feminist, so everything's better!

Hey, why change the world when all you need to do is change people's perceptions of it? Changing the world is so hard, after all -- why not just remarket everything?

Hey wake up, people -- feminism means examining your life and making meaningful changes where you think you should. I'm sorry if this bugs you, but if you are a feminist or want to claim that mantle, then get off your lazy ass and start making those changes. Get your damned implants, but do not talk to me about how it's feminist; you're rationalizing, trying to justify what you did as feminist because you know damned well that it's self-absorbed. Hang your degree on the wall and try to stay at home for 20 years without your brain turning into farina, but do not call it feminist. It may be your life choice, but it ain't feminist. Feminism is about broadening choices. It may provide you with choices, but it isn't going to endow you with the wisdom to make the right ones. You can have a choice before you that was provided by feminism -- and still choose stupidly.

Feminism, if the word is to be defined at all, will of necessity exclude some women. And you know what? Too damned bad! Are we here to get something done, or to make everyone feel warm and fuzzy? Women are too invested in making everyone feel welcome and included as it is. And right now, I'm seeing a potentially earthshattering political movement declawing itself to keep from making anyone feel excluded. This isn't the junior high school cafeteria where you have to make sure to save everyone a seat or else they'll feel bad! This is a political movement, and if we let ourselves be drained of any well-defined direction or purpose for fear of hurting someone's feelings, we will get nowhere.

That Whoosh You Hear Is Feminism Being Sucked Backwards By 100 Years

And yes, feminism is scary. It's supposed to be. It's about examining one of the most deeply-rooted belief systems in the history of human society: the belief that women, simply by ourselves, are not full human beings. That belief has soaked into absolutely everything we do, every single institution that we have. All of it. You honestly think wringing that out isn't going to get up the nose of some powerful people who want to keep things as they are -- or just timid people who would rather suffer through the horrors of the present than risk change?

Feminism should be about change. And yet, lately, I hear attitudes from feminists that sound like they are at least 150 years old if not much, much older.

Talk to feminists about motherhood, and you'll get sanctimonious claptrap straight out of a Victorian marriage manual about how utterly central motherhood and birth is to the female experience, about how it's the point of a woman's life, and about how nothing you do matters as much as raising your kids. Nothing a woman does is as important as having babies. Centuries ago, when asked who the greatest woman who ever lived was, Napoleon was known to have snapped, "The one who has had the most children."

Ann Crittenden's soporific writings on motherhood claim that merely having reproduced grants mothers a special status "armed with a unique moral authority," and many so-called feminists praise her for it. 100 years ago, a Victorian marriage manual advised its readers that "M*O*T*H*E*R*H*O*O*D* is the crowning glory of a girl's life" and that the moral compass of any society was provided by its saintly and pedestal-inhabiting mothers.

What the hell are we doing? We're ignoring the increasing numbers of women who are not marrying and not having kids in favor of supporting any paradigm that cast all women as mothers or potential mothers, and nothing more. Feminism is running a serious risk of being no place for an iconoclastic woman who wants to do things differently. Far from being against tradition, feminism is cementing it in place.

"But that's the way it is!" I hear you cry. "Feminism has to work for mother's rights because, like it or not, women do most of the childcare and that's just how it is!"

Congratulations. You've just molded Feminism into the Patriarchy's co-dependent spouse. "It's not fair, but you just have to endure and live with it, and try to work around it, because it (he?) will never change." What happened to the revolution that you people wanted? You didn't get it in 20 years' time, so you gave up? The state didn't wither away in 1969, so you figure nothing'll ever happen. Ignore the statistics that show that more and more young women are opting not only to have no kids, but not to marry at all. Ignore the way that women have passed men in numbers of four-year degrees awarded. Ignore these trends, and keep the pooper-scooper in Feminism's hands, so she can better clean up the shit dropped out of Patriarchy's ass as he bulldozes everything in sight. Of course your husband won't help around the house, dearie. But you don't have to expect or ask him to change -- feminism will push laws through for you that enable you to keep your job and still work less than your childless employees, who will pick up his slack for you.

In 1900, it was the poorer, darker maid-of-all-work who could be relied upon to pick up the slack that the Victorian housewife's husband wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole. Now, it's the (female) coworkers who cover for you and the (female) ranks of feminism who are picking up his slack. You're still doing nothing about the problem except turning to another woman to help out because you married a dud and underestimated the workload of raising kids. His laziness has become some other woman's problem, yet again.

Another way that this trend has manifested itself came up when I was discussing entertainment with other women who define themselves as feminists. "What movies do you like, what TV shows?" That sort of thing.

You would not believe the number of movies that were brought up about women getting raped, beaten until they're black and blue, abandoned, abused, misused, and worked to early death. It seems that in order to make a movie feminist, all you have to do is show the heroine being raped. Now, the problem I see is that this is a great way to make a movie anti-woman as well. I'm sorry, but I don't see the difference between the slasher movie showing the sexed-up teenager being raped, and the "feminist" movie about the trials and tribulations of being female doing the same thing.

Not only are today's feminists consulting the Victorian marriage manual for attitudes about childrearing, but they're closing the book and going to the cinema for the latest installments of "The Perils of Pauline." We truly are 100 years in the past!

"But that's what women's lives are like!" I hear you object. "Women risk that sort of thing all the time!"

How clueless do you think I am? Do you not see these tits on the front of me? Do you think I don't know what it's like? I'm sick of having my face rubbed in it! No more movies about Valerie Bertinelli or Jaclyn Smith marrying an abusive cop, getting cancer, having her baby kidnapped, and killing cop-hubby in self-defense, then getting raped in jail. Oh, and getting amnesia. And one more thing -- no more mute women. No more mute women! Don't give me that crap about how feminist a movie "The Piano" was. I want to see Xena pick up that piano and throw it at somebody.

I'm sick of it. Sick up to here. No more victims. I'm tired of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I want "Spartacus."

Changing Women's Roles For Good

There has always been a question rumbling through the ranks of feminism that people ask, but no one has the answer to. Why is it that changes made to women's roles never seem to stick? We're not the first culture to squat over handmirrors and "discover" the female orgasm. Naomi Wolf goes through that quite well in her book "Promiscuities." We're not the first generation to have women working and making our own money. Until the 1960s, the women of ancient Egypt had more rights than we did! Why do these changes never seem to stick without major effort?

It's always assumed that there are forces outside of feminism who work to snap the rubberband back, who work against the advances we've made and unravel them. I'm proposing that, very often, feminism undoes its own advances by:

These are serious problems. I don't know what the solutions are. But I do know that pursuing only woman-oriented goals that have to do with children is not the path. Embracing images of women who suffer instead of women who break heads is not the path. Opening our minds to the point where our brains fall out is not the path.

We are skittering backwards and calling it progress. It's not due to young teenagers wearing glitter eyeshadow and -- thunderously stupid and sexist though they are -- it's not due to Britney Spears and MTV. It's not the fault of the generation coming up, the teenagers and eary-twenty-somethings that haven't yet taken the reins of power in any way. It's the fault of the generation that's presently in the driver's seat of feminism, the generation of women who are trying to softpedal the potential impact of feminism by claiming it's about nothing more threatening than babies and breast implants and the "freedom" to stay the hell home and give up your career, the freedom to be mediocre and make the same mistakes that brought feminism to the fore fifty years ago with the publication of "The Feminine Mystique." It sickens me to see these women praising the Victorian model of Ever-Nurturing Moral Mommy To The World as if it's feminist, then turning around and blaming the next generation of teenaged girls for the fact that the advances made by women never seem to stick.

That's a polite way of saying that I'm sick of listening to 40 year old women bitching about how unenlightened today's teenaged girls are, then in their next breath talking about how motherhood should be the center of feminism becuase mothers are special sainted people with knowledge beyond the ken of mere mortals (and certainly women such as myself who have no kids and are hence classifiable as nothing but dickless men).

Feminism shouldn't be same-old-same-old. Feminism is revolutionary. And feminism is scary. Real change is always scary. And that's the way it should be.

Copyright © 2001 by Janis Cortese

07/04/07 at 16:28