“You’re a feminist? But you’re so…calm!”
A male college student of mine said that to me years ago, when we were discussing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s brilliant novella The Yellow Wallpaper, in which the female narrator slowly goes mad, due in large degree to the misogyny of the world around her.
I’ve never forgotten that comment, for several reasons, not the least of which is that no one has ever, before or since, accused me of being calm. But his shock about the f-word has stayed with me too, because you’d have thought that by 1994, when I was teaching that class, “feminism” would no longer be associated with hysteria.
If it weren’t so sad, it would be almost funny, the way in which the stereotypes of feminists have remained the same for more than a century: a feminist is a shrill, man-hating, emasculating, humorless, ugly bitch with no fashion sense.
Wouldn’t you think we’d have come just a little further, baby?
And yet clearly, we haven’t come that far at all. My female students say “I’m not a feminist but….” And then they say they expect equal pay for equal work; that they want to choose when, how, and who they want to marry; that they have control over their own bodies; and that they have a say in the government. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my students from non-western countries where women cannot rely on being in charge of their own destiny are far more likely to define themselves as feminists.
As Grace Hwang Lynch wrote a few days ago, even people like Susan Sarandon and Marisa Mayer distance themselves from the term “feminist.” Mayer said that she’s not “militant” enough and doesn’t have “the chip on her shoulder” that feminists do; Sarandon said that people think feminists “are a load of strident bitches.” Et tu, Louise?
Really? Strident bitches? I know that the history of feminism in the US has its ugly moments, such as the cynical calculus done by the white leaders of the suffrage movement to jettison the needs of immigrant women and African American women, in order to woo Southern Senators to vote for the 19th Amendment. And no less than Betty Friedan, in the concluding pages of The Feminine Mystique, ranted about the dangers of “the lesbians” who were going to destroy feminism.
Clearly, then, feminists are not angels and clearly the feminist movement has made some mistakes. But to be a feminist is not to want this:
What then, as Freud asked, do women want? Well, in the early 20th century, when women were all, you know, uncalm about suffrage, they had a list that looked like this:
Hmm. Education, healthy food supply, workers’ rights…That’s absolutely a list compiled by a complete man-hater. I mean, only a strident bitch with a chip on her shoulder would make these sorts of outrageous claims, right?
Sarandon says she wants to call herself a “humanist,” and that’s all fine and hunky-dory because hey, humans are great. Everyone should be able to be a human, don’t you think? The problem is, though, that gender matters. Just ask Malala, or Wendy Davis, or Lily Ledbetter. Malala wasn’t shot because she was a human trying to go to school but because she was a girl; Wendy Davis stood for eleven hours in the Texas capitol because someone had to speak for all the women whose autonomy has just been squashed by the (mostly male) Texas state legislature; Lily wasn’t underpaid because she was human but because she was a woman.
Two other less serious examples: Entertainment Weekly just put out an issue of the “100 All-Time Greatest” in movies, books, TV shows. Of the 100 Best films? 97 were directed by men and of those men, all but two were white. The same ratio applies, more or less to the list of TV shows. Women fare slightly better on the list of authors: 29 (although Toni Morrison appears twice so really it’s only 28). Forbes just put out its list of top earners in comedy: not one woman is on the list.
And for an all-time dispiriting–enraging–list, see the VIDA list of women in the literary arts. You’ll want to cancel your subscriptions to…well, to almost everything.
Okay. I can hear what you’re about to say: calling ourselves feminists isn’t going to change anything; it’s not going to fix these problems. But I think it’s important to see that these problems are not individual isolated cases but instead create a picture of a society in which women are consistently, constantly overlooked and unheard. And is that a society, or a world, in which we–men and women–want to live?
Here is an assessment of what might happen if women remain unheard for too long:
Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticuliar care and attention is not paid to the Laidies we are determined to foment a Rebelion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation.
Abigail Adams wrote that to her husband John, in 1776.
I wonder if she’d be disappointed at our relative lack of progress?
The F word hadn’t been invented yet, but if it had been, she would have used it.
Calmly, of course.