Feminism by any other name

March 17, 2013

I recently watched the excellent PBS documentary Makers on second-wave feminism and the rise of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. It was a refresher of a women’s studies class I took at IU in the early ’90s, but with some somewhat controversial updates from the 1980s and beyond.

I was raised as a conservative Catholic, but with a rebel streak. After a five-year-old cousin died when I was 14 or 15, I took comfort in my relationship with the Virgin Mary. (She was also who I turned to when I had cramps—what would Jesus know about cramps?) I strove to be what was considered to be the model woman in the Church: meek, mild, submissive to God’s will, and every other thing I was never going to be.

I was virulently anti-abortion, having no clue what challenges a pregnant woman faces. I saw abortion as murder, plain and simple, and rejected it even in cases of rape, incest, or the life of the mother. If you got pregnant and didn’t want the child, you carried it to term and gave it up for adoption. Case closed. I gave no thought to the idea of women’s being forced by the state to carry fetuses to term, nor did I consider the agony women would go through carrying a rapist’s or worse, a relative’s child. Everything was simple.

On the other hand, when the U.S. Catholic bishops published an encyclical against nuclear war, I became passionately anti-nuke. Through my relationships with leftist friends, I became familiar with Women and Children First in Chicago, read liberal manifestos, and wrote letters to Congressmen (yes, they were all men) to protest the nuclear arms race. I came to political consciousness during the Carter/Reagan race and was convinced Reagan was going to press the button. I had many nightmares about nuclear war and once I saw the Church was against it, I wholeheartedly supported that view.

When I was 17 or 18 I read a pamphlet at church published by a society dedicated to one of the Mary cults—probably Fatima. It talked about how Mary told the children that women should dress modestly, with sleeves no shorter than 3/4 length. It would be years before it would occur to me how strange it was that Mary was so specific about fashion advice, but at the time I just felt a terrible sinking feeling. I was athletic in high school as well as a theatre geek and regularly wore short-sleeved shirts. It was the ’80s and mini-skirts were in. I was so sad to realize I would never be good enough. I would never be able to be fully a women in the eyes of the Church. It was devastating.

I burbled along my merry way, combining leftist and anarchist beliefs (anti-apartheid, anti-CIA) with this harsh conservative/libertarian view that all things could be reduced to black and white and there was one right way and one wrong way and I knew what was what, amen. If black people were discriminated against, they should sue. If women were denied promotion in the workplace, they should sue or leave. Simple. Black and white.

In the late ’80s I worked at McDonald’s and met one of the most pivotal people in my life: Tammy Taysom. She was a feminist Mormon, two things I’d not come into deep contact with before. And two things I had a hard time reconciling in one being. She was in favor of polygamy, not for anything to do with men, but to get rid of men. She wanted a man to have babies with, but then she thought the man should go away or even die (of natural causes) so she could hang out with his other wives and they could all raise the children together. She saw this as a liberating, positive, supportive environment for women, free from the oppressive influence of men. She blew my mind.

Tammy and I would have raging philosophical arguments over the grills in the back of the restaurant, slinging words as fast as burgers. At one point one of the managers turned to look at me and asked, “What are you doing here?” I was a little taken aback but told him the truth: “All I have is a high school education.” He shook his head. “No. What are you doing here?” I knew he meant that, with my intellect and erudition, I should be out in the world someplace. But I just repeated with more emphasis, “All I have is a high school education.” I had tried to find other jobs, but no one wanted me.

Tammy held her own in our arguments, which was impressive. I learned from my father at an early age how to talk circles around someone even when I didn’t know what I was talking about. I knew how to use language to confuse logic. But she cut right to the chase and challenged my deeply held beliefs. And finally it came down to it: she dared me to take a women’s studies class. And she would take it with me. Since I was finally going back to school that fall, I took her dare, smug in my belief that I would prove her arguments wrong.

For the first few weeks, I hard-headedly held my own. For every example they presented, I had a pat answer: women should put up or shut up. What I hadn’t realized was how much contempt I had for women. I hated being a woman.

When I was about four or five I came to that crossroads that all children come to, when they decide who they’re going to be. In my case, I had a mother and a father to choose from. My dad was the oppressor. My mom was the victim. For me, it was a no-brainer. I chose to be my dad, so I could be free to do whatever I wanted. Even then, I was intrigued by power.

What I didn’t realized at the time (of course, my brain had barely developed by then) was that being powerful as a man meant being contemptuous of women. I spent many, many years of my life trying to prove that I was good enough to be an honorary man, but the bottom line was that I was a prisoner of my biology. I would always be betrayed by my femaleness. Like on that day reading about Fatima, I realized I would never make the cut. And I hated myself for it.

Back to the women’s studies class! What cut through all my philosophical schizophrenia was the section on rape. I remember lying on the couch in my apartment, highlighting passages in a variety of texts. The evidence just piled on and piled on. Three out of four women sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. Rape as violence, not as sex. The most dangerous place for a woman to be was in the home of someone she loved.

I put down the books and thought about my own life. I realized that almost every woman I knew, including myself, had been sexually abused at some point in her life. I began to cry, a deep, wounded cry, whispering, “What did we do? What did we do?” What could women have possibly done to deserve this epidemic of sexual violence? How could I possibly explain it away case by case when it was so widespread? The answer was right there: it wasn’t a case by case issue—it was a society-wide threat. It was rooted in a hatred and fear of women that was so pervasive that virtually no woman was safe.

The walls came tumbling down. My eyes were open to systemic problems of race, class, and gender. I could see patterns that I was blind to before. And since I was now a Pagan instead of a Catholic, it all fit into a deep, seamless stream of morality. I knew where I stood and why I stood there. And I knew that by rising up and taking that stand, I was making a difference. Goddess bless Tammy Taysom.

Once I was on the train, there was no getting off. I read everything I could find on oppressive systems, whether against people or the environment. I worked at a feminist magazine. I attended workshops and festivals. I joined mass protests in DC and NYC. And I read My Mother, Myself, the first time I’d ever bothered to examine my relationship with my mother rather than my father. I saw my contempt for her and for all women, and especially for myself, and I got rid of it. I embraced myself as a woman and even began to be thankful for it. I grew into the belief I still hold today: it’s easier to be a whole human being in this society if you are a woman. Sexism = bondage not just for women, but for men. Since women are marginalized, they can get away with drumming circles and consciousness raising and generally doing whatever under-the-radar things they want to do because they are, after all, just women. But men are held to a more rigid standard. Women can wear men’s clothes, for instance, but men can’t wear women’s. If they embrace their feelings, they are pounced on (remember Robert Bly?).

The situation is much more complex than that, and has changed since the Clinton presidency when he would cry at the drop of a hat, but there are still some threads of truth there. In some traditional societies, when women would menstruate, they’d be sent to moon lodges or other dark spaces in order not to “contaminate” the men with their mysterious and powerful (“dirty”) menstrual blood. But Tammy and I laughed at the idea and said, “Yeah, yeah, we’re unclean, we’re unclean, now who’s bringing the chocolate?” If women were really held in such low esteem, it’s possible they looked forward to getting away from stupid men and associating with equals in moon lodges.

Recently I attended a screening of Things We Don’t Talk About: Women’s Stories from the Red Tent. It’s a movement inspired by the book The Red Tent, a novel which posited how women came together during their menstrual cycles. In the film, women join in circles small and large to tell their stories. Some are funny, most are sad, but all lead the women to feeling more empowered. They rise up and say, “I am beautiful, I am loved, and I deserve to be here.”

That’s all well and good, but why in the world are we still saying this 40 years after the women’s liberation movement began? (We’ve circled round to Makers, folks.) In the ’70s, women came together in consciousness raising groups and found to their surprise that others had similar experiences. And then they changed their lives. They didn’t just keep it for other women. They took it home and renegotiated their marriages. Or they left their marriages. They joined the movement and marched in the streets, carried signs, volunteered for causes, worked at feminist magazines, and fought for the Equal Rights Amendment. The personal was political. They changed everything, from the bedroom to the boardroom.

According to Makers, everything shifted when the women’s movement openly embraced lesbians and when Phyllis Schlafly came on the scene. Schlafly mobilized conservative women against liberals and militants. And the country swung with her, electing our chief adult child of an alcoholic, Ronald Reagan.

In Makers, they cite a major change in the women’s movement at this time with the rise of Madonna. In the view of the producers, Madonna embodied the new post-feminist woman, who was “sexually confident.” There were no close-ups of her famous “Boy Toy” belt buckle, though, which seems to put the lie to that point of view.

Madonna is an interesting figure because she used sexism to make a point. I remember watching a video of her in an art criticism class. She was walking down a runway, wearing a short coat or vest. When she got to the end of the runway, she opened her coat to reveal her naked breasts. A man in the audience actually leapt like a crazy man and was practically frothing at the mouth in glee. Who had the power in that situation?

If you’ve ever seen Madonna, you’d be hard-pressed to say that she’s been exploited, but I think it’s easier to see the trajectory with women entertainers who’ve come after her. Sexism is still so ingrained in our culture that women embrace their objectification. Are they really “sexually confident”? Or are they just doing what male producers say is necessary to get ahead? Considering the lack of analysis that goes into women’s roles these days, I say it’s the latter.

As I write this, there’s a furor over the book Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. She is the daughter of privilege and not coincidentally a mover and shaker in Silicon Valley. Her book takes on the tedious question of whether women can have it all. Part of her message is that women don’t “lean in”—they choose not to lead. Aside from the fact that her message doesn’t relate to the experiences of poor and working class women, it seems to ignore the fact that women are socialized not to lead. STILL. It starts in grade school and continues throughout our lives.

I am so sick of the question, “Can women have it all?” Why doesn’t anyone ever ask, “Can men have it all?” The assumption is that men do have everything they need. If that means they have the best jobs and make the most money, I think that’s a pretty piss-poor definition of “all.” For women, of course, it means, “Can women have family and a career?” The answer is yes, obviously, yes, but only if we dramatically alter society.

In my view, it takes at least five adults to raise a child. In tribal societies, this is no problem. But in a capitalist society that encourages “nuclear” as the definition of “family” so that “human capital” can be easily moved to wherever the jobs are, we’re screwed. Add to that that men still aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to family and household chores, and you’ve got women as second-class citizens. STILL. So rather than blame women for still not doing enough, let’s take a big-picture view and ask what institutional blocks are in place that hold women back and which give men privileges.

Remember the Red Tent film? Earlier in this rant? What struck me was how we still have this dynamic of women coming together and finding some sort of power—and yet how it completely lacks a political component. Nowhere was sexism mentioned. Everything was seen in personal terms. Case by case. They missed the whole component of how societal pressures keep women from demanding complete power (here I mean power-from-within and power-with, not power-over (see Starhawk’s The Spiral Dance)). And they never examined what they could do once they stood up and declared themselves beautiful. Beautiful? Really? That’s it? Now, having gone through the process myself, I know that’s a key milestone to an experience as a woman, but is that really all we’re going for? Accepting ourselves for how we look? What about what we want?

It blows my MIND that, 40 years after the women’s liberation movement began, women are still coming to this process as newbies. And they will continue to do so as long as they remain ignorant of sexism as a systemic problem.

This week the Newshour reported on sexual assaults in the military. Of nearly 4,000 reported cases of assault last year, only 191 resulted in convictions. 191! And since under-reporting is so common, they estimate that the incidents of assault are actually closer to 19,000. This is not a case of women wearing dresses that are too short or being drunk or saying no when they mean yes or any of the zillions of other victim-blaming reasons given to make sure we treat each case as separate and unique. This is a violent culture. The problem is systemic. It cannot be fixed by one woman suing the military. It will take a top-to-bottom, bottom-to-top sea change in attitudes that see women as “less than.”

I remember in the 1990s when I was working with the leaders of all the main national Pagan groups in the U.S. to come up with a definition of “Paganism” that we could submit to dictionaries. Now, Paganism is the most inclusively diverse movement I know of. Most Pagans revere the Goddess over the God, and sometimes even to the exclusion of the God. It is all about women’s empowerment and about men being comfortable as whole human beings. It is feminist.

But when it came time to write that dictionary definition, I wasn’t allowed to use the word “feminist.” It was considered too controversial, too militant. Even though it was true. The final definition was “Collection of diverse contemporary religions rooted in indigenous traditions or deriving inspiration therefrom, characterized by a belief in the interconnection of all life, personal autonomy, and immanent divinities. Often nature-centered and supportive of gender equity.” Did you catch that? “Supportive of gender equity.” How lame. How tame. It’s like all those people who use the word “Wicca” instead of “Witchcraft.” “Wicca” isn’t a real word. It has no history, no meaning. That makes it safe to use in non-Pagan settings, but really, don’t we have the courage to move beyond that?

Where was I? Oh, right, in the middle of being frustrated.

If they do start a Red Tent in Brown County, I will go. I will check it out and be supportive of the women there and then I will open my mouth and probably be kicked out. Something really powerful happened to and for women in the 1970s and we have lost ground since then in many ways. Gloria Steinem said that they realized in the ’70s it would take over 100 years to change all the individual laws of discrimination against women, so it made more sense to push for the ERA and be done with it. And we came so close. But now we’re back to fighting institutionalized sexism one law at a time (just last week a state passed a law banning abortions after 6 weeks—many women don’t even know they’re pregnant at 6 weeks!).

Maybe we’ll just have to keep slogging through, one women’s circle at a time, one provocative book at a time. But until we start raising girls and boys differently, we’re not going to get very far. I do want to acknowledge the changes that have been made—I mean, look at me, I’m a textbook case of the privilege of being a liberated woman. I just want a holistic push for a societal transformation where all humans, regardless of gender, class, ethnicity, religion, orientation, you name it, are on an equal playing feel. I want us to be fully human, exploring all the colors of our selves and being safe to do so. I want us all to be strong and tender and bloody-minded and empathetic. I want change. I want liberation. I want the world.