April 10, 2015
We’re back for the occasional history of feminist theory. Earlier posts are here:
The 1960s were exploding with numerous waves of consciousness raising. In a short period of time, masses of people (especially young people) were re-evaluating how they thought about race, war, politics, social class, sexuality and gender. Boys began to grow their hair like girls and reject the marriage/house in the suburbs trajectory. Girls, with the help of the birth control pill in 1960, stopped waiting for Prince Charming and started practicing “free love.” A lot of the same old bullshit continued, but second wave feminists were active on numerous fronts.
In popular culture, Gloria Steinem not only went after Hugh Hefner on a 1960s talk show for referring to grown women as “girls,” but helped change the language itself. Single women were referred to as “Miss,” while married (claimed) women were “Mrs.” There was no equivalent shift for males. They were always “Mr.” whether they were single or not. Why not refer to females as “Ms.”? (Steinem founded Ms. Magazine in 1971, which became the standard bearer of second wave feminism.)
Feminist themes began creeping into 60s pop culture, in TV shows, like That Girl, and songs, like Aretha Franklin’s reworking of Otis Redding’s “Respect” and even the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper.” Much of the feminist energy was not just a rejection of the plastic suburban lifestyle, but the gender politics of larger liberation movements. For example, young women would show up to participate in anti-war and New Left groups, like the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and find males running the program and females expected to prepare food, not author manifestos.
My mother was typical of many middle-American women who heard about the feminist movement (“women’s lib”) from the fringes. She was 20 in 1963, when Friedan’s book came out, and newly married. She remembers seeing her on TV frequently in the 1960s, talking about The Feminine Mystique but not making the connection with her own situation. She recently emailed me about it:
Men were getting paid more than women for the same job, (and they still are). The big saying in the 60’s for men was “keep your wife barefoot and pregnant.” I also felt that with or without the feminist movement, a women could get ahead on her own with hard work a few brains, and knowing how to maneuver in a man’s world, such as starting a company, which I did.
I think my mother, like a lot of women, didn’t see herself in the faces of the activists who were railing against “patriarchal oppression” and protesting against Playboy magazine and stay-at-home moms (which was never really the target). In the 1970s, she found a space to start her own consulting business. But that small space was created by the feminist pioneers who fought to get their foot in the door. It’s interesting that she pointed out the 1975 film, The Stepford Wives, as more influential on her ideas about gender power. The horror flick was rooted in the core principles of The Feminine Mystique; that you can only treat women like robots for so long.
The feminist movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s was wide-ranging and defied any simple characterization of what a “feminist” was. (But, as we shall see in the Part 5, it wasn’t exactly inclusive). Liberal feminists, like Friedan, pushed towards an equality of the sexes, focusing on issues like equal pay and an end to job-discrimination. Marxist feminists, like Jeanne Gross, pointed out that women gaining access to the same jobs that exploit men is not true liberation. Their position was that, since capitalism turns women into commodities (and not just prostitutes), the best way to end sexist exploitation is to end capitalism. Radical feminists, like Charlotte Bunch, pointed out that patriarchy predates capitalism and what feminists should focus on is various systems of oppression. And then socialist feminists, like Barbara Ehrenreich, were concerned about how all of these issues impact women’s individual economic lives.
So when people tried to characterize feminists as “bra-burning man-haters,” they were really just perpetuating a caricature favored by those who defend sexism. First of all, despite some of the un-evolved men at the SDS meetings, there were men engaged in consciousness raising groups and exploring their own male privilege. The debate within feminism was healthy and held together around two basic ideas. First was the idea that society is primarily organized around male power and that patriarchy is insidious in virtually every aspect of life. The second idea was the slogan, “The personal is the political.” Individual experiences of oppression are manifestations of social patterns and the solution to personal problems is collective action. The personal is the political!
By the early 1970s, the debates within the feminist movement were raging. Liberal feminists mobilized women to break through the old boys clubs of power and start cracking the glass ceilings. Radical feminists asked if claiming 50 percent of a world created by men was really best for women. Would a military in which half the members were female really be a transformation of society, or just one where women were good at playing men’s games? Some feminists were increasingly frustrated with the reluctance of the men in their lives to share power. Is it possible to have a truly equal relationship with a man? Some feminists suggested lesbianism and separatism as the only way to escape abuse, oppression and dehumanization. This extreme position actually makes a lot of sense when you think about it but separatist groups, like the Furies Collective, added to image of feminists as hating men.
As men (including many progressive men) dug their heals in to defend their patriarchal power (you could be Mr. Radical and still want “your woman” to get dinner on the table), the rhetoric heated up. Rage towards “male domination” and “male chauvinist pigs” may have been justified, but it fed into the hype that feminism was all about stoking the “battle of the sexes.” For me as a 9-year-old in Stone Mountain, Georgia, this was all manifested in a tennis battle between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. Riggs was a loudmouth who’d been a tennis champion in the 1940s. He seemed personally offended by the notion of female equality and made something of a comeback by challenging female tennis pros. The grand match was on September 20, 1973. There was a ton of hype about the ultimate “battle of the sexes” and anyone with a soul was rooting for King. Billie Jean beat Bobby’s ass in all three matches and he disappeared back into his cave. If you know the Elton John song “Philadelphia Freedom,” you know the right person won that round.
Despite some of the rhetoric from some of the more militant factions, feminism was never about turning the oppression of women into the oppression of men. I think that was the fear of a lot of men. Just like Southern whites feared free blacks would torture whites as blacks had been tortured, many men feared free woman would go all Amazon on men, forcing them to bake three-level cakes and wear open-toed high heels. But feminism was geared towards ending oppression in general and men could be strong allies in that cause. But in the early 1970s, feminism needed a good look in the mirror to achieve that.
As the second wave moved into the 1980s, many feminists began to explore intersectionality and expand the big tent of feminism (that’s the subject of Part 5). Some liberal feminists, like Hilary Rodham Clinton, figured out how to beat men at their own game. But some Second Wavers got stuck in the early feminist thinking that cast women as universal victims and all men as dastardly agents of patriarchy. Some of those folks found an enclave working in Human Resources departments, zealously looking for sexual harassers, denying the agency of women. As we will discuss in a coming section, third wave feminists rejected this reductionary view as denying the complexity of gender power. But it makes for engrossing movies on the Lifetime Channel. Those evil men! But we still owe the second wave a great debt for naming the problem with no name and fighting it on multiple fronts.