[This is one of a series of posts on Caitlin Moran's book How to Be a Woman. Click here for other posts in this series.]
Here at Doves & Serpents, we’ve been exploring the bestselling book How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran, a saucy, caustic, and hilarious British music/culture journalist. My own reading of her book invited a stroll down memory lane, in a way, as I thought about when I first, last, and in between thought about what it means to be a woman and a feminist.
Snippet #1: In 5th grade or so, I did a book report over The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. Around that time, I also got it into my head that I would like to be President of the United States when I grew up. I sent multiple letters to the White House. I interviewed a PoliSci professor about the executive office for a 6th grade Social Studies report. I drew sketches of the Oval Office in my journal. I was full of innocent confidence, a true daughter of the 1970s, with my polyester clothes, my braided hair, and my beloved copies of Beverly Cleary’s Ramona books.
Snippet #2: At an LDS institute activity during my college years, almost a decade later, I stood up at a Thanksgiving dinner when it was my turn to note something for which I was grateful, and said, “I am grateful to be a woman in the 20th century. I am grateful to have been born in this country and at this time, because we enjoy more rights and opportunities than women in previous generations could have even dreamed of.” Or something like that. And I had a testimony of that very thing, no doubt about it, and I might have been a little unctuous on the delivery. A friend, a nice fellow who liked to tease, shouted, “And that is why no one is going to ask you on a date.” Never mind that I had a boyfriend – it was a lighthearted zinger meant to deflate my earnest sincerity and poke fun at women’s issues. Everyone laughed.
Snippet #3: Also while in college, while I was both pressing back against and exploring traditional expectations, I wrote a column for the student newspaper about feminism,and it won a prize, and in the column, I borrowed a term I found appealing – ‘post-ideological feminism’ – and offered it as a compromise of some sort between warring camps. I wrote in the column that “as soon as I bring up the word “feminism,” eyes glaze and mouths froth….These four syllables do something to people. Something ugly. Something frightening. People get angry when I say I am a feminist.” And that was true. Of course, I attended college at a university that had only admitted women a couple of decades earlier, so perhaps we were a bit behind on the learning curve.
I ended the piece with this plea, wrapped up, as you can see, in the simple idealism of youth and with that sweet ignorance, also of youth, that encourages said youth to believe that these Ideas with a capital I have never been thought before, let alone stated: “Conservative, moderate or none of the above, we need to treat everyone as human beings. This is not a wild idea from the left. It is reasonable and necessary. And no matter what you call yourself, we all should agree on this idea.”
Perhaps those of us working at the student newspaper were simply more riled up to begin with, more caught up in current events and our own opinions on them, but I had no doubt that these Big Questions of feminism still mattered. I meant every word of that plea. I could see that progress was needed, and I thought that if more men could get on board, that feminism would thrive, blossom, and reveal its true reasonable soul, like a coworker on a work retreat who shows everyone during the trust fall exercise that her aloof demeanor at the office is surface only, and she has much more to offer, and is then accepted by everyone and no longer shunned in the break room.
Snippet #4: I teach college students and have been working with young people for more than a decade, and a funny thing happened on the way to the 21st century. Anecdotally speaking, it seems like a whole lot of the young women (let alone the young men) I encounter, especially lately, do not identify as ‘feminist’, and do not recognize feminism as a relevant label/historical movement/issue/point of discussion. I am certainly not the first person to observe this post-feminist mentality, but I definitely have seen its rise.
And the college girl inside me wonders what happened. Is it a matter of not knowing the history of women? Is it a kind of collective forgetting? Or was it never known to begin with? Were some of these daughters of the 80s and 90s never informed about what life was like for their grandmothers? Or did some Y2K glitch somehow render feminism obsolete in the new century? Was feminism unable to fully move beyond the tired stereotype of Andrea Dworkin-esque militant dowdiness?
I can’t even really speak to how widely feminism has gained or not gained acceptance with young men. But young women, some of them, many of them even, have seemed to lose interest not just in the label, but in the Big Questions themselves. It was as if Lilith Fair never happened, y’all! Has the snug security provided by the gains of the women’s movement somehow lulled these new generations of girls into believing they don’t need feminism, that we (them?) are somehow past it?
Caitlin Moran has a few points to make about the decline. She has so many good points, actually, that my copy of How to Be A Woman is marked up with both highlighter and pen. And post-it notes. She proclaims: “Feminism, as it stands, in the U.K. at least, well…stands. It has ground to a halt. Again and again over the last few years, I turned to modern feminism to answer questions that I had but found that what had once been the one most exciting, incendiary, and effective revolution of all time had somehow shrunk down into a couple of increasingly small arguments, carried out among a couple of dozen feminist academics, in books that only feminist academics would read, and discussed at 11 p.m. on BBC4. Here’s my beef with this: 1) Feminism is too important to be discussed only by academics.”
I am assuming BBC4 is something akin to C-span, and I want to tell her that it isn’t just the U.K. where feminism has seemingly ground to a …stand. Is this because people associate feminism with a particular type of woman? Is that it? Moran wants to clear up that misconception, if that’s what’s going on:
“Because the purpose of feminism isn’t to make a particular type of woman. The idea that there are inherently wrong and inherently right “types of women” is what’s screwed feminism for so long …. What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy, and smug they might be.
“Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are.”
Snippet #5: All of the extremist campaign malarky about women’s bodies, rape, abortion, contraception, and the government’s supervisory role of the above matters offered up by various and sundry congressional candidates during the 2012 election season. Yeah. Exactly. Those guys. Even some of my conservative friends have noted that such comments detracted from the Republican platform’s central appeal of fiscal responsibility. But the public comments kept coming. And the mandated apologies. And all the while, the double standard doubled down. And I wondered for months what was going on with all *that*? (Side note: even though Romney was teased about the ‘binders full of women’ debate comment, I liked that he was trying to speak to the challenges of women – and men – in our modern world. Balance is a thing we’re all working toward, regardless of our anatomy.)
Moran writes, again in her delightful acerbic, hyperbolic, and very comedic style, that, “we need to reclaim the word “feminism.” We need the word “feminism” back real bad. When statistics come in saying that only 29 percent of American women would describe themselves as feminist – and only 42 percent of British women – I used to think, What do you think feminism IS, ladies? What part of “liberation for women” is not for you? Is it freedom to vote? The right not to be owned by the man you marry? The campaign for equal pay? ….These days, however, I am much calmer – since I realized that it’s technically impossible for a woman to argue against feminism. Without feminism, you wouldn’t be allowed to have a debate on a woman’s place in society. You’d be too busy giving birth on the kitchen floor – biting down on a wooden spoon, so as not to disturb the men’s card game – before going back to hoeing the rutabaga field…. The more women argue, loudly, against feminism, the more they both prove it exists and that they enjoy its hard-won privileges.”
I am still grateful, as I was at that long ago church Thanksgiving party, for these hard-won privileges. I was able to attend college. I was able to teach when pregnant, which wasn’t allowed when my first principal was beginning her career in education, thank you teacher’s unions and feminists. I have my own bank account, my own vehicle. I literally bring home the bacon and fry it up in a pan. Literally. My son could easily eat 12 slices a day. Thank you, feminism, err, I mean pig butchers.
At church today, I saw an example of the blessings and reality of this brought-to-you-in-part-by-feminism world, when a young father walked out of a class with a baby and diaper in hand and a smile on his face, doing his part in the rearing of his offspring. Feminism doesn’t mean women win and men lose. Men get to win too. It means men don’t have to be bound by every last rigid gender expectation of days gone by either. Patriarchy isn’t always great for all men either, you know. I have heard more than a few men comment favorably on the paradigm shifts from their father’s generation(s) to now. But still, the word ‘feminism’ leaves a bitter taste for folks.
Caitlin Moran has me excited about reclaiming the label of ‘feminist’, about slapping on a fresh coat of paint and a few squirts of WD-40. I feel like that wide-eyed college journalist again, full of hope, but with some life experience under my belt too. Moran’s asking the Big Questions, the ones I love. She’s throwing out Big Ideas, the ones we can’t ignore. And she’s throwing with a big smile:
“The fact that [the word 'feminism is] currently underused and reviled makes it all the hotter – like deciding to be the person who single-handedly revises the popular use of the top hat. Once people see how hot you look in it, they’re all going to want to get one.”
So who’s in? And let’s get some top hats while we’re at it!
Dear readers, any thoughts on the decline of ‘feminism’, at least as a label, if not a functioning movement? Has it been a victim of years of vicious fear mongering? Bad PR? Self-inflicted wounds? All of the above?