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The Feminist Reawakening

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A Suffragette postcard, circa 1900.  

Of course, we weren’t delusional. Even before Tina Fey declared, “Bitch is the new black,” before female outrage had been anointed a trend by the New York Times, many women were clued in to the numerous gender-related issues that lay, untouched and unexamined, at some subterranean level of our culture: to the way women disproportionately bear the ills of our society, like poverty and lack of health care; to the relentlessly sexist fixation on the bodies of Hollywood starlets—on the vicissitudes of their weight, on the appearance and speedy disappearance of their pregnant bellies—and the deleterious influence this obsession has on teenage girls; to the way our youth-oriented culture puts older women out to graze (rendering them what Tina Brown has called, in a nod to Ralph Ellison, “invisible women”). But who wanted to complain? It was easier—and more fun—to take the Carly Fiorina approach: to shut up and compete with the boys. Who wanted to be the statistic-wielding shrew outing every instance of prejudice and injustice? Most women prefer to think of themselves as what Caroline Bird, author of Born Female, has called “the loophole woman”—as the exception. The success of those women is frequently cited as evidence that feminism has met its goals. But too often, the exceptional woman is also the exception that proves the rule.

Indeed, it might be said that the postfeminist outlook was a means of avoiding an unpleasant topic. “They don’t want to have the discussion,” a management consultant who worked at a top firm for nearly a decade told me, referring to her female colleagues. “It’s like, ‘I’m trying to have a level playing field here.’ ” Who wanted to think of gender as a divisive force, as the root of discrimination? Perhaps more relevant, who wanted to view oneself as a victim? Postfeminism was also a form of solipsism: If it’s not happening to me, it’s not happening at all. To those women succeeding in a man’s world, the problems wrought by sexism often seemed to belong to other women. But as our first serious female presidential candidate came under attack, there was a collective revelation: Even if we couldn’t see the proverbial glass ceiling from where we sat, it still existed—and it was not retractable.

The women I interviewed who described a kind of conversion experience brought about by Clinton’s candidacy were professionals in their thirties, forties, and fifties, and a few in their twenties. In some cases, the campaign had politicized them: Women who had never thought much about sexual politics were forwarding Gloria Steinem’s now-infamous op-ed around, reiterating her claim that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life.” In other cases, it had re-politicized them: A few women told me they were thinking about issues they hadn’t considered in any serious way since college, where women’s-studies courses and gender theory were mainstays of their liberal-arts curricula. “That whole cynical part of me that has been coming to this conclusion all along was like, I knew it! We’ve come—not nowhere, but not as far as we thought,” one said. A not insignificant number of women mentioned arguments they’d had with male friends and colleagues, who disagreed that Clinton was being treated with any bias. A high-powered film executive for a company based in New York and Los Angeles recounted a heated debate she engaged in with two of her closest male friends; she finally capitulated when they teamed up and began to shout her down. Nearly all of the women I interviewed, with the exception of those who write on gender issues professionally, refused to be named for fear of offending the male bosses and colleagues and friends they’d tangled with.

In particular, the campaign has divided women and the men they know on the subject of race. Indelicate as it seems to bring up, the oft-repeated question is, why do overtly sexist remarks slip by almost without comment, while any racially motivated insult would be widely censured? A few women told me that when they raised this issue with men, the discussion broke down, with the men arguing that racism was far more pernicious than sexism. “If you say anything about the specificity of Hillary being a woman, you’re just doing the knee-jerk feminist stuff, that’s the reaction,” said one woman who asked not to be identified in any way. “Thinking about race is a serious issue, whereas sexism is just something for dumb feminists to think about.” The point is not to determine whether it is harder to be a white woman or a black man in America today, nor which candidate would have more symbolic value. At issue is the fact that race is, as it should be, taboo grounds for criticism, but gender remains open territory.


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