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The Feminist Reawakening

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The cover of a newsletter from the seventies.  

Why doesn’t our culture take sexism seriously? Gloria Steinem has suggested that “anything that affects males is seen as more serious than anything that affects ‘only’ the female half of the human race.” If that’s true, and I’m not convinced it is, then women are also culpable. Sexism is often so subtle, threading its insidious way through many aspects of our existence, that anyone who talks about it risks sounding like an overzealous lunatic at worst—scrutinizing every interaction for gender-specific offenses, dichotomizing the world into victim and oppressor—or trivial at best. “Even the brightest movement women found themselves engaged in sullen public colloquies about the inequities of dishwashing and the intolerable humiliations of being observed by construction workers on Sixth Avenue,” Joan Didion once wrote. And so, in our reluctance to appear nagging, scolding, hectoring, or petty, many of us have made a practice of enduring minor affronts, not realizing that a failure to decry the smaller indignities can foster blindness to the larger ones. We then find ourselves shocked when one of the smartest, most qualified women ever to run for public office is called “fishwife-y” by a female pundit on national television.

The post-Hillary shift in awareness, for lack of a better term—movement still seems a gross overstatement—has created an unusual alliance that belies the pre- and post-boomer generational divide propounded by the media. The second-wave feminists are said to have cluck-clucked at a younger generation of women, who, oblivious to past struggles, refused to join their team and vote for Clinton. (Historians generally divide the movement into three phases or “waves”: the turn-of-the-century suffragists; the equal-rights activists of the sixties and seventies; and the gender and queer theorists of the nineties.) But, according to my anecdotal research, it isn’t just “the hot-flash cohort,” to borrow another phrase from Tina Brown, that broke for Clinton. Women in their thirties and forties—at once discomfited and galvanized by the sexist tenor of the media coverage, by the nastiness of the watercooler talk in the office, by the realization that the once-foregone conclusion of Clinton-as-president might never come to be—did, too. We haven’t heard much about these women, perhaps because in this demographic, there is peer pressure to vote for Obama. A woman I interviewed described the atmosphere of Obama-Fascism in her office: “I really object to the assumption that everyone is voting for Obama in our cohort, but that’s the assumption these guys talk under,” she says. “They feel only idiots would vote for Hillary. There’s this kind of total assumption that of course any thinking person is voting for Obama.”

Women are subjected to a sort of bodily lit-crit, where dress and demeanor are read as symbolic of femininity or a lack thereof. Do you wear the glasses to the interview, or take them off? Button up the jacket, or leave it open?

Old-guard feminists, for their part, seem not yet aware—or prepared to believe—that the younger generation is coming around. “Young women take a lot of things for granted,” Geraldine Ferraro told me. “We sometimes joke, ‘If you don’t get it, give it all back.’ We don’t want to say, ‘Look how bad it was.’ But they don’t know their workplaces are better because of loudmouths like me who said, ‘This is not how society should be run.’ ” Linda Hirshman, author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, said she thinks the feminist movement, even the third wave, may have seen its final days. For another movement to reach critical mass, she said, women in society may need to experience what she calls “an accretion of insult.” But with the inequities highlighted by Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid reminding us of the inequities we experience on a regular basis, the insults may have, well … accreted.

Any woman who has spent time in the workforce likely understands what a powerful, defining force gender can be. “We used to have a saying in the women’s movement,” says Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake. “It takes life to make a feminist.” The real divide among women of voting age is between those who have encountered gender-based hurdles and affronts as they pursued their professional ambitions and those who have not: between women in their twenties, still in college or recent graduates, and women who have worked at a job where something (money, prestige, reputation) is at stake. This may in part explain why very young women voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama: The parity on college campuses, where women often outperform men academically, can feel like it must translate into parity in the world. I remember reading Sylvia Plath’s journals in a college seminar titled Biography, Gender, and Suicide—it was straight out of a Woody Allen movie—and finding them overwrought and whiny, a bitter recitation of every domestic duty and slight. Similarly, I wondered what Hélène Cixous and her feminist poststructuralist sisters were howling about. At that point, my only experience with sexism was a high-school debate in which my coach asked me to take my hair out of a bun so that I didn’t look “so severe” for the judges. (I left my hair up—and won.) To my mind, equality was the rule.


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