Yesterday, I had the privilege of attending a speech by über-feminist Susan Faludi of Backlash and The Terror Dream fame (if you haven’t read these books, then, what are you waiting for?). So, here is what I got from her speech.
Faludi started with the assertion that everyone acknowledges that feminism is successful. Liberals would state that we’ve come a long way while conservatives commonly state that all the ills of society are due to feminism. However, through her work, Faludi has met many women who consider feminism to have been both beneficial and a disappointment, what she calls the “yes, but…” problem that has several dimensions:
1. Yes, women are not 50% of the workforce but they occupy the same positions and professions as before. Women are still underrepresented in the media. The wage gap is still there and whatever reduction there has been there has been because of declining men’s wages. So, disillusionment is widespread as essential hurdles never really got lifted. It seems that the possibilities of remaking society have eluded us.
2. There is, of course, the [well-funded] relentless barrage of antifeminist commentary, what Faludi calls the Bozo The Clown Punchbag syndrome: every bad in society is because of feminism. You name it, feminism did it! And, of course, there is still, obviously, the abortion rights issue that is especially central now.
3. Feminism has been hijacked by the marketplace: to be feminist is to have the freedom to consume.
4. And that is even without going into the persistence of gender violence and lack of proper family policies.
All this means that women’s voices are still vastly under-heard while the antifeminist voices (I would say anti-women) are loud, clear and quite strident. As a result, while there have been partial gains, feminism, as a movement, never seems to have a sure footing.
For Faludi, there are three dynamics standing in the way of real transformation:
1. Feminism is still a sixties movement, with its insistence on the personal, its rejection of authority and leadership, and persistent generational conflict, what Faludi calls the mother-daughter power failure. This power failure means the inability to really figure out ow to pass power down from women to women.
But it wasn’t always like this. In the 19th century, feminism was the crusading mothers fighting for the rights of their daughters in the campaigns about suffrage, abolition, temperance. Later on, though, America as a whole repudiated the power of the mother with consumerism and sexuality with mothers portrayed as humorless prudes, suffragists as whiners. The movement faded out until the sixties which was a daughter-only movement (Christine Stansell’s matrophobia, the fear of becoming your mother).
And now, the second wavers are aging and facing the criticisms of the third wavers. [This reminded me of the public exchange between Katha Pollitt and Jessica Valenti (actually, you should read Valenti’s column first, then Pollitt’s response).]
So, for Faludi, the question is how to build a sustainable movement in the face of persistent generational conflicts.
2. The second dynamic is that of consumerism as a distraction from serious debate (about real bread-and-butter and social justice issues) as opposed to vapid discussions that do not challenge the culture. Faludi thinks we should talk about poverty and single-motherhood (the two being, of course, related) rather than which real housewife is the biggest bitch (my formulation).
3. The third dynamic is “the vision thing”, that is, the failure to envision a feminist future and a project as to where women liberation should lead. For instance, yes, there are more women in the professions, but this means more women entering patriarchy-based institutions that they never created and where they do not change the stage. As Faludi – channeling Charlotte Bunch – put it, “you can’t add women, and stir.”
This inability to answer these questions and challenges has opened the door for conservative women to claim the label and redefine feminism as simply about the choice to self-expression. They are the ones shifting the political landscape.
So, what is to be done? For Faludi, we should return to the economic and political world where single mothers are a huge demographics and have it the worst socially. Single mothers deserve our attention and admiration. We need to change the system to liberate them. This would help healing the generational rift, which, for Faludi, is the major problem for feminism as a social movement. We need to come up with a new vision of family away from patriarchal institutions.
I should add that Susan Faludi was a great speaker, and a delightful to guest to hang out with afterwards. I want a new book from her, dammit!