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Fearing Feminism

Now, let's discuss what a feminist isn't. T-shirt and button slogans such as a feminist is "opposite of a doormat" and "not a masochist" have outworn their usefulness in bringing clarity to the subject. Feminism is more often described by what it isn't than what it is, which creates some confusion (and is the reason why we defined it before going into all this). The inadvertently humorous descriptions by Right-wing ideologues such as Pat Robertson don't help, either: "Feminists encourage women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, become lesbians, and destroy capitalism." Of course, that definition is not so much wrong as hyperbolic. To a fundamentalist, that's just a description of no-fault divorce laws, abortion rights, rejection of God as a Father, acceptance of female sexuality, and a commitment to workers.

Nonetheless, women far to the left of Robertson still fear feminism. The fact that the feminist movement has developed networks to help women who are victimized is one reason that women fear the word. Identifying ourselves as feminists means addressing uncomfortable topics: the humiliation of being discriminated against, the fact that we are vulnerable when we walk home late at night or even in our homes, or the sadness of discovering that the sons in our families are treated altogether differently from the daughters. Injustice and oppression are hard to face, a fact that is evident in the number of rape and sexual harassment charges that emerge years, even decades, after the event actually happened. To use one example, Juanita Broaddrick waited twenty years to accuse Bill Clinton of forcing her into sex in a hotel room. This was during a time when forced sex among acquaintances-what is now called date rape-was excused as relatively inevitable, certainly not criminal, male behavior. Feminists fought for a realistic legal definition of rape that acknowledged degrees of sexual assault (and protected male rape victims, too), a minimum one-year statute of limitations, rape shield laws that prohibit using a victim's sexual history against her (or him), and the training of emergency room and police personnel to gather evidence, including a so-called "rape kit," when a victim comes into their hospitals or precincts. Feminism would have meant being there for Broaddrick-utilizing the legal system and social service institutions-the second she could get out of the hotel room to press charges. To take it one step further, the goal of feminism is to create a climate in which Clinton couldn't possibly have raped Broaddrick, or anyone, without knowing that "no means no" and a prison sentence was imminent. Even at the beginning of the Second Wave, women were resistant to acknowledging discrimination. The results of the 1972 Virginia Slims poll (the first one that acknowledged women's issues) found that men observed discrimination against women more often than women did. As we said, consciousness is everything. Even now, acknowledging inequality begs one to do something about it-and that is a daunting, albeit righteous, responsibility.

Feminism's philosophy certainly isn't narrow-minded enough to be solely about our sexuality or our pay-checks, and certainly not about man-hating or chivalry. (In our opinion, whoever gets to the door first should be responsible for opening it). Still, some people choose to stay away from feminism because they don't want to be associated with spooky stereotypes about feminists and their freaky excesses. You know this rap: some feminists think all sex is rape, all men are evil, that you have to be a lesbian to be a feminist, you can't wear Girlie clothes or makeup, or that married women are lame. This conversation is usually baiting and can ride the force of homophobia or internalized Phallofilia (socialized glorification of the male principle and men). Women who love lipstick and also standing up for themselves, but are not politicized, are especially vulnerable to being conned into distancing themselves from the movement, while fully hoping for and expecting to be treated equally.

A good example of this is the Lilith Fair. Canadian chanteuse Sarah McLachlan put together an historic Mothership of ladies (another term that deserves to be reclaimed; this time from uptight, upper-class olden days and proffered as just another, kind of jaunty, word for women). These were stars who had topped the music charts and McLachlan trotted them across America to make the point that, not only are female rock stars achieving a critical mass, but women rake in the audiences. The tour earned over $16.4 million in the first year alone and drew over 75 percent female audiences all three years of its life. To make it even more stunning, the Lilith management gave checks averaging $30,000 to a battered women's shelter or grassroots social service agency in every locale in which the lavender Lilith backdrop undulated. But what happened when McLachlan was asked about women and politics? "The tour isn't a soapbox for extremist feminism," she said in a New York Newsday interview during the first tour. "This is not at all about dissing men." There are certain assurances we just shouldn't have to make, especially when a majority of the back-up band members are male, as is the vast majority of the stage crew, sound people, bus drivers, talent management, and the male-owned companies that underwrote the tour. Besides, as a friend of ours pointed out, even if there weren't a male presence behind the front-women at Lilith, there is no need for the disclaimer. After all, an all-black tour of hip-hop musician wouldn't feel obligated to assure people that they are not dissing whites.

Furthermore, if Sarah McLachlan had brushed up on her feminist history, she would have been aware of Olivia Records, Redwood Recordings, Ladyslipper distribution, and Michigan Womyn's Music Festival. Then, she could have built upon that separatist womyn's music movement (which flourished in the seventies) as her foundation, a movement that created a network of producers, labels, and festivals entirely outside of the mainstream. Shining a light on the long line of women who continue to transform the male-run music industry would have gotten Lilith closer to its implied goal of equal treatment for women. McLachlan didn't remain fearful of the feminist implications of her tour. According to Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, an artist who performed at Lilith all three years, after a few years of being immersed in this feminist experience, McLachlan changed her tune and proudly called the tour feminist. "I think Sarah always had the same vision for Lilith," says Ray. "But she became much more confident about standing up for the idea that women need an all-female tour, they want it, and they're going to take it without apology."

Most of those Ladyslipper/Michigan/Olivia feminists are womyn-loving-womyn, an association which Lilith and many other women in rock tend to fear. "The idea that all feminists are lesbians is scary enough for some women to stay away from the feminist label and movement, even when their beliefs are basically feminist," wrote Barbara Findlen in her pioneering anthology Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation. Homophobia is as essential to root out of the movement as racism was and is. To eschew calling yourself a feminist because you don't want to be called a "dyke" is like not joining the civil rights movement because you don't want to be called a "nigger" or a "nigger lover." Besides, regardless of one's sexuality, all people have a vested interest in reclaiming the inherent dignity of the terms lesbian, gay, and queer, since straight women who refuse a subservient role (and straight men who refuse to dominate) are likely to be called gay. Findlen also points out the odd way that some straight women reconcile themselves with this threat: by arguing that feminists aren't all dykes. (Which implies, among other ignorant assumptions, that all gay women are inherently feminist.) Rather than challenging the homophobia-and misogyny-head on, this tactic sidesteps the issue, allowing women to embrace a limited feminism without disavowing dyke-baiting.

In truth, the movement is comprised of women from all points on the sexual spectrum. And, because they may be more able to risk male disapproval, lesbian and bisexual women have had a particularly creative and strong history in the women's movement, from founding the aforementioned womyn's music scene to writing world-changing books such as Sexual Politics (Kate Millett), Sister Outsider (Audre Lorde), and Sisterhood is Powerful (Robin Morgan) to being the most iconic activists (Barbara Smith, Angela Davis, and Rita Mae Brown). It's interesting to note that homophobes never attack feminist critic Camille Paglia for being of the Sapphic persuasion-proof that dyke-baiting and bashing feminists is only employed in the service of woman-hating. As Kaia Wilson, formerly the guitarist for lesbian super-group Team Dresch and currently for the Butchies, puts it: "There can be really good reasons for not wanting to call yourself a feminist but most of the time, it's due to misogyny."

Even when the winds of misogyny and homophobia aren't blowing feminism's house down, women can be their own big bad wolves. Injudicious niceness, which is a socialized disease, often explains why women tend not to demand equality. It also may be why feminist women feel it necessary to answer questions that are hostile to feminism, no matter how silly or offensive. Conversely, when a woman is politically oriented and knowledgeable about history, she knows the burden of proof should be on the questioner and is less likely to have a misguided sense of politeness. When someone asks, "Why is it that all feminists think they are better than men?" (or insert any weird generalization involving lesbians, matriarchies, and hatred of sex), one should respond with something along the lines of "Who are you referring to?" Imagine the organizing and theorizing which has been stopped because we have allowed ourselves to be delayed by these distractions. In the case of the mythical statement, "Andrea Dworkin says that all sex is rape," recommend actually reading her book Intercourse (the salient chapter is called "Occupation/Collaboration"), and starting the conversation from there. To give you a taste, Dworkin writes pungently: "Women lie about life by not demanding to understand the meaning of entry, penetration, occupation, having boundaries crossed over, having lesser privacy: by avoiding the difficult, perhaps impossible (but how will we ever know?) questions of female freedom." Clearly she is making a much more subtle, disturbing, and ultimately liberating point than an easy generalization could convey. If you want more clarity, you could do what the Hungry Mind Review did, and ask Dworkin directly what she thinks sex is. "I think of sexual contact and sexual intimacy as pleasure," she told them. "And as a way of experiencing freedom."

Feminism is often mistaken as being an enabler, a "sop" discouraging women from taking action in their lives, the genesis of the victim culture that critics like Katie Roiphe and Christina Hoff Sommers so despise. Even women who rely on and are seeking feminist resources can mistake feminism for the equivalent of a Knight in Shining Armor to save them from their woes. In fact, the urge to protect women is part of the problem feminists fight. As Susan Faludi (famed author of Backlash and, more recently, Stiffed) and others have noted, protection starts out polite-women and children first off the sinking ship and so forth-and ends up justifying why women can't be naval captains or firefighters or subjects for medical research. Women can't ride this antiquated stereotype and at the same time fight for independence. In reality, feminism requires action and responsibility for oneself.

Take job discrimination as a case in point. A clerk at Wal-Mart, sensing that she was getting a raw deal, wrote to Ask Amy. For the last five of her ten years at the store, her salary had stayed the same, while male cashiers were given annual raises. Other feminists had done their part by creating laws against sex discrimination, trainings for implementation of these laws, and organizations to help women through the process. Amy's website informed her of her legal rights but also pointed out that now the Wal-Mart clerk must do her part-document the discrimination and file a complaint.

To sum up, feminism is helped by a working knowledge of history, and requires a willingness to act on behalf of yourself, and to stand up for all women in the face of everything from misogyny to a social mandate that says "be nice."

<-- BACK

The above is an excerpt from Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000). Learn more at www.manifesta.net. You can hear the authors themselves at www.talktotara.com.

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Read an excerpt from GRASSROOTS: A Field Guide for Feminist Activism by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards

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