FEMINISM - What went wrong
Saturday 6 March 2010
From pole-dancing lessons to baking cupcakes, modern woman thinks she can do it all. Germaine Greer's free-thinking female eunuch has been replaced by the desperately self-inventing 'Madonna', argues Charlotte Raven, who looks back in shame at the moment in the 1990s when her generation turned its back on feminism
Thanks to a string of celebrity sex stories, the world according to the tabloids has recently been – even more than usual – a sorry place for feminism. But among the countless snaps – of bikini-clad betrayed wives, distressed mistresses and pneumatic "hostesses" – perhaps the most disturbing was that of Katie Price's two-year-old daughter, Princess, in heavy makeup, complete with false eyelashes. Millions have seen it. The "debate" about it has been staged on all media platforms: on one TV talk show, a woman said she couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Her daughter was a "girly girl", like Princess. She "adored" dressing up and posing in front of cameras. It would be wrong to stop her, wouldn't it?
Katie Price's currency is as high today as when she published her million-selling autobiography in 2004. She has generated much outrage in the last few years, but it is nothing compared with her influence. Her narcissism no longer seems so aberrant. Women's belief in specialness and a concomitant sense of entitlement has inflated in line with Price's most famous assets.
How has it come to this? Feminists blame the sexists, Martin Amis et al, which is easy but unfair. In reality, we can't blame anyone but ourselves. While Price has been working tirelessly at getting her message across, the thinking women – the writers and journalists – who should have been putting the counter case have been indulging in a variety of "guilty pleasures" – from ogling young men (Germaine Greer in The Boy) to drooling over frocks (Linda Grant in The Thoughtful Dresser). Feminists have become increasingly frivolous, and as such are no match for Price, who is serious about her mission to win over all women to "Team Narcissist".
Two new exposés of the dehumanising effect of the Price worldview feel like too little too late. The fantasy world described in Natasha Walter's Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism, where appearances are everything, has already come to pass. Today's young women are right to think they will be judged on how they seem, rather than who they are. In this context, Kat Banyard's promise to tell "the truth about women and men" in her new book The Equality Illusion is the promise of a horse-drawn plough in the machine age. The truth is no longer enough; she needs a promotional gimmick.
In a recent study of 1,000 British girls (admittedly by a mobile entertainment company), quoted in Walter's book, 60% said glamour modelling was their preferred career. A quarter said they would consider becoming lap dancers. By all measures, the value map has shifted in Price's favour.
I'm sorry to say that we are culpable. Thinking women have turned their backs on feminism. This might not have been a disaster if we had remained neutral. But we, too, have found the governing philosophy of Priceworld compelling. The fact that our daughters join in shouldn't come as any surprise. Their insouciance about the business of striking poses for money has been learned from us. For too long we've been channelling rather than challenging Price.
There was a moment in the 90s – I wince to recall it – when women themselves fell in with the view that feminism was unglamorous and inhibiting. It was cramping our style and even worse, stopping us from shopping! Middle-class commentators encouraged their readers to embrace their "inner bimbos". Their paeans to hair products and sexy knickers read like new lad-mag paeans to tarty women. Comic exaggeration made it clear that the writers were self-aware – women who "should know better".
"Looking back, I don't have many regrets. I was privileged to live through the era of John Frieda restructuring serum, which revolutionised life for women with curly hair": the journalist Ruth Picardie, who chronicled her battle with cancer, suggested a pleasurable frisson as she delivered the lines of the "knowing" fashion bimbo. Irony protected her from criticism – she was simply playing with an alternative value system and couldn't be held accountable for its moral shortcomings.
"Cycled to Bayswater to interview dull Australian feminist then cycled to Guy's for treatment, then to Dickens and Jones for a 'personal beauty consultation' at the fabulous, fabulous beauty studio." Somewhere along Oxford Street, she mislaid the inverted commas. If any feminists had taken against all this, it might not have got so out of hand. Unfortunately, the people you might have expected to question these assumptions were dancing around in bra tops. In my Dolce & Gabbana number, I believed I was free to be what I really really wanted. Like Tony Blair, I felt I was a person of destiny. Or, as Geri Spice would have it: "I don't know what I'm doing but I'm going to damn well do it."
The girlpower we were all getting "into" was in fact a bit of marketing aimed at getting tweens to buy records. Walter, however, thought it was a real phenomenon. Her first book The New Feminism, which came out in 1998, suggested that the sex war had been won. "As women break down every corridor of power in Britain, we can see that we are in the final stretch of a long feminist revolution that is taking women from the outside of society to the inside, from silence to speech, from impotence to strength."
Could we? Or might this belief have been more to do with fashion than politics. Victimhood looked very 80s and outré. There was also an element of laziness. We simply couldn't be bothered to be political. If we could prove there was no need for it, that would leave more time for deciding between fabulous face creams.
If Walter was right, now was the moment to sit back complacently, filing our nails. The last bit of the feminist revolution was simply a matter of signing on the dotted line. "This generation of women is much less likely to experience the feminist's erstwhile ambivalence about taking on power."
In this model, power could be taken on, like a mortgage, after due consideration. Everyone could sign up for it. Those who chose not to may have had some perverse attachment to their "downtrodden", "sorry victim" status. The rest would opt for life as a "laughing, independent, ambitious optimist", in the manner of Cherie Lunghi (worryingly, one of Walter's positive role models) from the Kenco coffee ads.
In her 1994 book Fire With Fire, Naomi Wolf argued that the impediments to my becoming the Kenco CEO were psychological rather than political. An old-fashioned feminine reticence about boasting and bullshitting was holding me back. To combat this, Wolf suggested convening a "power group" in a gorgeous setting with gourmet coffee on tap. Between sips, my Prada-clad sisters and I would affirm our achievements and discuss ways of making feminism "fun, easy and lucrative" instead of angry and bitter.
As a young journalist in the 1990s – when journalism was having its own moment of hubris – following Wolf's advice, I tapped into my own reservoir of "unclaimed power". No longer whinging about constraints, I seized opportunities and relished the feeling of being mistress of my own destiny. Earning proper money for the first time, I gave myself permission to spend it on designer outfits and crates of bottled Coke "Classic". I never had a bottle opener, so developed the knack of pulling off the cap with my teeth. As I did so, an Oprahesque voice in my head intoned "You go girl!"
Wolf said we needed new role models to replace uninspiring "downtrodden" feminists. Walter plumped for Thatcher on the grounds that she "allowed British women to celebrate their ability not just to be nurturing or caring and life affirming, but also to be deeply unpleasant, to be cruel, to be death dealing, to be egoistic. It was cathartic for us to acknowledge these possibilities. Thatcher normalised success."
I opted for Julie Burchill, a narcissist before narcissism was fashionable. Our brief relationship was a six-month-long powergroup (without the gourmet coffee), and I emerged from it unchivalrously convinced that I would be the next Graham Greene, rather than the next Julie Burchill. "You're the proper writer. Not a performing seal like moi!" It was strange to see other women modelling themselves on Susan Street, the heroine of Burchill's 1989 novel Ambition. The book begins at a crime scene. Street has dispatched her rival "to the big boardroom in the sky with a sexual performance of such singular virtuosity that his heart couldn't stand it". Street doesn't do reticence. The only thing standing between her and her ambition to become the first woman editor of the Sunday Best is its owner, Tobias Pope. She agrees to become his sex slave, knowing that she will remain in control and unmoved, even as she's hanging upside down from the ceiling in a lesbian club in New York. In these moments of degradation, she's still experiencing the "ecstasy of success". In spite of appearances, she is leading him on. Her motto is: "When you win, nothing hurts."
We all started to evince "attitude". Like Katie Price doing sexy, we adopted the pose selfconsciously, knowing that it made commercial sense. Women with balls were de rig. The launch of the late-night magazine-format Girlie Show on Channel 4 in 1994 convinced us that being "Amazonian" and "in yer face" would pay social and professional dividends. "Attitude" was sold as a more authentic way of being. The idea was that women had repressed their sex-loving, gobshite side in the name of feminine propriety. According to the producer: "Women have always behaved like this – they've just never done it on the TV before."
The editor of 90s women's magazine Frank cast "attitude" positively as the freedom to be pleasure seeking. The Amazonians were free to do what they wanted. Those of us who didn't fancy hanging upside down in a lesbian club in New York would get the same head rush at the Boots makeup counter. After years of aesthetic constraint, we were finally free to sport the nail colour of our choosing. "Are we perpetuating the beauty myth?" asked Frank's editor, Tina Gaudoin. "Only if you believe Naomi Wolf's half-baked thesis that we are powerless to make our own decisions about the way we look."
I wore Chanel's Night Sky at meetings with editors, aware that much was at stake. Large contracts were being handed to women displaying attitudinal oomph. I hoped my nail colour would convey my capacity for reckless candour and a readiness to say the unsayable.
If it didn't I could always pretend it had. The bars and clubs were full of women lying like men about the size of their promotions. Everyone was "glinting", Peter York's phrase for believing one's own publicity. Sad to report, feminism had reneged on its responsibility to present uncomfortable truths. It had become a mirror of the moment.
Ten years of ego inflation has had a predicable impact. We are hyperconfident, hypersexual and hypercandid about our readiness to do whatever it takes to secure top billing. We're still longing to experience the ecstasy of success. This feels elusive, even to those at the top of the professional ladder. Wolf would be disappointed to see female CEOs fantasising about the moment when they will be elevated to the next level. "What women want" is no longer a mystery. In our age, it isn't a fulfilling job or happy home life, but promotion in the broadest sense.
The heroine of India Knight's novel My Life on a Plate, published in 2000, models herself on Madonna. In times of personal crisis, she asks: "What would Madonna do?", confident that this will give her the right answer. The novel's popularity suggests women identified with the heroine's belief that "all we need is to feel like Queens on Thrones all the time". The queenly aspect of modern woman – the sense that she is meant for better things – could be described as Madonnaesque. The pop star's lifelong commitment to getting to the next level reinforces her fans' belief that it's possible and desirable to "reinvent" your world, as well as yourself, to match your inflated self-image. Her failure to smile once during the whole 40-year process suggests that this form of self-advancement is as enjoyable as suffragism was for Emily Wilding Davison.
Instrumentalism has taken over from romanticism as the governing female philosophy. Madonna-ised woman sees everything, and everyone, as a means to her end. She views her body instrumentally: the "hypersexualisation" of women noted by Walter in Living Dolls has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with self-marketing. Everyone is constantly orgasming, yet they've never seemed less convincing. They aren't fake, but phoney, a form of spin. They are meant to be overheard, conveying empowerment.
A recent interview with sex blogger Zoe Margolis portrayed her as an icon of liberation. But Walter doesn't fall for this: in the 90s she was happy to take women at their own account, believing their assessment of themselves as empowered-women-of-the-90s, but not today. Living Dolls is more sceptical than The New Feminism. Interviewees' claims to be happily promiscuous, porn-loving, sex-texting women-of the-noughties are properly scrutinised this time, and her accounts of the emotional and psychological costs of this way of life are plausible and compelling. But she's less convincing about the causes of the phenomena of "hypersexualisation" and "exaggerated femininity", so named, I imagine, because she couldn't use "hyper" twice.
Walter puts "hypersexualisation" down to a rise in sexism– not the old-fashioned sort but something more sinister that never quite comes into view. The second half of her book explains the return of traditional femininity as a result of a greater belief in determinism. She is right to point out that we no longer believe in conditioning, but surely wrong to say this belief has been supplanted by essentialism – a belief in innate differences between the sexes. The Madonna-ised woman views femininity as a tool for getting what she wants, whatever that may be. In this moment, it is more or less compulsory for intelligent women to reveal a passion for baking cupcakes. The domestic goddess is a pose, not a reversion to old-style femininity. Now that "attitude" is out and old-fashioned feminine virtues are "in", so Madonna-ised woman is ready to reveal that cake-making is her number one "guilty pleasure".
The young girl's penchant for pinky "girliness" reflects not a belief in essential femininity but an early brand awareness. Her belief that the pickers on the next level favour "girliness" is reinforced by everything she sees. Today's girly isn't passive, but sassy and self-defining.
Completely sold on the myth of "self-invention", today's woman believes herself in control of her life, from birth to the present day. There's no governing philosophy, just an urge to assert her will. She doesn't know what she's doing, but she's damn well doing it.
Anyone who challenges or questions her will get short shrift, even our own children. A slew of motherhood memoirs portray the baby as a "rival consciousness". This memorable phrase was coined in Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work. Cusk's nuanced portrayal of maternal ambivalence was read one way by those seeking support for their perception of motherhood as an endless bad hair day.
Mothers are now more able to portray themselves as victims of their children. Brett Paesel says she was prompted to write her memoir Mommies Who Drink by the silence around motherhood and women's unwillingness to bear witness to their subjugation, "which feels like complaining". No one dares convey the rage evoked by the maternal requirement to put someone else's needs above their own? None except Stephanie Calman, author of Confessions of a Bad Mother; Kate Long, author of The Bad Mother's Handbook; Mel Giedroyc, author of Going Ga Ga – Is There Life After Birth? and so on and on. These controlling mothers seem to feel wronged by the autonomy of the people in their orbit. The fact that their children are separate beings with their own beliefs and habits seems like a dreadful affront. Female confessional writers seldom pay much mind to how it feels to be them. Far from being a golden age of female self-expression, this is the opposite. Real self-expression requires dialogue. With the other point of view excluded, candid authors are communicating nothing.
Madonna-ised woman believes she should have everything, like the women from Sex and the City, with everything defined as every possible dress and sexual permutation. The teenagers interviewed in Living Dolls say things like: "We were saying that one week we should go out and try to notch up as many lovers as we can, with the most variety possible – age, gender, jobs." They might be mortified to find these very omnipotent fantasies enacted, page by lurid page, in Madonna's book Sex, 18 years ago. Many of them maintain a Price-like carapace of invulnerability. They are winning, they believe, so nothing hurts. Unable to evaluate risk, they see no reason not to go out to a drinking barn in their underwear, or appear in a college-run porn mag or have sex with everyone they can.
Sex diarist Belle de Jour has claimed that nothing in her background had any bearing on her decision to become a prostitute. On her website her father's recent public admission that he'd slept with dozens of prostitutes during her adolescence was denied any importance. The facts were not disputed. She just doesn't want anyone thinking they impaired her ability to freely choose sexual slavery, à la Susan Street, while still calling the shots. This belief has made women reckless. Belle's assertion in one of her memoirs that she became a prostitute because she "couldn't remember the reasons not to" suggest that she has forgotten, or more likely repressed, the physical and psychological risks. Paradoxically, this generation of women is more vulnerable than any of its forbears. Women's refusal to acknowledge any weakness has made them easy prey.
Happily, Kat Banyard is on hand to remind them of the bad things that do happen. The Equality Illusion is a dose of feminist commonsense. Banyard doesn't think we need new words for things, or a "new feminism". She reminds me of the feminists I knew at university: angry in just the right measure. I've a hunch she didn't serve cupcakes at her book launch.
Refreshingly, she doesn't flinch from portraying as victims the people bad things happen to. The Equality Illusion provides a useful corrective to the Belle-sponsored myth of free will. "Between 50 and 75% of women in prostitution in the UK begin selling sex acts before they are 18 years old." Many prostitutes were abused as children or "fucked up" by other means.
"I was basically too fucked up for work," one woman tells Banyard. "And I knew it, so when I saw an ad in the paper for escorts, there seemed little choice. I figured I was really fucked up about men and had been truly fucked over by them, and didn't trust them an inch so might as well make some money from it. This was not a free 'choice'. It was the opposite. I needed money, but was a mess. Where else do they greet you with such open arms in such a state as the sex industry?"
During the 90s, according to a Home Office report, the number of men paying for sex in the UK doubled; there are now an estimated 80,000 women involved in prostitution and 921 brothels in London. The industry's efforts to make it seem like a normal leisure pursuit, rather than a form of abuse, appear to be paying off. It isn't. Banyard's interviewee had recently been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder – a common psychological "side effect" of prostitution. One symptom of this was disassociation, protective in the first instance, then destructive if you can't stop doing it. The teenage interviewees in Living Dolls are already adepts at this and rather pleased with themselves to have found a way of avoiding the emotional costs of promiscuity.
The Equality Illusion is full of grim statistics illustrating pay differentials and the point that poverty often has a "female face". As Banyard demonstrates, it isn't difficult proving that women are more oppressed than ever; the difficulty now is getting them to admit it.
Natasha Walter can't quite. Living Dolls does an excellent job of exposing the brutal reality behind the sex industry's increasingly sophisticated façade. It reads much more convincingly than The New Feminism; she's describing something real. Yet, when it comes to it, she still can't say that any of these things are wrong: "There is, of course, nothing intrinsically degrading or miserable about women pole dancing, stripping, having sex with large numbers of partners or consuming pornography. All these behaviours are potentially enjoyable, sexy and fun."
Yet even in her own portrayal, there clearly is something intrinsically degrading and miserable about pole dancing. It's not about sex, says one of her interviewees, but the illusion of power. Each man wants to believe the no-touching rule has been breached for his exclusive benefit. If women were liberated, pole dancing wouldn't exist. Why not condemn it outright?
Walter seems frightened of sounding square – as if she's bought into the idea that a taste for porn is a badge of sophistication. She may also be scared of causing offence, possibly justifiably. Women have never been as touchy and as unwilling to accept criticism. Her reluctance to condemn may spring from an anxiety about being judgmental or from a fantasy about having everything. Like her interviewees, she doesn't want to rule anything out.
In the end, she doesn't want to be the person who's limiting women's choices. In the last decade, choice has become an ideology. Walter's solution to the conundrum of how to respond to the sex industry's successful rebranding as a chic lifestyle choice is to make more wholesome "choices" seem equally alluring. To rebrand them, in other words. As things stand, "we can see that certain choices are celebrated while others are marginalised". All that needs to happen is for these "marginal choices" to be "celebrated".
Will her strategy work? We've seen it in operation in repeated attempts to challenge the dominant ideal of beauty. Gok Wan's celebrations of cellulite always precede suggestions about how to conceal it effectively. Beth Ditto's body may look like a good example of a "marginal" choice made mainstream by a process of reclamation, but like every other cover girl she is styled in accordance with the current aesthetic orthodoxy. Her image on the cover of Pop magazine was manipulated, apparently, to make her bigger. Today the pickers on the next level like extreme looks, and Ditto is fortunate to conform to their hyperbolic tastes. The Pop cover is fashion. Like all fashion images, it makes normality seem risible.
It's a good moment to reread Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Its reissue feels timely. In the 50s, as now, the early gains of feminism had been squandered by a generation who thought it unglamorous and inhibiting. Friedan was recording a postwar period of reaction when women sought refuge in a form of conventional femininity. With nostalgia she recalls the period during the early part of the century when women such as Amelia Earhart offered a glorious go-faster modernism in place of feminine passivity and female icons were complex-looking rather than merely beautiful.
I feel the same when looking back to the 1970s. The free-thinking, life-loving, desiring person described in Greer's The Female Eunuch now seems a historical figure. In her place, we have Madonna-ised woman grinding out routines in front of a mirror, with her eyes asking "am I hot?" Her whole being is directed at self-advancement, yet she is as incapable of real fulfilment. Her ambitions have been curtailed, just like Friedan's housewife. How very far this creature is from the feminist ideal. In spite of what is now claimed, feminism has never been about empowerment through choice. You can't simply opt for power – power isn't a fridge or an elliptical training machine. Any strategy in this consumerist register is doomed to fail.
Friedan didn't worry about offending her audience. She described the destruction wrecked by the "happy housewife" on her miserable husband and progeny. With no life of her own, she lives vicariously through them, stunting their emotional growth and preventing them from taking on the responsibilities of adulthood.
It's hard to imagine Madonna-ised woman having an "ah ha" moment reading something that anatomised her flaws. Any representation of the damage she is doing to her loved ones and herself will be angrily rebuffed, along with any accompanying advice about "getting other interests" or "putting baby first". Putting baby's needs ahead of our own, with no quid pro quo, seems as silly to us as Friedan's suggestion that the 50s housewife would benefit from putting herself first.
I remember that T-shirt we used to wear in the 70s which featured Thatcher and the slogan "We are all prostitutes", meaning exploitation was a universal fact. At that time it was thought clever to display some awareness of the social and psychological forces underpinning your actions. Now we think the opposite. Even prostitutes are insulted by the suggestion that they are not free agents, defining the terms of engagement.
If awareness returned – if modern woman were no longer disassociating from her pain and victimhood – all her decisions would be different. The things that hurt us would never seem "potentially enjoyable". We wouldn't wear silly shoes, blog about our sex life, worry that our babies are upstaging us. Most importantly, we'd resist the temptation to caricature ourselves. We'd lose the Nigella-esque pinny, the Price-esque lash extensions; the Belle-esque pose of erotic empowerment would seem inhibiting. We'd recover our desire for the missionary position with the person lying next to us. In every sphere of existence we'd be free to choose normality.
Natasha Walter's Living Dolls is published by Virago (£12.99), Kat Banyard's The Equality Illusion by Faber (£12.99) and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique by Penguin (£12.99).
March 10, 2010
Read this article, here
Taking ambivalent measure of the legacy of modern feminism
In his new book, Paco Underhill, a longtime student of consumer behavior, evinces a particular aversion to the word woman. He prefers instead "the female of the species" or "the female of the household" or "the female of the house." The female of the species, we learn, behaves in a specific, predictable way in hotel lobbies. The female of the species feels about her kitchen the way the male feels about his car. The female of the species prefers certain species of things; for instance, she does not like cookie-cutter mansions, which, "as a species," convey "aesthetic bankruptcy."
These repeated references to taxonomy suggest Underhill believes himself a man of science, or at least an observer of human experience with some interest in the scientific method. They suggest he is a man of data. And this we would expect, because the subject of What Women Want—the extent to which consumer products reflect the preferences of the second sex—is a subject that has presumably generated much research worthy of exposition. There are regularities in what men and women purchase; some of them are probably counterintuitive. It might be interesting to read about them, and it might be interesting to hear about them from a marketing consultant like Underhill, the author of Why We Buy (1999) and the subject of an adulatory 1996 New Yorker profile by Malcolm Gladwell.
About that profile. "What Paco likes," Gladwell explains, "are facts." It's a surprising characterization, because What Women Want contains so few of them, tending instead toward a kind of shadowy market mysticism. Underhill either does not have or does not wish to share research supporting the vast majority of his pronouncements about the consumption choices of half the population. Instead of telling us what women actually buy, Underhill considers a product and deigns to divine its male or female origins. Often, the thing he doesn't like is the "male" thing. The product he does like he attributes to the growing and glorious power of the woman consumer. McMansions, which Underhill considers vulgar and atomizing, he deems male. For New Urbanist communities, we are told without benefit of explanation, you can thank women. And because women are in charge now, McMansions are going out of style. ("Good-bye, McMansions. And hello to a new species of home that accommodates the female of the species.") In a typical passage, Underhill notices that pillow quality in American hotels is improving. He attributes this, on a hunch, to pillow-demanding women travelers, which sounds plausible. But might good pillows merely be a response to the taste preferences of an increasingly wealthy society? Would a world without women necessarily be a world with a smaller proportion of soft pillows?
I bring up these questions not because I wish to attack Underhill, who sounds too much like someone's grandpa to be offensive, and who in any case offers a prophylactic apology for his generalizations in the author's note. I bring them up because it's useful to consider what a respected marketing consultant, left to rely on intuition and stereotype, thinks to be the true nature of a supposedly woman-dominated economy, driven by women's immutable, "hard-wired" preferences. The woman in this world wants "a safe form of escape." When she walks into a hotel room she looks for "safety, cleanliness, serenity, and comfort." She prefers integrated rooms because, at home, it is her job to "make sure everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing." She frets about hormones in her milk. More than anything, she is enthusiastic about her kitchen, which is very, very large:
For the female of the species, the contemporary kitchen is a place where a woman can wander euphorically among a showroom of gadgets, fixtures, and appliances. Just as a man collects his toys—the all-terrain vehicle, the Harley, or the vintage, seldom-used Porsche he keeps sheeted in one side of the garage—the kitchen has been transformed into the arena where the female can compensate for all the male gadgets under the roof. It's as if she's saying, "Hey, if you have the power saw and the new MacBook Pro, I want an incredible refrigerator!"
Whether or not they exist because women in particular demand them, capacious kitchens do seem to have become a staple of the American middle-class home. Cooks' rooms contracted after the Civil War, when household servants left to find better-paid work in factories, but between 1880 and the postwar era—what Underhill calls "the Golden Age of the kitchen appliance"—women began buying all sorts of mechanical devices and required a place to put them. Machines invaded the household and demanded more and more territory, until a room once hidden away in the back of the house became its gleaming, granite-countered center.
Confronted with new and large labor-saving devices, women at the turn of the century did not necessarily envision a future of "wandering euphorically" among them. Some optimists supposed, not unreasonably, that the whole point of a fully mechanized kitchen was the freedom not to be there. Perhaps with time you wouldn't even need a kitchen; the miracle of mass production could churn out meal after prepackaged meal. In her revelatory new history, Dreamers of a New Day, Sheila Rowbotham quotes women who muse about the modern kitchen and the possibility of liberation therein. Charlotte Perkins Gilman dreamed up a series of kitchenless apartments and homes to which food would be delivered "in insulated containers by gasoline-powered motor van." In suffragist Henrietta Rodman's ideal twelve-story feminist apartment house, "meals were to be produced by staff in the mechanized basement and sent up in lifts to the residents." As IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn put it, "There is no great credit to making a pie like mother used to make when a machine tended by five unskilled workers turns out 42,000 perfect pies a day!"
Rowbotham argues that the period from 1880 until World War I was especially fertile for this kind of "optimistic imagining." The world of forty-two thousand perfect pies was the world that produced Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) and Frederick Winslow Taylor's forward-looking ideas about workplace efficiency. It was not a nostalgic period for intellectuals; the past could seem a rather benighted place, wasteful and irrational, enamored of senseless conventions. And if the families filling the tenements of the time spoke no English, their very presence suggested that one could climb aboard a steamship and float away from tradition.
Encouraged by the conflation of the past with backwardness, radicals were free to imagine a utopian future: revolutions not just of kitchens but of cities, of human reproduction, of the economic order. "We were restive and impetuous and almost savage in our arguments," one woman recalls of her reaction to an 1889 performance of A Doll's House. While middle-class women began wearing pants, working-class women rebelled by donning the elaborately constraining dress once reserved for their wealthy counterparts. Slipping from one identity to another could lend an element of surprise to rebellion—"suffragettes could infiltrate a venue in a ladylike mode, only to smash windows and hurl axes at politicians."
"Feminism doesn't mean anything anymore" is a sentiment I've heard quite a bit over the past few years, and reading Rowbotham, one wonders what long-lost past of feminist cohesion is being invoked. You can be fairly sure that a thirty-year-old American self-identified feminist today is a fan of birth control, Medicare, and democracy. In 1890 one could make no such assumptions about a pro-woman radical. She might well support free love but think condoms a tool of the sex-mad patriarchy; she might want to socialize housework or smash the state. One is struck, paging through this idiosyncratic survey of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers, by the enthusiasm for a kind of fluid, shape-shifting self-conception. "It is such a confounded bore to have to act one part endlessly," American anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons wrote in her 1914 Journal of a Feminist.
This prized ability to be more than one kind of person is both a font of conceptual freedom and a source of some great internal difficulty, as it isn't easy to rally unstable personae. You couldn't count on rebellious women to agree with one another, and you couldn't count on them to agree with their past selves. Economic disagreements were especially intense. Labor reformers argued that women needed a shorter workday on account of their role as reproductive vessels; individualist anarchists looked on in horror. In Britain, Labour Party activists demanded state payments for mothers; in 1914, writing in Margaret Sanger's anarchist journal Woman Rebel, Benita Locke responded with an article titled "Mothers' Pensions: The Latest Capitalist Plot." The anarchist Ada Nield Chew worried that the payments would be used to "command obedience," as indeed they were in some US states, where smoking or a lack of church attendance could get your mother's allowance pulled.
It may sound like a small thing to acknowledge that women at the turn of the century differed in their visions of utopia, but the fierce individualism of the women Rowbotham profiles here is something most chroniclers would push aside for the sake of narrative simplicity. It's this resistance to conventional storytelling that makes Dreamers so moving, the willingness to present a pastiche of quotations from pamphlets and letters and novels, to reveal the messy process of reinvention rather than merely reporting its conclusion. Instead of stern teleology, we get sporting play. When "new woman" Helena Born died in 1901, a friend wrote, "Hers was certainly the experimental life; there were no rut marks on her."
• • • • •
If the period Rowbotham surveys was indeed characterized by wide-eyed "optimistic imagining," our own time is striking for the narrowness of its political and economic questions. The successes of feminism and market capitalism (the latter trend evidenced by the desperate use of words like socialist and fascist to describe various shades of market-friendly moderates in American political discourse) have bequeathed to today's feminists a straitened range of internecine dispute. Movement types are less likely to question the gender assumptions of liberal democracy than to argue about the importance of a female president, less likely to discuss the machinery of production than to discuss the role of woman as consumer. This comparatively fixed framework, this shift from sprawling questions to well-defined goals, is a symptom of progress. And yet after reading Rowbotham it's hard not to notice the comparative tininess of today's tent.
In 2000, when Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards first published their defense of feminism, they described themselves as third wave. The terminology of "waves" suggested a certain cartoonish characterization, a schema in which the ways to be a living feminist had been reduced to two. In one corner, the sensibly dressed second-waver, defiantly overweight, highly suspicious of the fairy-princess aisle at Toys "R" Us. In another, the young third-waver in a miniskirt and heels, busy either painting her nails or knitting something, tattooed, carrying her keys in a Hello Kitty lunch box. "A feminist, not the fun kind," is how Andrea Dworkin chose to define herself. Feminism can be "relevant and fun and in the moment," counter Baumgardner and Richards, who, curiously, don't seem to be having much fun at all.
At the time they published Manifesta, Baumgardner and Richards were young feminists who had worked for Ms. Magazine, where they evidently realized that second-wave staffers knew nothing about their generation of feminists. (They also complain about the pay, under the odd assumption that the revolution ought to be remunerative.) Dubbing themselves "intergenerational mediators," the two decided to write a book defending their ideals to those older feminists who would disparage them. Manifesta has since become a canonical text of third-wave feminism, called on at great length, for instance, in the unfortunate "third-wave feminism" entry in Wikipedia and just rereleased their tract in a tenth-anniversary edition.
It remains an eminently reasonable book, perhaps best understood as a statement of the ethics of a particular educated subculture from the northeastern United States. Indeed, as a white northeastern female, I'm certain half the women with whom I went to college could have written it. Baumgardner and Richards give the impression of being women who sat attentively through the date-rape assembly during the first week at college and followed up by listening respectfully to those women—like Katie Roiphe—who wanted to scratch out their eyeballs during the whole production. They never once deviate from the safe zone of the sensitive center-left, though they're also too intelligent to conflate idiosyncratic personalities, like Camille Paglia, with those actually hostile to their cause.
Third-wave feminism was at its most compelling in its gamesome, confident presentation of the young female body—SLUT scrawled across the stomach; the combination of combat boots and baby-doll dresses. Baumgardner and Richards made the now-familiar case that women and girls can participate in consumer culture without becoming its victims. Barbie can be a figure on whom you practice giving abortions rather than a demon unleashed on the marketplace to sprinkle anorexia dust on infant girls. The market culture that envelops girls is theirs to manipulate and reclaim; it is, in the end, their culture, and it's wrong to pretend they'll be more whole without it.
This is beyond dispute, but it's also not enough for Baumgardner and Richards, who are most interested in something they call "political consciousness," by which they seem to mean earnest engagement with extant institutions. The authors of Manifesta are upset that older feminists don't invite younger feminists to panel discussions; they're also upset that younger feminists don't much seem to care. A woman who runs a popular webzine declares that she believes running the zine is "more effective than getting behind a politician or going to a march." "Indeed it could be," respond Baumgardner and Richards, "if she were proposing a Day of Pay Equity, sort of like Take Our Daughters to Work Day." Women are thus called on to signal that they are on board, to mark on their calendars a series of well-plotted "days" for civic engagement. The idea that a life might be well lived outside the purview of a firmly established movement seems not to have occurred to the authors.
Or perhaps the fear is that such a life would be misunderstood by the second-wavers Baumgardner and Richards are petitioning for acceptance. As it turns out, the job of being an "intergenerational mediator" is incompatible with that of writing a manifesto. In making third-wave feminism safe for their mothers, the authors stifle every bit of savagery that would enliven what they seek to defend. One would have expected such a book to dig deep into the underground-punk subculture known as Riot Grrrl—the torn tights and smeared lipstick, the confrontational song titles ("Resist Psychic Death") and Kathleen Hanna's wonderfully disordered "Riot Grrrl Manifesto" ("We must take over the means of production in order to create our own moanings"). It's typical of the placid, consensualist drift of the book that Baumgardner and Richards barely mention the social deviance, aggression, and essentialism that characterized the movement, preferring instead to draw our attention to "a grassroots feminist meeting called the Riot Grrrl Convention in Washington, D.C."
• • • • •
Baumgardner and Richards express great faith in conventions and also in "revolution." You're almost certainly a revolutionary if you went to liberal-arts school and don't actively campaign for the subjugation of women. Men are instructed that "doing the dishes can be a revolutionary act, as can picking up one's own socks." The second appendix, titled "A Young Woman's Guide to Revolution," is a list of contact information for institutions like the Guttmacher Institute and the Women's Sports Foundation. Revolutionaries Baumgardner and Richards are now both mothers, small-business owners, and media consultants. Valerie Solanas they are not.
It's never all that clear why Baumgardner and Richards are so set on apologizing to their mothers or so upset about that one time Betty Friedan was mean to their friend. To the question "How can Third-Wave women negotiate their independence and still remain part of the family?" one can only ask why it is so important that there be a family. The Manifesta authors offer a more confident vision of feminism than that of their immediate predecessors—less brittle, more welcoming of dissent and secure in its ability to integrate popular culture. But for all that, it's a remarkably cloistered, orderly vision, totally lacking in imaginative scope. There is no anarchy here; each cry of rebellion is quickly quieted by the need for consensus. We keep hearing that feminists don't hate men. Shouldn't some of them hate men? Doesn't the world have room for a man-hating feminist faction?
Manifesta is eager to please. It is too fearful of discord, too quick to soften the edges of its subjects, too insistent that if we all search deep inside our womanly souls we will find that we are all sensible moderates. It is the print equivalent of a sitcom wife condemned to play the straight sidekick—competent; dull; charged, as Underhill would have it, with making "sure everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing." One can imagine Manifesta slipping into a hotel room, going straight for the pillows, and checking the locks twice. Ten years after the book's publication, there are still those who think they can waltz into any environment and divine which aspects of the decor are male and which female. I hope they are wrong, which is another way of saying that I hope women have claimed more mettle, imagination, and savagery for themselves than Manifesta ever grants them.
Kerry Howley is a senior editor of the literary magazine Defunct and an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa.
July 21, 2010
DREAMERS OF A NEW DAY
Women who invented the twentieth century
320pp. Verso. £17.99 (US $29.95).
978 1 84467 613 2
Sheila Rowbotham’s adventurous dreamers had marvellous names: Voltairine de Cleyre, Elsie Clews Parsons, Storm Jameson, Maggie Lena Walker, and Clementina Black. More familiar to most readers and writers of feminist histories are Frances E. Willard, Jane Addams, Mary Church Terrell, Octavia Hill and Henrietta Barnett. Rowbotham’s contribution is to demonstrate how both prominent and obscure women in the United States and Britain created new ways of being women. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, they challenged prevailing expectations about sexuality, living arrangements, paid work and motherhood.
The American anarchist Voltairine de Cleyre, whose father named her after the Enlightenment philosopher, was an ardent proponent of free love. One should “never allow love to be vulgarized by the common indecencies of continuous close communication”, she maintained, nor was she keen on children, mocking the maternal instinct and defending the childless. Then there was the British author Margaret Storm Jameson who wrote forty-five novels before dying at the age of ninety-five. And Elsie Clews Parsons, an American, who wrote articles about sex before anyone discussed it in polite company. The British social reformer Clementina Black declared that the bicycle “was doing more for the independence of women than anything expressly designed to that end”; noting that chaperones and maids could be left behind on cycling trips. Frances E. Willard, president of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), agreed. She was so thrilled with her bicycle that she named it Gladys and wrote a book entitled How I Learned To Ride the Bicycle. In fact, Willard took lessons because it gave her a sense of mastery over a machine, and because her friends thought she was too old to learn. She was fifty-three at the time. Like the other remarkable women in this story, Willard believed life could be better.
Rowbotham has mined periodicals, novels, association pamphlets and correspondence for evidence of the utopian vision shared by women from different political, socioeconomic and racial backgrounds. United by their desire to put radical ideas about womanhood into practice, some took inspiration from the promise of an efficient industrialized future predicted by Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). Others were committed to the creative expression and communal life promoted by William Morris’s Arts and Crafts Movement. Bellamy foresaw a strong role for State regulation, while Morris and his disciples wished away the state entirely. These women, though, were not a cohesive group. They differed and asserted their independence on a variety of issues: reform vs revolution; regulation vs liberation; and religious vs secular motivations. Rowbotham’s accomplishment is to have discovered the common thread that connected them.
Differences were often multidimensional. The African Americans Mary Church Terrell and Maggie Lena Walker, for example, came from opposite ends of the social class spectrum. Highly educated and married to a judge, Terrell was a co-founder of the National Association of Colored Women (1896) and a member of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (1890). She used her extensive organizational skills to spotlight racial violence and to campaign for the vote. Walker, on the other hand, was a former washerwoman from Richmond, Virginia, who promoted economic empowerment for blacks. Her goal was to redirect black spending from white-owned establishments to black businesses. She formed a Penny Savings Bank in 1903 with the savings from poor black women; it eventually grew into the black-owned Consolidated Bank and Trust Company, of which she was president. Walker also founded a female insurance company and a department store to create jobs for African American women. Among the black elite W. E. B. Du Bois called the Talented Tenth, Terrell occupied the national stage. Walker, practising the economic self-sufficiency promoted by Booker T. Washington, was a strong presence on the local scene. Richmond has honoured Walker by declaring her home a National Historic Site.
A few women travelled in both British and American radical circles. The Socialist feminist author Charlotte Perkins Gilman recommended the British publication Englishwoman to her readers, for example, and her magazine, the Forerunner, had a British audience. The famous American suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter, Harriot Stanton Blatch, maintained close connections with progressive Fabian friends in Britain after returning to the United States. Following a trip to Toynbee Hall in London, Jane Addams established Hull House in Chicago, one of the first American settlement houses. Addams, in turn, hosted Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, the founders of Toynbee Hall, when they visited America.
Henrietta Barnett was also affiliated with a lesser-known settlement. She and the housing reformer Octavia Hill opened the Women’s University Settlement in 1887 to train women in methods of property management. Hill’s ideas on limited-dividend housing investments travelled to America, where the Octavia Hill Association in Philadelphia wholeheartedly adopted her techniques. Rowbotham’s careful attention to international influences makes this volume the ideal complement to Daniel T. Rodgers’s Atlantic Crossings: Social politics in a progressive age (1998).
I am surprised that Rowbotham has outed Jane Addams, by referring to Ellen Gates Starr as her lover. Two recent biographies are ambiguous about Addams’s sexuality and identify Starr (and later Mary Roget Smith) as her companions or close friends. In Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy (2002), Jean Bethke Elshtain implies that Addams lived a celibate life, but not a lonely one. The “saving grace” for Addams was the fellowship she found at Hull House. It was her home, providing comfort, but also a place from which to speak and act. Louise W. Knight, author of Citizen: Jane Addams and the struggle for democracy (2005), believes Addams shared an emotional and physical intimacy with Smith that was not explicitly sexual. I’ve never understood why it matters if Addams was a lesbian. Her private life was much less interesting than her significant public accomplishments.
Regardless of sexual orientation or how famous they might be, all women at the turn of the twentieth century who wanted to change the world usually started by loosening their clothes. Long skirts, constricting corsets, even hats and gloves limited women’s mobility. The Rational Dress Society (1881) encouraged comfortable and healthy clothing based on reason, usefulness and simplicity. The Healthy and Artistic Dress Union (1901), inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement, favoured flowing Grecian robes to enhance creativity. Famously, the dancer Isadora Duncan adopted the style with dreadful consequences. In 1927 her long scarf caught in the rear axle of the car she was driving and broke her neck.
Less dramatically, dress style could help or hinder women’s pursuit of independence. Clothing that drew too much attention to their feminine figures made women publicly vulnerable. With the shirtwaist and tie that became popular at the end of the nineteenth century, women signalled they were sexually unavailable. Women who went even further by dressing as men and cutting their hair short were unlikely to be molested when they walked through the city. Masculine styles, according to Rowbotham, were “the badge of geographic mobility” that marked the arrival of adventurous women in “men’s zones”.
The book is organized primarily by subject (sex, motherhood, housework, consumption, and paid employment), and loosely chronologically within subject. Although women’s lives revolve around the same concerns today, one aspect has changed greatly. Women now have more control over the consequences of their sexual activity. The strongest inducement to chastity at the turn of the twentieth century was the fear of an unwanted pregnancy. One of Rowbotham’s dreamers who saw an alternative to women’s lack of reproductive rights was Margaret Sanger, the moving force behind the invention of oral contraceptives. (As long as I have been reading about birth control, this is the first time I learned that Sanger created the term “birth control” as a counterpart to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) slogan “workers’ control”). Sanger illegally dispensed information about birth control and as a result was to go on trial in 1914. Instead, she fled to Europe, where she joined up with the British sex psychologist Havelock Ellis. Sanger later returned to the United States to continue her campaign against unwanted pregnancies. Here the reader may encounter some confusion. Rowbotham reports that Sanger evaded trial, but the photograph on page 92 shows Sanger with her sister Ethel Bryne in court in 1916. Sanger and Bryne were arrested that year for opening a Brooklyn clinic to distribute birth control information. According to Linda Gordon’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right: Birth control in America (1974), one of the women they saw was working undercover for the police. Sanger and her sister were sentenced to, and served, thirty days on Blackwell’s Island. The photograph on page 92 is most likely from that incident.
Rowbotham does an excellent job of reminding the reader of the historical context of these women’s lives. Clearly, the impetus for changing women’s everyday experiences came from unprecedented developments in technology and communications, momentous scientific discoveries, iconoclastic art, and growing urbanity. Pessimists undoubtedly bemoaned the changes and wished for the old order. Optimistic dreamers could see the promise of a new day. Although it is somewhat bold to conclude that the pioneers portrayed here invented the twentieth century, they certainly invented the twentieth-century woman.
Daphne Spain is James M. Page Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning in the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. Her books include Gendered Spaces, 1992, and How Women Saved the City, 2001. She is working on a book entitled Constructive Feminism: Women’s rights and the city.
The Marrying Kind
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