January
29th 2009
“Radical” feminism: Groundhog Day?

Posted under: American history, Gender, unhappy endings, women's history

Back when I was just starting my career, I met a senior scholar about 15 years my elder.  About her years teaching at a conservative Catholic university, she said something like, “I never realized I was such a radical!  It was kind of fun to be thought of as really radical.”  She wasn’t writing women’s history–yet, although she has become a women’s historian since then.  But she was a woman historian, which in that department at that point in time made her really stand out, and she became an advocate for causes and ideas that she had never been openly affiliated with, whereas before she was just an early Americanist with a prestigious degree.  Of course, as a 27 year-old ABD, I thought to myself:  good thing those days are over, and we’re on the path to a brighter future!

It’s thirteen years later, and I feel like we’re in the same place as that senior scholar was twenty-five years ago (or more) when she was just starting her career.  We’re still at the point where feminism–any kind of it–is seen as a radical idea, and one that the majority of young women don’t want to affiliate with.  Notorious, Ph.D. reports that only two out of twenty women students in her women’s history class self-identify as feminists.  We’re still at the point where a Democratic president who was elected because women showed up to vote bargains away Medicaid funding for contraception in exchange for…nothing.  We’re still at the point where it feels like progress that women are actually permitted to go to court and sue someone for ripping them off.  And, here’s the punchline, courtesy of Notorious, Ph.D. once again:  Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs expert whom I have always believed was a pretty tough feminist in her own right “began her report [on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act] by noting that the 70 year-old Ledbetter, ‘doesn’t look much like a crusading feminist.’”

By the way, all of the images in this post are the result of going to Google Images and typing in “radical feminist.”  These are just a few of the images on the first page of results–the photographs are of Andrea Dworkin (above) and Hillary Clinton (left).  Note the trends here:  radical feminists are apparently all white, middle-class or professional, loudmouthed, morbidly obese, middle-aged, and/or ridiculous.

How very damaging is the notion of “progress.”  Why do even smart women’s historians–like Notorious Ph.D. and Historiann–continue to fall for the notion that since the date on the calendar has changed, that things must be so much better than they were?  Why do I fear that the last thirty years of U.S. feminist history (at least!) is just so much Groundhog Day?

22 Comments »

22 Responses to ““Radical” feminism: Groundhog Day?”

  1. Notorious Ph.D. on 29 Jan 2009 at 1:01 pm #

    Historiann, thanks for the shout-out, but I need to issue a correction: the number I noted in my post two out of twenty students, not twenty women. My women’s history class is about 60-40.

  2. Historiann on 29 Jan 2009 at 1:03 pm #

    Sorry–I misread your post. I’ll make the correction above.

  3. Notorious Ph.D. on 29 Jan 2009 at 1:17 pm #

    Thanks, H. I’ve never had such a large proportion of men in this class, so it should be interesting.

  4. GayProf on 29 Jan 2009 at 2:16 pm #

    The view from my classroom is that more young women (and some men) have grown weary of the status quo and are seeking out, and identifying as, feminist writers. Maybe I am just being optimistic. . . Or living in a self-selecting bubble.

  5. Sungold on 29 Jan 2009 at 2:37 pm #

    I teach women’s studies in SE Ohio at a large state univeristy. I’d guess that maybe 10% of students in my intro classes would call themselves feminists at the start of the term. Maybe I should start doing a pre- and post-course survey! Mind you, my intro classes are now often about 40% male, and biz school students can use it to fulfill a requirement. But even five years ago, before the influx of business majors, the number of self-declared feminists wouldn’t have been much higher.

  6. Professor Zero on 29 Jan 2009 at 2:50 pm #

    Things have improved in several ways. When I was a graduate student, for instance, it was known that married women could not get jobs. Professors, who were mostly men, would inform employers that they were married, and everyone would agree that their husband would not want to move or to “let” their wife move alone.

  7. hysperia on 29 Jan 2009 at 5:40 pm #

    I have a dear feminist friend who teaches in a Canadian law school. We were talking about her research assistant yesterday – a woman who is eight months pregnant, has a toddler, gets As and A+s in her course work which will probably score her a gold medal, does great work as a research assistant for a very active faculty member – and is humble. My friend mentioned that she has an interview for a clerkship at the Supreme Court of Canada next week. She should be a shew-in (sp?). My immediate response was, “oh no, all they’re going to see is her belly”. Both my friend and I think she is unlikely to get the job. They want clerks at the Court who are prepared to give up their lives. This woman, like many others, can do her job while giving birth to and raising children and she’s more than proved that. All they will see is her belly and the threat of divided loyalty.

    I applied to clerk at a certain Court of Appeal twenty years ago. I was asked if I was planning on becoming pregnant. I’m surprised I wasn’t asked what form of birth control I was using. And this from people who are supposed to lead the way in terms of equality. I wanted to lodge a complaint but an older feminist academic asked me if I wanted to start my career by becoming famous among judges and lawyers as a complainer. She told me that, no matter what the outcome, the beginning of my career would be the end. So I didn’t complain. And I didn’t get the job. And it still bugs me.

    Twenty years.

  8. Satsuma on 29 Jan 2009 at 5:48 pm #

    Wow, I was bugged hearing Nina Tottenberg say that “Lily Ledbetter wasn’t a woman who looked like a feminist” as well. Why shouldn’t she look like a feminist? But then again, news types always seem to fixate on sterotypes as a kind of “news hook.”

    As for young women not identifying as feminists, I think for the most part, few people really know what feminism is. And it is a function of women getting scared off by the 24/7 attack on feminism going on in the malestream, no surprise there.

  9. Belle on 29 Jan 2009 at 6:16 pm #

    And, actually, there is a connection between feminism and Groundhog day – you knew that, right?

  10. Historiann on 29 Jan 2009 at 6:47 pm #

    Belle, I had no idea, but thanks to your blog, now I do! Everyone–go read.

  11. Historiann on 29 Jan 2009 at 6:50 pm #

    Everyone–thanks for your comments. It’s good to hear that some of you have reason for hope! I’m in the middle of Judith Bennett’s _History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism” right now, so I’m especially cranky about all of this. I’ll report more later on Bennett’s book–have any of you read it yet?

    I wonder if her subtitle should more accurately have read instead, “Feminism and the Challenges of Patriarchy?”

  12. Notorious Ph.D. on 29 Jan 2009 at 9:00 pm #

    Hi again!

    I’ve read this, and have assigned it for my undergrad women’s history course. Maybe we can simultaneous-blog it, as a way to kick of women’s history month? Shoot me an e-mail…

  13. Notorious Ph.D. on 29 Jan 2009 at 9:00 pm #

    (Clarification: “this” = Bennett’s History Matters)

  14. Susan on 29 Jan 2009 at 11:20 pm #

    Loved Bennett’s History Matters. Disagree with all sorts of things in it (she and I have been arguing some of it on and off for 20 years or so) but still. . . the passion! the politics! Yea!

  15. twandx on 30 Jan 2009 at 4:33 am #

    If this does not convince you that the fault lies not in ourselves but in that damn lable – feminist – than nothing will.

    Until we own our all being women, any characterization of us is just as damning to ALL women. This means waking up more women. It means the critics of our movement are talking and writing about ALL females.

    That makes them pause as most will have mothers, sisters, wives or daughters.

  16. susurro on 30 Jan 2009 at 8:12 am #

    The politics of claiming feminism and feminist principles is a mixed bag but I do think our rights are expanding in step with the ways they are contracting. The important thing is to keep drawing in, learning and organizing with, young people so that they see our relevance and we see theirs and to make sure that effort is diverse so that we don’t keep losing some of our strongest voices to various oppressions from within.

  17. squadratomagico on 30 Jan 2009 at 9:50 am #

    I think Notorious’ students reluctance to claim the identity “feminist” is neither surprising nor even that dismaying. It certainly is clear that the broader cultural image of feminism has been degraded through time, and that younger women are scared off by that. However, it also is true that many younger people are chary of attaching too many labels to themselves. They may claim a few, here and there (gay/straight; vegetarian/vegan/omnivore; Christian/Jew/Buddhist/whatever), but once they take up 2-3 labels, they refuse to adopt any more. Yet, ask them whether they believe in equal pay for equal work, whether women are intellectually equal to men, whether women should have the right to control their bodies, and you will find that they all are “feminists” sans la lettre.
    When I was younger, we searched for identity, formulated our sense of self, through enthusiastic adoption of multiple labels. Now, young people work out their identities in part by refusing labels. And, even though I, as a product of my generation, am fully comfortable calling myself a feminist (AND a liberal, AND a freak), I think the growing suspicion of neat prepackaged identities actually is a Very Good Thing. It opens up a more creative field of self-fashioning, a more active and emergent invention of one’s adulthood. Perhaps not everyone takes full advantage of these opportunities, but they are there.
    Ultimately, to me the word matters less than the attitudes.

  18. Groundhog Day on 30 Jan 2009 at 5:18 pm #

    [...] “Radical” feminism: Groundhog Day? : Historiann : History and … (historiann.com) – January 29, 2009to fall for the notion that since the date on the calendar has changed, that things must be so much better than they were? Why do I fear that the last thirty years of U.S. feminist history (at lea… more Groundhog Day blog posts … [...]

  19. Historiann on 31 Jan 2009 at 12:44 pm #

    Thanks for all of your thoughts on feminism–I had a day full of appointments and other obligations yesterday, so I’m sorry I couldn’t have participated in the discussion.

    I will say that I think (re?)claiming the label “feminist” is, if not the solution, it’s certainly not the problem, as twandx suggests. I think it’s important for feminists to identify as feminists, and to give voice to feminist concerns and call them feminist. (At the very least, it’s participating in scrubbing history of feminists not to claim certain issues and causes as feminist, and to ignore their history of activism.) While I think that Squadratomagico is correct in that it’s perhaps largely a rejection of a label, rather than a rejection of the ideas, I wonder why it is that (for example) lots of university-affiliated people are happy to affiliate with anti-racism causes and gay rights causes, but they hold back at calling themselves feminist. (Not everyone mind you, but the target audience I’m thinking of.) At bottom, I’m concerned that this is a kind of erasure of women from political history–the “girls are icky” school, so we should ignore or minimize their work so that men can take credit for advancing X cause, because if we acknowledge women’s work in it it will make it look less important or less significant.

    I would like to take Notorious up on her offer to do a dual-post on Judith Bennett’s History Matters in March–it’s an excellent idea! (She’s braver than I in assigning it to undergrads–while I think most grad students and professional women’s historians will dig it and be able to follow the professional gossip, I’d be concerned that the names and references to scholars and books would be a little off-putting to an audience of non-specialists. So, I’m eager to hear what her students make of it!)

  20. twandx on 04 Feb 2009 at 4:37 am #

    I hear you Historiann. I argue against the media constructed term, feminist, because I want to see equality for my gender – equality for all women.

    We do not see men, who may object to our equality, splitting themselves off as masculanists. No, they are men, males keep their identity.

    And I still find most women laugh out loud when they hear, “I am feminist, hear me roar.”

    No, I shall not water down my gender or its fight for equality with cute, frilly names.

    My formal education was in science. While teaching in a medical school for many many years, I’ve seen a lot of history. From when women were not even allowed in to where over half the classes were women.

    They were fighters, they were women and they made history and I was privileged to teach and learn from so many of them.

  21. Lasslisa on 09 Feb 2009 at 7:46 pm #

    This is a few days late, but I felt like I had something useful to add. As a recent college grad who identifies as a feminist among other things, I can tell you one reason we avoid labels. When we label ourselves, other people think they can use that to tell us what to do.

    So, if you identify as a feminist, you have to deal with comments like, “If you were a REAL feminist, you would keep your maiden name (or make your husband change his), let yourself be defined at work by your constant agitation for better childcare options, not stay at home with your children for one day longer than your husband does, etc.”

    So what about women who want to stay at home with their kids (or who at least respect that choice), but who also want to do freelance web design and who donate to Planned Parenthood? It’s just not as simple as “with us or against us”, here.

  22. Kristen E. on 03 Mar 2009 at 9:29 pm #

    I know that sometimes I don’t advertise the fact that I am a feminist because I am a pro-life feminist (something that some people think is an oxymoron). I feel like I don’t quite fit into most feminist circles. But, the older I get, the more I say “f–k it.” I’m a feminist. Period.

    I don’t know that this was the case with Notorious Ph.D.’s students, but it is a possibility, I suppose.

    P.S. I don’t mean that as a condemnation of pro-choice feminists or anything; it’s just an observation.