Not Your Mother's Feminism

December 27, 2010 by Bill Ivey

It's now been nearly a year since I wrote "Not Quite Post-Feminist" examining what author Susan J. Douglas calls "enlightened sexism" and how it could be seen in the attitudes of Stoneleigh-Burnham students. Enlightened sexism, for those who haven't heard of it, can essentially be seen as feminism in fishnet stockings and high heels - the idea that, having won all the major battles, women can now be free to enjoy the power that comes from... sexualizing themselves.

Forgive me for not cheering.

Though she doesn't use the term, Susan Faludi's recent article in "Harpers," "American Electra: Feminism's ritual matricide," offers an interesting historical context for the development of enlightened sexism. She notes that the history of feminism is like the ebbing and flowing of the tides, with a period of regression often following a major victory. In the 1920's, with the passage of the 19th amendment, advocates of women's rights had just won one of their most significant victories, and it was followed by one of the most major regressions. Fueled by the rapidly developing advertising industry in the United States, young women pulled skimpy dresses on over flimsy underwear and went out to dance in ways thought to be way too suggestive by their parents. In the process, for the first time in the history of feminism, mothers and daughters were placed, and placed themselves, in opposition to each other. This pattern would be repeated again and again.

Indeed, Faludi argues that feminism has never fully recovered from this splintering - even Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which is often thought to have ignited the modern era of feminism, was written in a spirit of daughters observing the quiet despair of their mothers and not wanting at any cost to have that happen to them. In the centerpiece of the article, Faludi describes the recent election for the president of the National Organization of Women as more than just a choice between candidates but rather as a battle for generational supremacy and, in the process, a referendum on what the very nature of feminism ought to be. During the build-up to the election, older members described what they saw as a refusal of the younger generation to respect all they had worked for, while younger members wondered openly whether they themselves would ever be taken seriously. Older members wondered why younger members were wearing exactly the kind of clothing they struggled for years for women not to have to wear, while one young woman told about how she didn't even realize she was a feminist until she attended a talk given by another young woman in, yes, fishnet stockings and high heels. Older members expressed concern over those younger members who, rather than working to open up possibilities specifically for women, wanted to throw out the gender binary altogether.

As with so much of public dialogue these days, one is left feeling there is way more common ground than is being acknowledged. All these women wanted to be respected, not to be forced to conform to someone else's concept of what they should look or act like, and to work for equity and equality. Yet somehow, the differences are getting emphasized, and in the process communication is being undermined.

Upset by how she was portrayed in Faludi's article, "Courtney," a young feminist, offers the following response: "If you want to find feminism-in-action, you need to go where some of the most dynamic work is–environmental justice meetings where young leaders are talking about the disproportionate effects of climate change on women of color, safe houses for former sex workers where young women are helping one another get out of “the life,” veterans who are bonding together to fight back against military sexual assault etc. There are young, feminist-identified women doing community and political work every single day, aware of their legacy and confident about their future." [ ] Many people of my generation have spent years working toward the day when what truly matters is who you are and what you do rather than what you look like. In that context, it would seem counter-productive if not downright paradoxical to mumble complaints about what shoes are being worn by women doing such vitally important work to bring respect, equity, equality, and the right to determine one's own destiny to girls and women.

Last night at our annual Winter Solstice Presentation, I watched the members of the Upper School Rock Band take the stage, and I mean take it. They walked up like they owned the place, made darn sure everything was set to their liking before beginning, and then crashed their way without any visible inhibitions through Blink182's "I Miss You." I would challenge anyone of any generation to deny the power of these girls. Indeed, anyone who attempted it in front of them would do so at their own risk.

Personally, I will confess I still don't 100% understand the perspective of young feminists who have bought into enlightened sexism, and I continue to believe that teaching media literacy is of the utmost importance. But I also continue to believe in the power of simple, honest and respectful communication. In that context, as I open my eyes and really look around me, I am beginning to think that maybe there is something to cheer about after all. I once again hold the hope that we are indeed a bit closer to reaching the goal I mentioned a year ago: "achieving a genuinely enlightened and post-feminist era in which people of all genders can simply live their lives as the people they were always meant to be."

Written by Bill Ivey

A dedicated member of the faculty, Bill Ivey is the Middle School Dean at Stoneleigh-Burnham School. He teaches Humanities 7 and the Middle and Upper School Rock Bands. Bill is the advisor for MOCA, the middle school student government, and he coordinates and participates in the middle school service program. Among his many hats, Bill also coordinates social media for Stoneleigh-Burnham School.

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Filed Under: On Education, women in leadership, All Girls Education, Feminism, Stoneleigh-Burnham Middle School