Contemporary Feminism: Fighting False Enemies

feminism

I am, in the traditional sense of the term, a feminist. I wholeheartedly and proudly endorse the words of the great abolitionist writer Angelina Grimke, who claimed that “the mere circumstance of sex does not give to man higher rights and responsibilities, than to woman.” According to Grimke, a woman should not be denigrated due to her sex. Instead, she declared, we must judge a woman by the “standard of moral being, not by the false weights and measures of a mere circumstance of her human existence.” Grimke was a visionary, penning these words in 1837—eight decades before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment finally granted women the constitutional right to vote in 1919. Unfortunately, however, many contemporary feminists appear to have forgotten Grimke’s message.

I do not write this article as an attack on the true principles of feminism. Like many feminist leaders, I support a woman’s right to use birth control and obtain abortions. Ceteris paribus, women undeniably deserve equal pay for equal work, and sexual violence of any form is never justified. Moreover, I stand with feminists in their opposition to gender stereotyping. We should be offering our daughters Legos rather than forcing them to play with toy kitchens. Next Halloween I hope to see more girls dressed as doctors or astronauts than as princesses or cheerleaders.

Despite this, I am reluctant to admit publicly to being a feminist, as the term nowadays carries the connotation of a destructive radicalism with which I am highly uncomfortable. Feminist writer Gloria Jean Watkins (better known by her pen name “bell hooks”) observed this disturbing trend already in 1984, noting that “too many women have ceased to support the feminist struggle because the ideology has been too dogmatic, too absolutist, too closed. [They] have left feminist movement because they were identified as ‘the enemy’.”

Three decades later, hooks’s words have proven to be eerily prophetic. The brand of dogmatic and absolutist feminism that she feared has now supplanted the older brand of equality-seeking feminism almost entirely. This new, absolutist version of feminism has become a burden upon women rather than a stalwart defender of their equality, as modern feminist ideologues have alienated conservative women with an irreverent fervor that harms both the feminist movement and the reputation of its members.

Consider a recent incident at the University of California Santa Barbara, in which Professor of Feminist Studies Mireille Miller-Young encountered Thrin Short, a sixteen year-old girl who was holding a pro-life sign and distributing political literature on campus. One would think that a feminist such as Miller-Young would have loved to see a young woman empowering herself by participating in political activities and bravely expressing a deeply held, if controversial, belief. Instead, Miller-Young interfered with the protest, stole Short’s sign, and physically shoved her, scraping the young girl’s wrists in the process. She has since been charged with battery.

Fortunately, the abominable behavior of Professor Miller-Young is a rare occurrence. However, ad hominem attacks on women who advance traditional views are still all too common, as borne out by the following examples:

  • In 2012, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen disparaged Ann Romney as “never [having] worked a day in her life.”
  • Feminist Linda Hirshman, the author of Get to Work: A Manifesto for Women of the World, condemned stay-at-home mothers, claiming that “[t]he tasks of housekeeping and child rearing were not worthy of the full time and talents of intelligent and educated human beings.”
  • Similarly, former Planned Parenthood CEO Gloria Feldt explained that stay-at-home mothers “reinforc[e] stereotypes that we’ve been working for decades to shatter.” She then told them to “just cut it out.”
  • In an interview with the fashion magazine Bazaar, actress Kirsten Dunst made some remarks in support of traditional gender roles. “You need a man to be a man and a woman to be a woman,” she explained. “That’s why relationships work.” Blogger Erin Gloria Ryan, a writer for the (ultraliberal) website Jezebel.com, was outraged by Dunst’s comments. In a blog post entitled “Kirsten Dunst Thinks Ladies in Relationships Should Wife the F— Out,” Ryan caustically described Dunst as a “blonde who looks good in clothes.”
  • Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, once articulated her thoughts on feminism:
    I don’t think that I would consider myself a feminist. I certainly believe in equal rights […] But I don’t, I think, have sort of the militant drive and sort of the chip on the shoulder that sometimes comes with that. I do think feminism has become in many ways a more negative word.
    Slate writer Hannah Rosin called her argument the “intellectual equivalent of ‘Yuck, gross’.” The website Feministing.com even went so far as to blatantly mischaracterize her words by using the headline “Marissa Mayer doesn’t particularly care for feminism”—despite the fact that Mayer also proclaimed that “women are just as capable [as men], if not more so in many dimensions.”

These are but a few cases of liberal women lambasting those who dare to defy their radical conception of the ideal woman.

The question that now confronts us is, why? Why would a feminist condemn Ann Romney, who has raised five sons (a task as demanding as any career) and worked countless hours for charities and political campaigns, as “never [having] worked a day in her life?” Why would a feminist condemn motherhood as a task unfit for “educated human beings?” or denounce Marissa Mayer for comments that included the remark that women “are just as capable [as men] if not more so?”

The answer to this question is tragically simple: intolerance. Of course, a healthy dose of intolerance is proper for those pursuing common-sense guarantees of equality between the sexes—a chauvinistic employer who pays less for equal work by women than men ought not be tolerated. But radical feminists’ guns have now been turned on those who have valid ideological qualms with certain elements of the feminist platform. It is not the chauvinistic employer who is targeted, but the individual who thinks women do not have a right to employer-proved birth control (such as myself), or who opposes abortion (such as Thrin Short), or who advocates for traditional marriage (such as Kirsten Dunst). And even as this intolerance has grown, the most vociferous strain of feminism has strayed more and more from its roots of seeking basic equality to one that simply parrots the full-on liberal social agenda.

An examination of the platform of the National Organization for Women (NOW) reveals this evolution. While NOW by no means encompasses the views of all feminists, as a powerful feminist organization, it is highly indicative of their general change over time. In 1967, NOW’s Bill of Rights presented a list of eight demands, six of which called for legal and economic equality through the creation of legislation guaranteeing maternity leave, equality of education, and a child tax credit. One demand called for the establishment of public childcare facilities. The eighth, despite deep internal divisions within NOW, called for the repeal of “penal laws governing abortion.”

With the exception of the abortion demand, the Bill of Rights directly sought legal and economic equality for women. Compare the 1967 Bill of Rights with the 2013 NOW Conference Resolutions. While the admirable goals articulated in the Bill of Rights are still present, the Resolutions also include support for goals such as an increase in the minimum wage for tipped workers, “preserving and promoting union jobs,” and the overturning of Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 2012, NOW passed a resolution urging its PAC to endorse the Obama/Biden ticket. In 2011, it called for increased Social Security benefits, and a single-payer “Medicare for all” system.

This drastic change in the NOW agenda has been mirrored by the feminist movement as a whole. As an economically conservative but socially progressive individual, I (along with tens of millions of other Americans) have been confronted with a conundrum of significant proportions. How can we support a movement that links unionism with “strong and solid job growth,” despite the fact that right-to-work states had lower unemployment and significantly higher worker purchasing power during the recession? How can we identify with a movement that has publicly endorsed Barack Obama throughout that huge debacle called his presidency? How can we march behind a banner that advocates increased entitlement spending and a single-payer healthcare system that will raid the pockets of the Haves to give to the Haves-Nots?

The term “feminism” has therefore evolved to denote not only equality of the sexes, but also a general left-wing agenda. This has had disastrous consequences for the feminist movement. A 2013 Economist poll best summarizes the feminist movement’s gradual decline. The poll found that only 28 percent of Americans and 38 percent of women consider themselves to be feminists. This number only rises to 42 percent when examining the progressive, 18–29 year-old demographic. However, the poll also says that “[w]hen given a neutral dictionary definition of feminism, as ‘someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes,’ 57 percent of Americans proudly proclaim themselves feminists.” While this 57 percent is still disturbingly low, it reveals that 29 percent of Americans have left the feminist movement despite their support for sexual equality. This represents 62 million eligible voters, or approximately half of the total number of votes cast in the 2012 election.

bell hooks was correct; feminists have forgotten who the true enemy is. Thrin Short is not the true enemy. She is a young woman who is exercising her political power. Nor is a stay-at-home mother the true enemy for voluntarily and selflessly devoting her life to instilling moral and social values in her children. Kirsten Dunst and Marissa Mayer are not the true enemies. They are incredible successful women who have enjoyed illustrious careers. I am not the true enemy because I want to abolish the minimum wage. The man who votes Republican because he supports increased defense spending is not the true enemy. The priest who delivers a sermon against same-sex marriage because of his deeply held religious beliefs is not the true enemy. The true enemy is the employer who pays his equally qualified female workers less than their male counterparts. The true enemy is the state legislator who votes against rape shield laws. The true enemy is the man (or woman) who discriminates in economic or political decisions solely on the basis of sex. In forgetting this and attacking potential allies instead, the feminist movement is losing the popular support necessary for the kinds of victories it has won over the past two centuries.

Josh Zuckerman is a sophomore from Atlanta, Georgia, majoring in the Politics Department. He can be reached at jrz@princeton.edu

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