Paula Rothenberg, “Feminism Then and Now”

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Accessible in full text here. Below is an excerpt:

… The Women’s Liberation Movement that began in the 60s was originally a radical movement seeking deep and fundamental change. It identified the ways in which male and other forms of privilege had been woven into every social, political, economic institution and cultural practice in our society and went on to challenge white supremacy, heterosexist privilege, class divisions as well as the images of gender that had been normalized and in this way rendered invisible The Women’s Liberation Movement I remember argued for the need for a radical transformation of all our institutions. It urged women to rethink every aspect of our lives, always asking us to reflect on whose interests were served by the ways in which society was organized and by the values we had been taught to embrace.

Central to this project was the distinction between sex and gender. In order to challenge the conservative view that women’s social role was determined by her nature, many feminists argued that while one is born either a man or a woman and that is a function of biology (and yes, many of us mistakenly thought that there were only two possibilities at that time), gender roles were determined by society. Women began to notice that how we were taught to define ourselves, what it meant to be a real woman, served the interests of men and capitalism. This made us suspicious of what we had been taught were our “natural” tendencies or inclinations and made us wonder about our so-called “free” choice.

A very important article of the period, a true classic, was entitled “Homogenizing the American Woman: The Power of an Unconscious Ideology” written by Sandra Bem and Daryll Bem. The authors pointed out that even if discrimination were to end tomorrow, nothing very drastic would change, because discrimination is only part of the problem. “Discrimination frustrates choices already made. Something more pernicious perverts the motivation to choose. That something is an unconscious ideology about the nature of the female sex….”… In other words, many of us began to realize that we had been socialized to want things that would replicate and reinforce the status quo.

The Women’s Liberation Movement of the Second Wave rejected prevailing standards of beauty, the Barbie doll image, (being thin and blonde), that were virtually unattainable by anyone who wasn’t white and by most of us who were white as well. The critique took the form of recognizing and challenging the ways prevailing standards of beauty and rules of dress and decorum both reflected and reinforced the existing race, class and gender hierarchy in society. Women of the Second Wave were tired of being turned into sex objects by the fashion industry and so they threw out their high heels (which were understood to be on a continuum with Chinese foot binding practices — a way of circumscribing women’s movement and keeping them dependent), took off their girdles and their bras, stopped trying to be a size 2, and focused on healthy eating healthy for them and the planet.

If we look at popular culture today what do we see? Well, Barbie is back with a vengeance. Little girls start dieting in fourth grade and never stop. This used to be more of a problem among white girls but it has spread to all ethnic groups. And dieting isn’t the half of it, anorexia and bulimia are occurring in alarming proportions. …

Via Sparkle*Matrix

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0 Responses to Paula Rothenberg, “Feminism Then and Now”

  1. tgura says:

    I was most affected by your reference to bulimia and anorexia. The diseases (and also binge eating disorder) are not only spreading ethnically and socioeconomically, but also to older women.

    I have just come out with a book, “Lying in Weight: the Hidden Epidemic of Eating Disorders in Adult Women,” (Harper Collins, May 2007) and, in the course of writing, have spoken to more than four dozen women, older than 25, who are still struggling with eating disorders or their vestiges. Although I also interviewed hundreds of experts and combed through hundreds of peer-reviewed journal articles, the women’s stories affected me most. I had suffered from anorexia as a teen and wrote the book because I found nothing out there for older women, although so many are suffering in silence.

    While all the attention focuses on the fashion models, young and skeletal, no one is thinking about what happens when these girls grow up. The eating disorders linger and often women who have, in fact, recovered, relapse during stressful life transitions, i,e, marriage, pregnancy, parenting, mid and late life. Or others retain a subclinical form of their disease. This is the majority not the rare case. Women in the 40s and 50s showing up at treatment centers today in numbers triple and quadruple those of 15 years ago. The models are only the tip of the iceberg.

    You have done well to address the cultural phenomena that are causing anorexia, bulimia and binge eating disorder. Thank you for your comments.

    Trisha Gura, website:

  2. Ann Bartow says:

    To clarify, those are Paula Rothenberg’s comments, excerpted from a longer essay linked to at the start of the post.

  3. umlawgirl07 says:

    I’m old enough to remember those 60s and the beginnig of the women’s movement. How is it that are going backward?

    At my mother’s funeral this past Sunday, we were reflecting on various things and one of the women present (a teacher of the deaf who has occasion to visit students’ homes regularly) recounted a story where she overheard an exchange between a mom and her *4 year old son*. The mom told the son that he had to listen to her and the son stopped and said, “yes, but you have to do what Daddy says”. Incredibly, the mom replied “Yes, Daddy is the master.”

    We’ve come some distance from the 50s, but not nearly — NOT NEARLY — far enough and I sometimes wonder if we’ll ever attain more than mere token progress, sufficient only for purposes of saying — well, hey, look at so-and-so, she’s a CEO, Senator, Supreme Court justice, etc. It’s all about power and privilege. Those that have it (white males) ain’t gonna give it up easily.

  4. Ann Bartow says:

    Sorry about your mom. That “daddy is the master” mantra is pretty common around here. I think it contributes to the high divorce rate, because at some point most women get tired of being ordered around. I’ll never forget (though I wish I could) overhearing a “deeply religious” (his words) male student complain bitterly that his wife, who was confined to bed due to pregnancy complications and for health reasons could not have intercourse, refused to give him blow jobs. Apparently she had never refused him anything before, and he was furious enough to vent about it in public, expecting sympathy.