What’s Feminism Got to Do with It? “The Super Woman Myth”

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Once again there is an article blaming feminism for “raising the bar too high” and making it impossible for real women to “have it all. “The Super Woman Myth: Where Feminism Went Wrong  (Unfortunately this article is behind a pay wall in The Chronicle of Higher Education) Barnard President Debora Spar writes: “My generation made a mistake. We took the struggles and the victories of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection. We privatized feminism and focused only on our dreams and our own inevitable frustrations.” And she argues that we need a feminism based on difference and resurrects this frustrating refrain about women’s differences, again putting the obstacles women face squarely back in the court of their supposed “differences.” I am very wary of these kinds of prescriptions even as I agree with some of what she says. But the indictment of “feminism” is my first gripe.

Let me humbly suggest that it was not feminism that “privatized” the interpretation of what equality for women meant, or even that it was Spar’s generation (which is mine too by the way) that made “a mistake.” Rather it was a combination of several factors: the increasing commercialization and privatization in the culture as a whole; hostility from both men and women to women’s equality which took many forms, the fact that house work and child-rearing tasks remained largely women’s responsibility, that marriage is still viewed as a “career option” for many women, that recessions and economic stalls that have always represented obstacles for those who in habit the underclass and women are no exception.  There are probably other causes as well, but I don’t think it is feminism.

Of course, some of the problems chronicled  in Spar’s article are mainly those of upper-middle class, well-educated women, those students of hers who were earning Harvard MBAs. Less affluent women have never had the option to just work for a couple of years before dropping out of the work force to have children. That “option” is predicated on a spousal breadwinner (or a trust fund) and the only way in which equality for women figures into this option is that these women got access to a career that in times past they would have been completely excluded from, a career they are now apparently so eager to throwaway, or at least resigned to throwing away.

Perhaps, however, this was just pretend complacency. Perhaps these young women were voicing the attitudes they thought their peers, families and society would approve of. It is hard to be too critical of their attitudes when it is undoubtedly true that they will shoulder more of the burden of childcare, etc. and are under pressures to not only do well in the careers those degrees prepared them for, but to bake perfect cupcakes for their kids school events.  Spar is right. That is indeed ridiculous. No man is ever put to that choice. Still, I am unsure how you blame feminism for this.

My second gripe with her article is that she offers up several tired stereotypes about women, sex and biology rehashed.  We are urged to acknowledge that biology matters, that having “wombs, breasts and ovaries” is a critical difference that makes a difference for purposes of equality.  While I am prepared to say breast feeding and pregnancy surely mean that reproduction and its burdens fall disproportionately on women as a result of biology, I am not convinced that this means that these facts should represent any special obstacle to women in the workplace. That they do is because of the absence of policies which take these facts into account and perhaps that is what Spar has in mind. On that score we agree.

But when she writes: “Most women—not all, but most—approach sexual relations differently than men do. They are more interested in romantic entanglements than casual affairs, and more inclined to seek solace in relationships” I want to just spit. She makes a concession that there may be exceptions (and one wonders how she would characterize those exceptions; we know how society at large would – slut-shaming).

All I can say is that this conventional picture does not conform to my own experience or that of many women I know, although I also would concede that women often feel inhibited from talking about their experiences in a truthful way and they are encouraged to embrace this model of women’s sexuality in order to avoid said slut-shaming.  Not all women want to have children just because they have ovaries any more than every man wants children  just because he has sperm. But women who don’t are often treated as bizarre or tragic while men who remain single and childless are often celebrated.

When you get praise for acting a particular way and shamed for reflecting attitudes that are at odds from your society it is hard to know what attitudes and behaviors would be like in the absence of these social constructs. Suffice it to note that there really isn’t a male corollary to the word “slut.”  Women still get punished for their sexual behavior and they get blamed and shamed for sex even when they are victims. (See the cover story in this past Sunday New York Times Magazine for the story of a woman kidnapped in Somalia whose bid for escape appears to have been foiled in part when she disclosed she had been raped. She apparently thought she would be treated as the wronged party rather than as responsible for her own attack as unclean as a result. This is true almost the world over and continues to be more true that it ought to be even in countries which criminalize rape).

I applaud and second Spar’s exhortation to return to feminism’s roots in collective action and to recognize that we are in this together so to speak. But it is frustrating to see so rehashed so many distressing stereotypes about women’s supposed differences that mean, according to Spar, that women should just accommodate or accept diminished expectations by taking the world as it is as a given. I wish that in addition to urging that we support women candidates for office and better maternity leave child care policies, that she had advocated that we try to advocate that those of us who have male partners not accept anything less than full partnership in  child rearing and housework, that we protest against all the various ceremonial “wife” roles in public life, starting from the First Lady, that perpetuate the idea that “wife” is a career option.

And how can it be otherwise when in thousands of ways we are reminded that “wife” is a job – still. We still have the “Real Housewives” franchise (although this is an oxymoron if there ever was one). There is no “Real House Husbands” male equivalent. And a recent article in the Sunday New York Times chronicles the wives and girlfriends of tennis stars and almost completely ignoring the pairings of the women players except to subtly or not so subtly suggest that they are sad figures with a string of failed relationships). Here is a frame shift. What if they, like the male stars before them are just playing the field and aren’t actually that into settling down? And men or women with same sex partners are virtually ignored.  I suspect the reason is not necessarily homophobia. It is that the women’s romantic partners aren’t viewed as performing a function merely by being in a relationship with the athlete. The women who are married or attached to male stars are, even when, as is true in some cases, they have their own careers.

This is culture not feminism. It is culture not feminism that when a search goes out for a university president some have trouble imagining a woman for the job. I wonder if Spar encountered these problems or whether at a college like Barnard this is not the same problem it is at a college that has never had a woman as university president. And lest we think this is a problem of the Midwest or just certain parts of the country let us remember that we still have not had a woman president for the country. Perhaps no small part of that is because we cannot imagine what her partner would do. Everyone (or many) seem thrown into a state of confusion trying to imagine what we will do with no First Lady or what in the world  a First Husband to do.  It exposes the essential silliness and way in which the concept of First Lady is deeply gendered. And it is gendered in a way that exposes that the First Lady job is just a more elevated, more ceremonial expression of the same role that Spar’s students expressed interest in.

We should indeed work collectively to support equality for women but it is hard to see how that will happen while those who identify as feminism contribute to the notion that feminism is somehow a dirty word or is to blame for the continuing lack of progress we see.  We should aim to make it possible for  women to exploit their talents without having to sacrifice everything else even if no one, men or women, can “have it all.” And let’s stop blaming feminism.

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