UP AGAINST THE WALL MISS AMERICA
Unpacking the contradictions inherited by modern feminism
Words by Elizabeth Breiner
Photography by assorted artists
It is easy to forget how much has changed for women in just over half a century’s time, though fictionalized representations of the ‘50s and ‘60s in popular films and television series such as Mad Men and Masters of Sex serve as potent albeit melodramatically stylized reminders. In 1960, only 38 percent of American women were in the workforce, and of those, most were confined to ‘feminine’ positions like secretaries and nurses from which they could legally be fired for getting pregnant. Unmarried women were denied credit cards and access to many top educational institutions, and the median age for women to wed was 21. While the feminist movement of this period was by no means unanimously embraced by women across the spectrum—particularly not the more conservative subset—it had a fairly cohesive core, at least at first, and its main aims and priorities were comparatively clear and easy to define. By contrast, ‘feminism’ today is a distinctly polarizing word that women feel obliged to either defensively embrace or defensively reject, and its precise objectives have grown confused by uncertain priorities and scattered battles under the umbrella of feminism that in many instances serve to arrest rather than open discussion.
With first-wave feminism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries securing women the essential rights to vote and own property, the second wave—unofficially originating in 1960s America from whence it spread throughout the Western world—was free to open up the debate to include not only questions of legal equality but those of selfhood: focusing particularly on female reproduction and sexuality, women in the workplace, and women’s place within the family unit. As Betty Friedan addressed a generation of women many of whom identified their occupation as that of ‘housewife’, feminine identity as something consistent and knowable began to dissolve, driven by an ascendant movement advocating women’s right to intellectual, economic, and social self-determination.
Now, two decades into what is loosely considered the ‘third wave’, some distance permits us to look with increased clarity back on the complex legacy of female individualism that arose out of the second wave period. While this ‘to each her own’ attitude was vital for the great strides in social equality and reproductive rights made between the ‘60s and ‘80s, it also manifested itself in damaging and divisive ways as early as the famed Miss America Pageant protest of ’68. Here we look at contemporary instances of female solidarity and discord through the lens of this catalyzing ’68 protest, as a means of better understanding the incongruences in feminist rhetoric that our society has inherited. Did the successes of the second wave counter-intuitively make it more difficult to finish what had been started? Or are we simply a society still in transition? How should we define contemporary feminism and how might it be redefined to best serve women now?
Miss America Sells It
The 1968 protest of the Atlantic City Miss America Pageant was organized by one of the earliest American women’s liberation groups, New York Radical Women, and their disruptive guerrilla activities both during the pageant and outside it on the boardwalk made national headlines. The publicity engendered by this shocking event spread the protesters’ message far and wide, and informed the rest of the country—and, in particular, the women in it—that “a women’s liberation movement was underway”.
A ‘Women’s Liberation’ banner was unfurled on live TV just as the incumbent Miss America was ceding her place to the newcomer; outside on the boardwalk, a sheep was crowned that year’s Miss America. The unprecedented coverage the protesters’ theatrical antics received, and the effect this had on recruiting new women to the cause, accounts in large part for the event’s association with the birth of the modern women’s movement.
Among the most familiar images (mental and actual) from the ’68 protests are those of women tossing high heels, bras, girdles, makeup, diapers, dishrags, and copies of Playboy and Good Housekeeping, among other instruments of their oppression, into a ‘freedom trash can’—which, though never actually set on fire, instigated the ‘bra-burning feminist’ myth. Little might they have imagined that those same heels, hair curlers and corsets would be not only re-adopted some three decades later, but reclaimed as tools of sexual empowerment.
From the outside, and in popular memory, the movement was one of cohesion and a unanimous dedication to supporting all women and fighting the patriarchal powers that be: “We all agreed that our main point in the demonstration would be that all women are hurt by beauty competition—Miss America as well as ourselves”, wrote Carole Hanisch, one of main ringleaders of the ’68 protest. But the movement’s inclusivity, encompassing women all along the spectrum from conservative to isolationist, proved to also be a source of internal conflict that threatened to derail certain of its core ideals.
“A spirit of every woman ‘do her own thing’ began to emerge. . . . Because of this egotistic individualism, a definite strain of anti-womanism was presented to the public and harmed the action.”
CAROLE HANISCH, 1968 PROTESTER AND MOVEMENT LEADER
In the lead up to the protest, Hanisch recalls the breaking off of an unsanctioned female contingent, responsible for posters with such derogatory messages as:
UP AGAINST THE WALL MISS AMERICA
MISS AMERICA SELLS IT
MISS AMERICA IS A BIG FALSIE
Instead of raising awareness of the movement’s objectives, such signs sent the message that the Miss America contestants themselves and beautiful women generally who were the enemy of the movement and not, as Hanisch put it, “our sisters who suffer with us”. Moreover, these deliberately ostracizing, conservative attitudes set the precedent for a divisive and, indeed, pervasive form of self-serving individualism whose goal was not a better world for all women but rather the validation of some women over others.
THE ‘NEW WOMAN’: revolutionary or regressive?
“The current post-feminist ‘return’ to feminine pleasures (to dress, cosmetics, visual display, to Wonderbra ‘sexiness’) is ‘different’ because, it is suggested, it takes place within a social context fundamentally altered by the achievement of feminist goals.”
ESTHER SONNET, ‘EROTIC FICTION BY WOMEN FOR WOMEN: THE PLEASURES OF POST-FEMINIST HETEROSEXUALITY’
As younger generations of women blithely reclaim as symbols of sexual liberation those same beauty fixings their predecessors defiantly rejected, these older feminists recoil in horror to see their efforts undone so impudently. Is this simply a new incarnation of old-fashioned attitudes coming up against a modern generation that is one step ahead? Is it a result of generational disconnect, with young women taking for granted the earlier generations’ successes? Could it be that we are trying too hard to lay blame instead of fix?
“I think this is an example of how the Women’s Liberation movement has become depoliticized,” Hanisch said in a 2003 radio interview when asked about this new interpretation of feminist expression. “Men are all too happy to see us competing with each other over who’s the sexiest. It helps keep women in their place. And in my view, women’s place is not in front of the mirror.”
“Men are all too happy to see us competing with each other over who’s the sexiest. It helps keep women in their place.”
CAROLE HANISCH, 2003 INTERVIEW
In fact, we might view the current historical moment as one ensnared between conflicting ideologies, ultimately producing a mangled combination of the two. Undeniably, younger generations have grown up with a sense of unquestioning entitlement to civil, professional, and reproductive rights their predecessors fought hard for and thus considered a privilege. But these same young women have also inherited a media-saturated society that, instead of dismissively pigeonholing them as housebound wives and mothers, now accosts them daily with confusing, contradictory messages. Magazines, movies and advertisements simultaneously espouse feminist empowerment and feminine beauty, appealing to the importance of embodying the perfect, outwardly traditional (but not too traditional), inwardly modern (but not too modern), quietly liberated contemporary woman. “A feature of consumer culture is the increased hyper-sexualization of girls; soft porn images, playboy logos and lewd slogans exist alongside ‘girlpower’ messages and feminist themes,” writes Mary Jane Kehily on the cultural re-inscription of young women within a subordinate structure supposedly long gone.
“As with other terms such as post-colonialism or postmodernism, the new moment grows out of the past and cannot fully escape the shadow of the earlier period. . . in this respect gender in late-modernity is characterized by a blurring of boundaries between the feminine and feminist.”
MARY JANE KEHILY, ‘TAKING CENTRE STAGE: GIRLHOOD AND THE CONTRADICTIONS OF FEMININITY ACROSS THREE GENERATIONS’
It is not, therefore, a simple question of whether new social contexts alter the meaning of actions that were previously problematized, as neither the contexts nor the actions are clear-cut. “The contemporary moment appears to further enhance the emergence of new femininities in its appeal to individualized subjects as agentic controllers of their own destiny,” writes Kehily; independence and self-determination are promoted and “like feminist forms, ‘active girlhood’ places an emphasis on the rights of the individual to be an active sexual subject without recourse to moral judgment from patriarchal discourse.” But, whether in corsets or pantsuits, are young women able to physically assert their sexuality without falling prey to the same old prurient judgments—perceived or actual?
A VICE article on why women lie about the number of men they’ve slept with would suggest otherwise. In the article, “Mina says she’s ‘only slept with eight guys’ but she’s ashamed of it. ‘I want to have fun, to be liberated,’ she says, ‘but it’s hard.’” A study by the French Institute of Public Opinion and a UK student survey both demonstrate men’s tendency to exaggerate their number of sexual partners, over and against women’s tendency to underrepresent or even withhold theirs.
“Even if things are changing, today, in all social classes, the belief remains that a man who’s had many sexual partners is more valuable than a woman who’s had many sexual partners.”
FRANÇOIS KRAUS OF THE FRENCH INSTITUTE OF PUBLIC OPINION
While Mina wants to live up to the image of a sexy, liberated modern woman, she cannot overcome the lingering ‘shadow’ of the preceding era’s conventions surrounding female purity, which cast shame on the very acts and attitudes that modern conventions celebrate. In the 2014 film Walk of Shame, Elizabeth Banks’ character ends up lost in downtown L.A. after a night out, wearing an uncharacteristically tight dress and high heels; the recurring joke throughout is that despite being an intelligent and accomplished television presenter, she is mistaken by almost every person she meets for a prostitute due to her attire. Because we know that she doesn’t typically dress like this, and in fact, tends to keep a relatively tame and monogamous lifestyle, it is within the realm of safe humor to joke about her sexuality. Were she actually more ‘liberated,’ she would have to be a Sex and the City-style ‘Samantha’ with sexual openness as her most defining attribute, exaggerated to the point of parody.
DON’T BE TOO SEXY warns tip #1 for women in an Executive Style article detailing ’20 tips to dress appropriately for work’. It clarifies:
“Not only is wearing inappropriate clothing distracting, it can also give off an inaccurate impression. Avoid too-short hemlines, too-tall heels, plunging necklines, and exposed under garments. ‘A lot of women are oversexualized in the office,’ says Williams. ‘You can wear a V-neck shirt, but make sure you keep your legs covered. People end up discrediting themselves by looking too provocative.'”
In other words, if others are distracted by a woman’s sexuality or discredit her because of her clothing, she is at fault for not considering her image down to the minutiae. Do wear nude pantyhose, but don’t expose your legs; do accessorize, but do not over-accessorize and god help you if your jewelry makes noise. Meanwhile, the men’s tips section suggests making sure your clothes fit, and drying your hair.
By the above logic, a case like Debrahlee Lorenzana’s—in which the defendant claimed she was fired by Citibank (not a stranger to sexual misconduct suits) for dressing in a manner that was ‘too distracting’ for her male colleagues—is simple matter of female responsibility for male misconduct. Of course, Lorenzana was warned: her male managers provided her early on with a list of clothing that, as an attractive Hispanic woman with a curvy body, she should avoid, including turtlenecks, fitted suits and classic high-heeled business shoes, all standard professional attire for a female banker. Even when she adhered, there was always a new problem.
“When she looked too hot, they told her to dress down. But when she responded by not wearing makeup, they told her she looked ‘sickly’ and when she left her hair curly instead of straightening it, they told her she should go ahead and straighten it every day.”
‘WOMAN SAYS CITIBANK FIRED HER BECAUSE SHE WAS TOO HOT’, BUSINESS INSIDER, JUNE 2010
This case is hardly the first of its kind, and other similar instances share this almost comedic emphasis on women’s duty to strike some sort of divine balance between overly desirable beauty and undesirable homeliness. In one 2010 case that sounds about half a century too old to be true, a dental assistant was openly fired from her job for being too desirable for her married boss to resist; worse yet, the courts upheld the termination on the grounds that being perceived as “an irresistible attraction” and consequent threat to the employer’s marriage was sufficient reason for dismissal.
“Like the porridge in that famous fable, you can’t be too cold. But . . . you can’t be too hot, either. You have to be ‘just right.'”
MICHAEL KIMMEL, ‘FIRED FOR BEING BEAUTIFUL’, NEW YORK TIMES, JULY 2013
Meanwhile, to complicate things further, studies have found that appearance and salary also have an observable correlation, and that for women specifically, a direct linear relationship can be traced between female beauty and earnings—all compounding the enormous pressure, both personal and professional, to look ‘just right’.
Most destructively, attributing such significance to women’s attractiveness and sexuality tends to elicit a natural female inclination toward defensiveness, which often manifests itself in the victimization of other women rather than systemic accountability. We might understand this as arising at least partly out of a social order that accepts as fact the civil advancements of the second wave movement and consequently discredits further efforts to achieve the same rights and respect ‘already’ earned. Women are equally guilty of falling victim to these attitudes, and frequently look to push blame onto other members of their own sex for being the ‘problem’, the reason for the apparent lack of progress.
Indeed, one of the most disappointing details of Lorenzana’s case comes when she recounts being summoned to a meeting with several male managers about her choice of pantsuit. According to Lorenzana, “They said, ‘Deb, we need to talk to you about your work attire. . . Your pants are too tight.’ I said, ‘I’m sorry, my pants are not too tight! If you want to talk about inappropriate clothes, go downstairs and look at some of the tellers!’” This sort of misguided finger-pointing might be considered in light of a study discussed in the Atlantic about the evolution of intra-female aggression and slut-shaming: “The evidence favors the view that women have worked to stifle each other’s sexuality because sex is a limited resource that women use to negotiate with men, and scarcity gives women an advantage.” Because of this, women, “are threatened by, disapprove of, and punish women who appear and/or act promiscuous.” Women’s reluctance to disclose their number of sexual partners, then, is not only out of fear of male judgment, but perhaps female judgment in equal or even greater measure.
Although some argue that the tendency toward ‘indirect aggression’ in women is evolutionary, based on mating patterns and rituals, others suggest there is “too much cultural baggage at play” for such theories to be fully satisfactory. What seems clear is that competition, fuelled in part by the contemporary ‘reclaiming’ of sexuality, is a primary factor in the fundamental lack of unity between women; more than men, women fear each other, both professionally—insofar there remains a persistent sense of there being limited number of opportunities available for women within any given organization—and personally, out of fear of social stigmatization, either deliberately inflicted or by association.
Standing up and down; leaning in and out
“The individual struggle line is best summed up in the idea that what a woman really needs to do is stand up for herself, and that will bring her liberation. And the political line is that women need to unite and fight, as a group, to win their liberation, and it has to be for all women.”
CAROLE HANISCH, 2003 INTERVIEW
Important as agency in the context of a unified movement is, is much of our contemporary rhetoric aimed at promoting and fostering female ambition still missing the point? What does it mean nowadays to do something “for all women” and could this concept have the adverse effect of putting women under unnecessary additional pressure?
Both with the right to equal pay and employment opportunities and the right to vote—won back during that distant first wave—having the legal freedom to work and vote was significant but nevertheless insufficient without the social conditions to facilitate these vital acts being carried out without them being gendered.
Technically, women are granted equal opportunity in the workplace, when it comes to being hired and advancing professionally; these legal rights are compounded by data that demonstrates that drive and competence are comparable between the genders. But why then do these same comparative studies show that even though women start out just as ambitious as men—across professions, from the fields of medicine and science to the legal and corporate realms—over time, consistently, their ambition tends to erode (while, by contrast, men’s ambition tends to increase)?
Researcher Michelle Ryan’s study proposed that this noted drop-off in female ambition was not linked to having or wanting to look after children, as some might presume, but rather to a lack of support systems and mentors within the professional environments. The absence of these support systems and mentor figures can be traced back to an earlier study of Ryan’s, in which she famously found the companies that did promote women to boardroom jobs and other leadership roles were often already doing poorly when they did so, manipulatively turning these women into scapegoats for their corporate failure and reconfirming existing biases about women’s inability to handle such roles competently.
“It’s great to say women are agentic beings, but to say it’s all a free choice not constrained by context and certain conditions placed on them is not always correct.”
MICHELLE RYAN, FROM ‘WOMEN START OUT AS AMBITIOUS AS MEN BUT IT ERODES OVER TIME, SAYS RESEARCHER’, GUARDIAN, NOVEMBER 2015
Even when women do secure workplace mentors, the degree of sponsorship for promotions from these higher ups flags next to that enjoyed by their male counterparts from their mentors, according to a Harvard Business Review study. Ryan and her research partner refer to these prejudicial conditions as a “’second wave’ of discrimination” to be overcome by working women, which cannot be overcome simply by taking initiative or ‘leaning in’.
Understanding the conditions that restrict or discourage female advancement is essential in avoiding the all too frequent discussions that suggest that it is something inherent in female behavior that needs changing or overcoming. For every discussion that studies like Ryan’s provokes, there are a heavy handful of dissenters accusing her—and women generally—of seeking excuses for their professional failures, and of being ‘entitled’ (but also victimized) by a too-loud, no-longer-relevant feminist movement.
From the comments section of the Guardian article about Ryan’s research:
Still, the same problematic assumptions on which the ‘lean in’ (and then back off) movement is based seem to crop up in other realms as well—the political, in particular. The internationally followed American presidential primaries provide an excellent example. At present, democratic female voters in the United States are caught in a peculiar and infuriating catch-22, adroitly encapsulated by Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards in ‘How Should a Feminist Vote?’ Here, Edwards questions the common male reaction to a woman’s choice of candidate, which presumes that “being a woman [is] something that can and should be mastered” when deciding between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the two Democratic presidential hopefuls.
The assumption is that a woman would innately, by virtue of her gender, be inclined towards Clinton; that feminine solidarity might cloud her rational judgment, and so any female vote for Sanders is a victory of intellect over emotional instinct. Meanwhile, in spite of the fact that young women are siding with Sanders over Clinton by a conspicuous 20 percent margin, female Sanders supporters must also defend their political agency against the curmudgeonly resistance of older feminists; be it Madeleine Albright resurrecting her classic, suddenly distasteful line, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other” at a Clinton rally, or Gloria Steinem, with her embarrassing intimation that young women are merely chasing boys to the polling station.
That this earlier generation of feminists is so clearly detached from the modern, comparatively more youthful contingent, in rhetoric as well as political ideology, suggests that a modern women’s movement cannot afford to be confined to rubrics of simple solidarity at all costs. A piece by a 40-something Clinton convert, situated generationally between the Millennials and the Steinems, states unreservedly, “nothing says ‘sexism is dead’ like a woman voting for Bernie.” Really though, nothing says how polarizing feminism has become as does a statement like that, which implies that a younger woman’s decision to vote for Sanders is based on a naive optimism about the state of gender equality, a lack of experience with the endemic sexism that characterizes the average workplace, and not an intellectually arrived at conviction that Sanders — despite being a man — might be the best candidate to tackle “internalized, institutional sexism” among the numerous other forms that inequality take today. Could it be that these silly, inexperienced hopefuls see equal value in a candidate who prioritizes equal access to education and health care services, who wants to dramatically increase the minimum wage so that people working two full-time jobs don’t still fall below the poverty line, who advocates a redistribution of wealth and prioritizes campaign finance reform?
By insisting on isolating concerns over gender equality, on making feminist issues incompatible with a larger political view of equality that also considers factors such as race, sexuality, and income bracket, feminism risks being taken less and less seriously, of becoming a navel-gazing movement that bites viciously at anyone questioning its motives and methods. To suggest that “if Hillary were a man she’d be the front-runner hands-down”—and moreover, that this, even if it were true, would be enough reason to vote for her—is to embody the very naivety this author wishes to project onto the generation below her, and to imply regressively that it is not Clinton’s policies and political track record upon which she is being judged, but her gender, first and foremost. Arguments such as these help to lend credence to the same male condescension with which Edwards takes issue, that presumes overcoming one’s gender is a necessary step in supporting Sanders.
Today, what many young women seem to be striving for is an end to the ‘othering’ that takes place at the hands of both women and men alike. Women no longer want their vote to be analyzed as a woman’s vote, their writing categorized as women’s literature, their art as women’s art, their every professional advancement viewed with the potential to elevate or betray their gender. Or do they?
“We don’t write the same articles or talk the same way about men: from a young age, it’s assumed that their political ideologies emerge from their rational nature, from the natural order of things. Men vote for men not out of some allegiance to gender, but simply because that is how the universe works. Men’s individuality needs no defence.”
STASSA EDWARDS, ‘HOW SHOULD A FEMINIST VOTE?’
And how can women’s individuality be given equal dues when there is continued pressure to act as women, for women, or risk being against women. Asked about her political leanings, a university student and Sanders supporter asserted:
“When older feminists like Albright and Steinem engage in increasingly baseless and wild explanations about why young women don’t support Hillary, they display the limitations of their brand of feminism, while young women like me realize that one’s gender isn’t what makes them a feminist.”
To achieve credibility after the substantial successes of the second wave movement in a society characterised by overprotective mental and emotional coddling, feminism must mean more than trigger warnings and crusades against reductively pink ‘female Viagra’ pills. When women come together or are brought together for a particular cause, or celebration, it should be for an intellectually discernable reason—meaning women’s categories, shows, prizes, panels should not just be women’s ______ for the sake of checking a box. This does not mean we should not highlight women’s achievements in fields, for example, like film, where they are underrepresented, and it does not mean we shouldn’t hear from women specifically, say, on political issues that they can uniquely speak to, like abortion, gendered professional pitfalls, childcare inadequacies for single mothers, and so on.
What it does mean is thinking twice about events like ‘Women of the World’, which brought together an impossibly diverse crowd including Meryl Streep, Megyn Kelly, Barbara Bush, Mindy Kaling, United Nations World Food Programme Executive Director Ertharin Cousin, and many more to talk about subjects as unrelated as Twitter trolls, world hunger, violence in Turkey, and poaching in Africa. It even means thinking twice about categories like ‘women’s fiction’ and the effect they have on women’s unconscious conceptions of their place in the canon. As writer and critic Yael Goldstein Love found when this category was culled from the site she ran, DailyLit, many women felt “there was nothing for [them] [t]here” anymore in its absence.
“Now, in the protests of our readers, I believed I was seeing the real harm: if some subset of fiction is ‘women’s’ then the rest is . . . not for women? This was the implicit message that at least some of our readers had received. The category had convinced them that literature is male by default.”
YAEL GOLDSTEIN LOVE, CRITIC AND FOUNDER OF DAILYLIT
Equally important is to clearly define when something is and just as importantly when something is not a women’s issue (and is, perhaps, just a general, non-gendered concern). When Howard Stern suggested to Tina Fey that fellow actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s penchant for sleeping with all range of supermodels was misogynistic, she was quick to dismiss this as a misplaced use of the term; “Is it misogynistic to sleep with a bunch of women who want to sleep with you? No,” said the comedian who has poked fun at DiCaprio for these same habits. Can we take issue with DiCaprio’s behavior? Sure – but not on behalf of women everywhere.
By contrast, Clinton and her over-eager supporters were quick to jump on Sanders’ blunt rejection of her attempts to interrupt him during the first Democratic debate, suggesting that his line, “Excuse me, I’m talking,” was a classic example of male privilege (and not an effort from a political candidate to prevent his opponent from derailing him). This kind of a “shut-down” would never have been news had the roles been reversed.
These instances are hardly significant on their own but cumulatively these efforts to define which issues matter, which can be dismissed, what is anti-woman behavior and what is not, do make a difference in validating the relevance of a movement for whom DiCaprio’s sex life and Sanders’ interruption of an interruption are hardly key. Crying wolf on questions of misogyny only plays into stereotypes, discrediting the validity of ‘feminism’ in modern society and distracting from legitimate instances of sexism and discrimination.
A sense of feminism’s faltering respect and perceived relevance within the population at large has likely contributed to much of this counterproductive over-classification of people, acts and other initiatives as misogynistic, as a means of reminding people that feminism is not finished—and in fact is justified in so many tiny day-to-day encounters. Even if certain objectives pertain to all women, the movement cannot any longer purport to consist of any women and all women, but must be understood as an intellectual choice, not an obligation of one’s gender, a prioritization of equality above all else that does not exclude men, but rather makes room for all genders, races, and sexualities. In this way, to support feminism is not to stand behind every woman who invokes the word, but to stand united behind initiatives that promote equal rights and social betterment. For a movement divided on principle, the best way to reunite may be in the realm of the political.
In a modern context, Albright and Steinem’s language doesn’t sound so different from that of the protesters at the ’68 rally disparaging the Miss America contestants or the women belittling other females dressed in what they—and society at large—consider provocative outfits. Like the 1968 pageant protests, the American primary presents a prime example of such recurrent anti-womanism permeating and side-tracking a movement that should be focused on policy and improvement, not belittling women’s agency and intelligence. “It’s exhausting to have all of this inner fighting when we should be working together for the greater good,” one feminist writer and undecided voter stated in a CNN article on the generational divide over the primary.
“For a movement divided on principle, the best way to reunite may be in the realm of the political.”
But what is the greater good? “I don’t think we need feelings of empowerment, what we need is real power,” Carole Hanisch, the aforementioned ’68 protester said in a 2003 interview. If the feminist movement cannot resist making either martyrs or traitors of its own members, it will miss the opportunity to join forces with a more wide-reaching liberal humanist progressivism, seen most recently in Sanders’ surprisingly popular campaign platform.
After all, there are no single narratives: the same woman protesting being fired for her style of dress maligned the attire of other women at her workplace as justification; Hillary Clinton has been a vital long term advocate of women’s reproductive rights and childcare, while, as senator and First Lady, also a proponent of welfare cuts that severely impacted women—especially minorities—with children; the protesters at the ’68 pageant presented a united front against patriarchal oppression but were internally divided, some disparaging the women they supposedly sought to protect.
“I don’t think we need feelings of empowerment, what we need is real power.”
CAROLE HANISCH, 2003 INTERVIEW
What Clinton fundamentally appeals to is people’s institutional investment in the status quo; and the myth she has propagated about Sanders’ political agenda requiring a complete annihilation and reconstruction of the existing structures suggests she is clearly aware of this. For an older generation, systemic overhaul is more unappealing, whereas young people have fewer stakes in the existing system, making such rhetoric less alarming. What the younger generation seems to have a clearer view of is first, the feasibility of initiatives like universal health care and affordable education—which, of course, many European countries enjoy today despite more conservative Democrats’ protests that such motions are impossibly idealistic; and second, the necessity of nationwide systemic change, an explosion of the existing socio-economic structures that reinforce racial, class and gender divisions because if so much as one of those types of divisions can be buttressed despite opposing attitudes within the greater population then it is no longer a democracy and requires a great deal more fixing than a politician beholden to the corporate class like Clinton can offer.
While women account for forty percent of the primary earners within a household, they nevertheless still spend twice as much time on average both in the U.S. and globally doing unpaid household tasks, which include cleaning, shopping, cooking, and childcare. “This isn’t a global plot by men to oppress women,” Melinda Gates wrote in an open letter last month. “It’s more subtle than that. The division of work depends on cultural norms, and we call them norms because they seem normal — so normal that many of us don’t notice the assumptions we’re making.” It is a testament to this subtle and absorptive power of such norms that women in lesbian partnerships who have never co-habited with a man earn higher wages on average than those that have, which can be linked to the aforementioned distribution of labor as well as other unconscious acquiescences to perceived gender norms. Similarly, even though legally women can no longer be penalized for getting pregnant, they remain afraid to tell their bosses when they are. As is so often the case, custom and context lag behind prevalent laws and popular attitudes, and regression or at least stasis is a valid risk when legitimate inequalities are dismissed as being already taken care of.
Real power requires the real ability to democratically and systemically enact change. Almost fifty years ago, Carol Hanisch wrote, “When other issues are interjected, we should clearly relate them to our oppression AS WOMEN.” Now, as women, many of whom have known oppression and experienced marginalization, we should clearly relate these other issues to our oppression as people working to create the socio-economic conditions in which inequality can and will no longer be tolerated.