What's Feminism Got to Do with It?

ELIZABETH FOX-GENOVESE

From these women and men comes the really bad news for the feminist movement: The overwhelming majority of American women perceive feminism as irrelevant. In their view, feminism is not talking about the women's issues that most concern them and it is not writing a compelling story about women's lives. Worse, it is not writing a convincing story about our world.


Chapter one from Feminism is Not the Story of My Life

1995 Elizabeth Fox-Genovese
Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House., Inc.

None of the women in the Alternative GED Program at Lehman College in New York City calls herself a feminist and the three men in the program regard the word with downright suspicion. Yet Maria Ramirez, a happily married mother of three, seized upon my question, "What do we want for our daughters?" She opened the discussion with, "That's good, what do we want for our daughters?" And unhesitatingly answered: "Independence." As the general murmur of agreement subsided, she elaborated, "Not having to count on a man." And again Maria clarified her own meaning: "I'm forty-three years old and I'm still where I depend on my husband." The other adult students, many of whom were divorced or had never married, responded sympathetically. All eighteen, including the three men, wanted their daughters to be able to support themselves — and to take satisfaction in doing so. All, like Maria, who loves her husband, her children, and her life, also wanted their own daughters "to have a happy marriage."

Yet despite their mistrust of feminism, all of them have absorbed ideas that many people associate with it. Above all, they agree that women must be able to take care of themselves and their children in case a marriage fails or never occurs. And agreeing on women's need for economic independence, they also agree that if women do the same work as men, they should receive equal pay. They all regard sexual harassment, to say nothing of rape, as intolerable; they al1 believe that their daughters should have the same employment opportunities as their sons. And although many have come to fear unlimited sexual freedom, they all want young women to be free to shape their own sexual lives.

So why do these women and men mistrust feminism? The short answer is that they do not see feminism as a story about their lives. For some, it is a story about rich women's lives, or white women's lives, or career women's lives. For the Catholics among them, it stands for a defense of abortion, which they cannot accept. For many of the women, as well as the men, it stands for an attack on men that threatens them directly or threatens their husbands, boyfriends, or sons. For most, it is simply irrelevant to the pressing problems of managing life from day to day.

Everyday life, not intellectual abstraction, lies at the heart of women's concerns. Yes, countless women regularly encounter discrimination and large and small injustices that complicate their lives. And feminism has helped to strengthen their determination to strike out against the unfairness that still affects all women simply because they are women. But beyond the discrimination and the injustices lies the complex fabric of lives that include relations with men, children, and other women. Women, like men, try to negotiate these relations with a mixture of love and impatience that cannot fit neatly into official programs and slogans. You give a little here and demand a little there. Above all, you try to keep going and save serious confrontations for the rare occasions in which you can no longer give in and retain your self-respect. Working mothers, who are now the majority of American working women, are especially conscious of the complexities — and of the inadequacy — of any simplistic solutions. They, more than others, know that children's demands are frequently nonnegotiable. And, more often than not, they know that those demands should be met, even at the (temporary) expense of women's freedom. Feminism, as they perceive it, simply does not provide an adequate response to the problems and challenges that shape their lives. Many women are therefore hostile to feminism, but most simply regard it as beside the point.

This mistrust of feminism angers many feminists, who, with good reason, argue that their movement has opened new opportunities for women. It saddens other women, who would like to think of themselves as feminists, even if they could not give you a precise definition of what feminism stands for. For them, feminism should represent a defense of women's independence — what Maria wants for her daughter. And they assume that feminism is a broad, generous movement that has room for all kinds of women and that it tolerates a variety of views on difficult topics. Even in this age of homogenized, mass culture, feminism means radically different things to different people.

As I worked on this book, these differences became increasingly clear, and the reasons for them increasingly confusing. My oldest friend, Nancy Wilson, who has successfully juggled a rewarding marriage, three children, and work as a teacher and writer, unhesitatingly thinks of herself as a feminist and remains puzzled that others do not understand the word as she does. But then, as she constantly reminds me, she has always worked part-time and does not count as one who has really "done it all." For her, feminism primarily means enlightened social policies that help women to meet their responsibilities to themselves and their families. Although strongly pro-choice on abortion, she believes that feminism should include women who do not share her views.

Many feminists encourage the belief that their movement speaks for all women, but for them that is more likely to mean that all women must support their positions than that they should respect the positions of others. For most Americans, feminism refers to such visible groups as the National Organization for Women (NOW), the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), the Fund for a Feminist Majority, the Ms. Foundation, and the National Women's Political Caucus. Although these groups differ somewhat in membership and purpose, their memberships overlap and they agree on essentials. Together, they define a public "feminist" agenda that supports specific policies and goals. And I strongly suspect that many of the women who wish feminism well do not know what they are supporting any more than those who oppose feminism know precisely what they are opposing. Many who call themselves feminists will read my criticisms of feminism and say, "But that is not what I believe." More often than not, they will be right. But they have chosen to identify with a movement the ideology, public presence, and consequences of which they do not control. However bravely and honestly they are wrestling with difficult issues, they tacitly allow others to speak in their name.

Many, if not most, of the women who see feminism as abroad movement that respects differences among women readily support the pro-choice position on abortion. More than any other single issue, support for a woman's right to choose to have an abortion has become the litmus test of feminism. Feminists must, by definition, support that right, and, according to feminists, anti-feminists oppose it. But then, how do we explain that many who do not call themselves feminists also support the right to abortion while at least some who would like to call themselves feminists do not? Do feminists believe that feminism has no room for pro-life women even if they support equal pay for equal work and related women's issues? Apparently it does.

In 1991, feminist groups in Rochester, New York, were planning a month of programs to protest violence against women. The leaders of this project, however, refused to allow the group Feminists for Life to participate on the grounds that denial of abortion constitutes the single greatest form of violence against women. So much for feminism's tolerance of a wide range of views! But then, how many of those who support the feminist campaign to protect abortion rights really know how feminists define those rights? At the moment, official feminism insists that a woman's right to choose means that it is wrong to save the life of a child who survives the abortion, for saving that life impinges upon the mother's "rights."l The defense of women's independence requires that a twenty-day-old child be killed — or allowed to die from lack of medical attention. It is hard to believe that most women see the sacrifice of a living baby as part of the story of their life. And even if they do not know that feminism defends that sacrifice, they do sense that feminism stands for things they cannot identify with.

During the past thirty years, feminism has decisively contributed to the revolution that has transformed women's lives and has helped to reshape the ways in which we think about what it means to be a woman. But it has still not convinced the majority of American women that it offers an adequate story of their lives. And the story it offers does matter, for, as the Baptist theologian James McClendon, himself a man of the Left, writes, "Society may take many forms, but it must be narrative to be a society. The stories a people tell, the memories and traditions they share, the history that they receive and modify by their own lives and pass on to their children — these are the carriers of social value."2

In the following pages, I will be drawing upon lengthy conversations with a wide variety of women. Separately and together, these conversations capture a sense of the stories that women construct to explain and find meaning in their lives. The conversations strikingly confirm both the differences among women's experiences and the persistence of common themes. Some of the women with whom I have spoken or whom I have interviewed appear only occasionally, as their words capture specific points. Others, notably Gloria Patterson, Aprill Ravenel, Gabriella Ortiz, and Linda Maldonado, appear more frequently. In this sense, they emerge as central characters in my account of women's relation to feminism. Much of their experience is representative of the experience of countless other women like them, and each of them has a special talent for capturing her thoughts and responses in words. Each has the gift of bringing to life the goals and values of resilient, independent women who do not fit easily into the story of upscale feminism.

To trace that story, I vividly recall that the word "feminist" was not yet in vogue when I graduated from college in 1963, but I vaguely assumed that I was one. Bryn Mawr College had long produced independent, accomplished women, and as undergraduates my friends and I, with a mixture of mirth and anxiety, would repeat to each other the college's reputed unofficial motto, "Only our failures marry." We feared being something of a disappointment to our professors because most of us were indeed hoping to become "failures," and a large number of us were engaged to be married at graduation. The vast majority did go on to successful careers, but at the time we were preparing to follow the pattern of our educated, middle-class mothers, most of whom had devoted their lives to husbands, children, and volunteerism.

Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique fired our imaginations and made us wonder about burying our talents in the suburbs, but it did not immediately alter our vision or plans for our lives. Most of us had reflected barely, if at all, about the issues that would emerge as pressing feminist issues within a few years. I do not think it had occurred to me that a married woman might have trouble getting credit in her own name. None of my newly married friends kept her maiden name or thought about the difficulty of trying to do so. We did not discuss, and may not have noticed, that women could be paid less than men for the same work. Strange to say, few of us expected to do precisely the same kind of work as the men of our social class, yet we had no doubt that we had received a better education than they. Many of us went to graduate school, but few, if any, into law, medicine, or business. Only a few expected to earn their own livings.

Most of us became enthusiastic supporters of the feminist movement that emerged during the years after our graduation. We knew we favored equal rights for women. Feminism rapidly helped us to understand how much farther we were from "equality" than we had naively assumed, even if we reflected little on the possible meanings of "equality." By the end of the 1960s, we worked for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. By the early 1970s, most of us supported a woman's right to have an abortion, equal pay for equal work, a married woman's right to keep her name, women's equal access to credit, and no-fault divorce. We delighted in such small new opportunities as going out to dinner together without feeling awkward and ordering drinks or a bottle of wine. Unlike our mothers, we stopped worrying about inviting a single woman to a dinner party, even when there was no "extra" man to pair her with.

During the early 1970s, my friend Michele and I organized a consciousness raising group for a few women in Rochester, New York. Alive with the enthusiasm of discovery, we met faithfully once a week for more than a year to explore our feelings and talk about our lives. Ranging in age from twenty-five to fifty, we were all white and married. Michele, who was married to a graduate student in English, was working as a secretary to put him through school. Constance, married to a doctor and to us a model of fragile beauty and enviable serenity, was, at fifty, our beacon of the hope that we, too, might someday grow up. Beth and Lucinda, both married to assistant professors, were struggling to raise babies on small budgets and with little help from their husbands. One night, the painfully reserved Beth broke out in a tirade. "Men," she exploded, "men! He just can't deal with shit!" Her husband, we learned as she simmered down, would never help to change the baby's diapers. Literally, he refused to deal with shit.

Together we read books, sipped coffee or wine, and nibbled cookies. At the time, claiming an evening a week for ourselves seemed " almost radical. For that one evening Beth's husband had to cope with the shit, while the rest of our husbands coped with dishes, which by then some were doing anyway. Even at the time, we recognized our version of feminism as mild, but we never doubted that we and women like us were firm supporters of women's rights and especially, women's expanding opportunities. Like characters out of such novels as Alix Kates Shulman's Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen or Anne Roiphe's Up the Sand Box, we combed our previous experience to identify the stereotypes and myths with which we had been raised. At first cautiously and then more boldly, we tried to help each other to become strong, independent women. We were encouraged to take these baby steps toward feminism by the knowledge that informal groups like ours were springing up all over America. Paltry as our effort might have seemed or in fact been, to us it represented the substance and promise of feminism.

No one, in 1963, could have predicted the impact that feminism was about to have on American society, but it did not take long to understand that it was rewriting the story of what it meant to be a woman in the United States. And from the start, that feminist story divided women by race, class, and religion. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s the emergence of new issues complicated things further: the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), pornography, affirmative action, comparable worth, day care, surrogate motherhood, acquaintance rape, and sexual harassment.3 As some pushed for greater rights and opportunities, others worried about losing their traditional roles as wives and mothers. But even as the struggles over the meaning of feminism escalated, the majority of American women (and men) came to accept such feminist goals as equality at work and even the more controversial right to choose to have an abortion. Today, most people see "women's issues" as legitimate, but many remain uneasy about feminism as the story of a woman's life.

The story of a woman's life lies at the core of the discomfort with feminism, because most women still hope to fit their new gains at work and in the public world into some version of the story of marriage and family that they have inherited from their mothers. Thus, many women who shudder at the mounting reports of sexual abuse and violence against women favor a strengthening of marriage and family rather than an increase in sexual permissiveness. And the growing numbers of working mothers especially worry about what is happening to children in a world in which most mothers work outside the home. Women who still see marriage and children as central to their sense of themselves have retreated from feminism because they do not believe that feminists care about the problems that most concern them or because they believe that feminists favor policies they cannot support, such as abortion, affirmative action, or women in combat.

Brooke Mason, a Southern-born, thirty-year-old white woman, whom her employer describes as the "best mind" in a growing engineering firm, knows that neither she nor her friends would call themselves feminists. Brooke believes that feminism "has some connotations to it that not a lot of my friends agree with. To be honest, it's got a bad rap." When she hears the word "feminist," "I tend to think of the feminist radicals that support a lot of things that I don't support," especially abortion and affirmative action. Like so many other middle-class Southern white women, Brooke has moved into the world of work without abandoning the traditional religious and family values in which she was raised. She and her husband are happily living a modern version of the life that their parents lived before them. Brooke has "trouble believing that all women are harassed and suppressed." She knows full well that women face serious problems, including sexual harassment, and she is passionate about wanting "fair and equal" treatment on the job. Her problem with feminism is that she thinks feminists want women to receive "superior treatment," and she hates the idea of quotas for any group. She also associates feminists with the movement for abortion rights and "personally, I'm opposed to abortion so I wouldn't call myself a feminist and a lot of my friends wouldn't."

Sometimes I think that those of us who, for the past three decades, have thought of ourselves as feminists do not begin to imagine what the word means to others. But then I remind myself that the heady innocence of the early years of the women's movement has evaporated in the jaded cynicism and violence that have engulfed so much of our culture in recent years. It has become easy for feminists to assume that those who respond to feminism angrily or contemptuously are reactionary bigots — your typical pickup-driving, rifle-toting, beer-drinking, pinup-posting, sexist slobs. For surely, no honest person could possibly oppose the feminist movement's policies unless he — or, heaven forbid, she — favored women's subordination.

As it happens, most Americans no longer believe that feminism offers the best way to improve women's position. How else can we explain that an American public that has faithfully followed such television series as Reasonable Doubts, Murphy Brown, thirtysomething, and China Beach continues to regard feminism with suspicion? Our visual culture abounds with stories of women who are pursuing careers, struggling to raise children alone, suffering the indignities of sexual harassment or the horror of rape — and frequently enjoying independence and professional success. The women whose lives so many Americans follow are doctors, lawyers, reporters, police officers, soldiers. Few if any stay home with the kids; even fewer wear aprons. If these stories and others like them have anything to do with our culture, we have, willy-nilly, come a very long way in a very short time. If Americans could accept Tess Kaufman and Maggie Zombrow of Reasonable Doubts, then why do they not accept feminism? Or, to put it differently, why are Tess and Maggie not enough for feminism? The problem seems to lie in what feminists believe women should want.

Patricia Sanders grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, as the fourth child in an African-American family of five girls and three boys in which everyone struggled to make ends meet. Now, she is happily married to a successful real estate developer, works full-time, and keeps her own bank account for clothing and other personal expenses. Comfortably settled in the new black middle-class, she enjoys a material comfort she could not have imagined when she was a child. And she has an independence of spirit that should have made her a natural supporter of feminism. Yet, she told me, "I don't think I could really call myself a feminist." Patricia's friends would not dream of calling themselves feminists. She would not swear that they see feminism exclusively as a white women's agenda, although many African-American women do. But she also doubts that they "really see it as a political issue." Most of her friends and acquaintances are simply turned off by the language of feminism and do not connect it in any way with the women's issues that matter to them. And like so many less affluent African-American women, they worry that white women's issues will hurt the prospects of black men.

Unlike Patricia, Mary Caggiano was born with all the advantages of wealth, class, and education that would seem to make her a natural candidate for membership in the feminist elite. As the firmly established vice president of a major branch of Citibank, Mary has amply demonstrated her ability to compete in a tough man's world, while she sustains her marriage and raises a child. Her choice of career, like her marriage to an Italian-American, clearly proclaim her willingness to break with tradition. Her father, who came out of the WASP elite and has spent his life working in the upper echelons of the military, the CIA, and the oil business, has nothing but admiration for her ambition and determination. Recently, in a manifestation of support, he told her that he had just made a generous contribution to NOW. "NOW?" she queried disbelievingly. "I would not give them a dime." Mary understood that her father was simply making a gesture of support for what he misunderstood to be her interests. But she believes that the only thing that will really help women is for them to do their jobs and pave the way for those who come after.

Many women like Brooke Mason and Mary Caggiano reject feminism because of what they perceive as its radical social and economic agenda. Brooke and Mary do not approve of affirmative action for anyone. Nancy Wilson, in contrast, accepts affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, even though she understands it may complicate life for her own sons. For Patricia Sanders, the issues are more complicated. As an African-American, Patricia understands firsthand the desperate need for social programs. Following a divorce, Debby, Patricia's younger sister, was left with full responsibility for her daughter and no help from her ex-husband. Unable to afford day care, she turned to Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) . Patricia knows that day care, health care, and part-time work with benefits would have made all the difference to Debby, whom she calls "a real go-getter." Patricia suspects that Debby, who is "very, very independent," divorced, and does a lot of things with her many women friends, would not have a problem in calling herself a feminist, "although I've never heard her use the term." But Patricia herself does not believe that feminism really speaks for Debby or women like her.

Patricia grew up without Brooke's advantages but with the same ethic of individual initiative. As a child, she watched her father, the custodian for a local school, struggle to provide for his children, while her mother, who before the children came had worked as a cook, stayed home to take care of them. Loathing his own work, Patricia's father pushed his children to get an education. Even as Patricia continues to work as a secretary in a law firm, she is taking courses so that she may become the teacher she has always wanted to be. Her life exemplifies the black middle-class respectability that incenses so many black and white radicals. But it is hardly the story of a woman's turning her back on her own people. In college, Patricia has specialized in African-American women's literature because of her deep attachment to the sufferings and accomplishments of the women of her people. She treasures the stories black women have written about their own lives and draws from them inspiration and a model of courage for herself. But she does not believe they have anything to do with feminism.

Coming from a highly privileged background, Mary Caggiano might have seen feminism as a plausible story about her own life. She knows how hard it can be for even the most talented woman to establish a career and earn promotions. But Mary's impressive talents have not guaranteed her the respect and support of other women, who often respond with jealousy and resentment. Like Patricia, Mary gets more support and appreciation from her husband than she does from most of the women she knows. And Mary, like Patricia, thinks that poor women need strong families and the opportunity to stay home while their children are young more than they need sexual freedom.

All of these women seem to fit neatly into the upscale feminist mold. All between thirty and fifty-five years of age, they lead comfortably middle-class, even conventional, lives. All are married, and all work, although not all have worked full-time throughout their adult lives. All but one have children. Their lives resemble those of millions of other accomplished and well-educated American women who are struggling to combine work and family. Each, in her own way, has a strong sense of social responsibility to those less fortunate than herself. Each cares deeply about offering younger women expanded opportunities to become all that they may be. All, through work, friends, and family connections, know women who are in desperate need of social policies to help them cope with their lives and, especially, to raise their children.

Yet three of these four women do not call themselves feminists, and Nancy, the exception, calls herself a feminist primarily because she views feminism as an integral part of a larger program for greater social and economic equality for the American people in general. Nancy, no less than the others, continues to cherish a complex story of the many things it means to be a woman and, especially, the many stories of how women grow up to be themselves. No more than the others does she recognize herself in the feminist stories of heterosexuality as a male conspiracy to keep women in their place.4 As women who enjoy men and love the fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons in their lives, they do not see men as The Enemy.

If many women who fit the typical upscale feminist profile are uncomfortable with the feminist label, what about the countless other women who do not fit the profile at all? What about Verna, who pumps gas at a Chevron station in Atlanta? Between ringing up her customers' change, Verna watches the talk shows. One day she exploded to Michael Skube of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution about the women who had been complaining about "patriarchy" and "gender" on the Geraldo show. "Some of them people got to get them a life," she informed Skube, before asking him if his wife was one of "them." And when he asked whom she meant by "them," she responded with a burst of laughter. "You know, one of them nuts" — her word for feminists.5

Maggie Richards, now in her mid-forties, grew up in urban middle-class comfort, but her marriage to a rancher led her to the wild, arresting country of northeastern New Mexico. Tough, independent, and strikingly beautiful with a mane of fiery red hair, Maggie initially found the transition to rancher's wife more than she had bargained for. In the small community in which the Richards live, everyone ranches, and, as in other farming communities, men's and women's roles remain close to the traditional division of labor that took men to the fields and left women in the kitchen. Maggie had not come to New Mexico to be left in the kitchen, and, after a brief attempt to adjust to local customs, she tried to explain her feelings about them to her husband. It was not the work of housekeeping that she objected to, she told him, but the pointlessness. How, she asked, would he feel "if you put up a fence, and during the night it was torn down, and the next day you had to put it up all over again? If day after day, all you ever did was to rebuild the same fence?" He got the point. Since then, Maggie has ranched with the men, riding long hours in the saddle. It took the men longer than it took her husband to get the point. And, as he gradually turned more and more of the running of the ranch over to her, the men responded with mutterings and covert challenges. She held her ground, and they learned to accept her as boss. But Maggie scoffs at the idea that she might call herself a feminist. As far as she is concerned, feminism has nothing to do with her life, and feminists, whom she views as soft as well as softheaded liberals, would not last two days on her ranch.

Gloria Patterson grew up in a large African-American family of eleven children in low-country Georgia. Restive under the watchful eyes of her father, a Methodist minister, as soon as she finished high school she took off for New York with her boyfriend, Bobby, to taste the freedom of city life. It would be hard to identify a woman's issue about which Gloria does not have direct or indirect experience. After she and Bobby, who had become a policeman, married and had a child, he increasingly succumbed to the city's lurking temptations, especially women and drugs. Having a baby to care for, Gloria determined to put up with as much as she could. She hated the infidelity, resented his addiction to expensive clothes, and worried that his dabbling in drugs and gambling would lead to serious trouble. Many of the guys back home in Savannah did not behave much better than her husband, and she knew plenty of women who had survived worse. Then one day, Bobby hit her. That, she told him, she would not tolerate. He knew she meant what she said, and life returned to normal. But, as she tells it, the strain of the job and perhaps some lingering guilt about cheating on her got to him, and a couple of months later he hit her again. She waited until he had gone out, gathered up the baby, and left. She knew then that the marriage was over, although not until two years later did she get a formal divorce. Not being able to support herself and the baby on her own wages, much less afford day care, Gloria went home to Georgia, where she lived for a time with her parents and eventually married an old childhood sweetheart. Her second marriage has been happy, but she has seen her female relatives and friends subjected to more than enough sexual brutality and abuse to last a lifetime. Gloria's account of her marriage strongly resembles that of many other African-American women with whom I have spoken, although the specifics vary from woman to woman. Many of the others, however, have not been as fortunate as she in making a happy second marriage, and as black men are having an increasingly difficult time finding secure employment, more and more black women are not remarrying or are never marrying at all.

Gloria wonders whether she would call herself a feminist. Like most of her sisters, sisters-in-law, and friends, she works. That is nothing new for African-American women, even when happily married. They have always had to be strong and independent. Gloria knows that many women need some social supports to help sustain themselves and their children, but she sees no help for them in feminism. In fact, as she has repeatedly told me, most of the women she knows would never suspect that rich white women who do politics and write books even know they exist, much less that the needs of black women may differ from those of white women. And on more than one occasion, she has asked me if she might take copies of essays I had written on African-American women, on abortion, and on women and families to her church group, because she felt I had got ten the issues right. I could not imagine, she told me, how much it would mean to her friends to know that some white women are listening and caring. I assured her that quite a few do, or at least try to.

To illustrate the point, she told me of how one day two of the younger women who belong to her church saw my book on feminism on the back seat of her car. "Lord, Ms. Stanton," they giggled, "what you doin' with that feminism stuff?" And what, she retorted, did they have against feminism? "Oh," they immediately replied, "feminism ain't for black folks. Feminism means you got to shave your legs and straighten your hair."

Gloria's young friends clearly see feminism as little more than a matter of style — and as a white women's agenda. Clearly, they have never heard of Naomi Wolf's book The Beauty Myth, with its sharp critique of artificial standards of female beauty. But even if they had, they would not think it had anything to do with them. They know women want to be attractive to men. They simply reject what they see as white standards of attractiveness. Young black women in the dangerous Dorchester section of Boston do not feel much differently, although they do not even talk of feminism.

In Dorchester, Massachusetts, sex is cheap and life dangerous. The impressive, well-educated, selfless women in the Azusa Christian Community, who run frightening risks in their everyday efforts to rescue one person at a time from degradation and death, do not talk about feminism either. They know all about it, from its political programs to its high theory. They do not talk about it for the same reason they do not talk much about other things that have no bearing on their lives and work. Worse, to the extent that they are compelled to notice feminism, they see it as an attack on their own faith and on the family life they are struggling to re-create as the sine qua non of community survival.

Women, caught in the tentacles of the violent, and too frequently deadly, street life of the inner city, have learned from their mothers and the world around them that their primary, perhaps their only, asset is their ability to attract a man. These are not women whom feminists recognize, not the women the feminist agenda addresses. Young women in Dorchester grow up knowing everything about women's independence, which they primarily associate with brutality and abandonment. From the start, their lives unfold amid drugs, guns, and prostitution — much as if they were living in the world of the film New Jack City. What meaning has sexual liberation in such neighborhoods, in which most women ask little more than to hold their man and, even if he is brutal, get him out of jail?

Growing up in Dorchester makes girls tough — the condition of survival. One of the girls' gangs, which are becoming common in the neighborhood, requires that new members prove their toughness by having had two abortions. In the same neighborhood, others get pregnant because they want the babies. Many hope against all reason that the baby will lead their boyfriend to marry them, but even when he predictably does not, many find that having the baby at least gains them more love and attention from their own mothers. Above all, they believe that the baby itself will be someone to love them. As Dora Hooper, a teenage black mother in a poor section of Pittsburgh said of her baby, Shawna, "I'm never sad anymore, because she's always there to make me happy." For Dora, her baby was "one person that will always care about me and love me and I'll never have to worry about her not loving me."6

The divisions between those who want babies and those who view abortion as a sign of independence provide a sinister parody of the divisions between the pro-choice and pro-life women of the middle class. But in neither case does feminism have anything to do with the lives of the girls and women of the inner city. Mara Carmichael and Lisa Evans, who work with a group of militantly devoted black Pentecostals of the Azusa Christian Community, try not to despair of what they see each day. "It takes it out of you," Lisa admits with a sigh. Mara and Lisa dream of helping even a few of the girls to stay in school long enough to understand what it might mean to hold a job, but they are realistic about their poor prospects for success. Meanwhile, they struggle to persuade the girls to wear skirts that at least cover their upper thighs, knowing all the time that sex objects is what their young friends aspire to be.

For these women, as for others, the story of a woman's life has expanded dramatically during the past three decades — although not always in positive ways. Young African-American women, whether in New York, Dorchester, or low-country Georgia, are living through the breakdown of communities that were fragile enough to begin with. Ironically, the biggest change in their lives may well be the increased freedom of men to desert the women they get pregnant. Their opportunities for education, employment, and stable families appear to have decreased, and their opportunities for marriage assuredly have. The expansion of their opportunities for personal freedom has gone hand in glove with the contraction of their prospects for stable lives. They are pretty much free to do as they choose, but they have almost nothing to choose that is likely to improve their social and economic situation, much less that of their children. Like affluent women, many of these young women are doing things and enjoying an independence that their mothers and grandmothers could not have imagined. Perhaps even more than affluent women, they are likely to hear their mothers' and grandmothers' voices in their heads, knowing that however rapidly some things change, others seem barely to change at all.

Modern feminism has taken shape during a period of rapid, dizzying social change, and the most significant changes in women's lives are probably irreversible. It is hard to foresee a time at which most women will not need or want to participate in the labor force during most, if not all, of their adult lives. These changes directly affect marriages and the raising of children — the quality and stability of the lives of families and women's roles within them. For women, as for men, it is "the economy, stupid." But for women, no more than for men, is it only the economy.

Women do divide according to social and economic position, and those divisions are growing. They also divide according to political philosophy — a philosophy only a few articulate and most express only through their actions. As a rule, women are more sympathetic than men to spending on social programs. But as increasing numbers move into the upper echelons of business, government, and the professions, they are acquiring a deeper commitment to the protection of what they have earned. As some women become affluent by virtue of their own efforts, they may not be significantly more generous about social spending than the men whose ranks they are joining. It would be heartwarming to believe that a woman CEO of Dow Pharmaceuticals would welcome the opportunity to provide free measles vaccines to every child in the country, but let's not count on it. A woman, like a man, who did not put the company's bottom-line first would not last long as a CEO.

The economic changes of recent years have not been evenhanded. Some women have prospered but many have not. And although feminists still complain that women share the experience of economic deprivation, their slogans no longer ring true. Nor is the story of women's economic deprivation likely to strike large numbers of young women as an appealing story about their lives. The anxieties of young women about their own prospects for employment may help to explain why modern feminism seems reluctant to face the economic issues squarely. But whatever the reasons, we have had little candor about which economic policies benefit which groups of women and why.

In the debates over welfare, for example, feminists have uncompromisingly insisted that "compassion" requires support for existing federal programs, including AFDC. Their rhetoric suggests that if you do not agree with them you are declaring war on women and children. Yet it is not clear that unlimited federal welfare programs are the only, or even the best, way to improve poor women's conditions. What is clear is that the feminists are, above all, defending women's right to have children outside of marriage, which they claim is necessary to protect women's sexual freedom. If you believe their claims, you would never suspect that many intelligent, compassionate people might honestly believe that women would derive more benefit from marriage than welfare and from the strengthening of local communities and families than from the expansion of federal programs.

The most serious feminist failure, however, does not lie in the economic analysis of specific policies, about which there is much room for honest disagreement. That failure lies in many feminists' preference to consider women as independent agents rather than as members of families. Not for nothing do Patricia Sanders, Brooke Mason, and Mary Caggiano — not to mention Lisa Evans and Mara Carmichael in Dorchester — refuse to identify with feminism. They, and countless women like them, worry that feminist solutions are contributing to the disintegration of families rather than helping to reconstruct them. They believe, in other words, that what they see as problems, feminists see as ideals. Brooke would be the first to feel compassion for a single mother but could never accept single motherhood as a positive alternate way of life. Like Patricia, Mary, and even Nancy, Brooke believes that a woman's life should be grounded in her family and cooperation with men.

Feminist indifference, if not hostility, to men and families encourages Brooke and Mary and women like them to underestimate the crying needs of many poor women. For it permits them to argue, however unrealistically, that poor women should begin by respecting marriage and postponing children until they have a husband. They do not believe that poor women need or want the things that feminists advocate for them, and they fear that feminists are encouraging poor women to behave irresponsibly. And although the black women in Dorchester would say it differently, they basically agree. Furthermore, Brooke and Mary assume that support for women's issues as feminists define them will promote the careers and influence of feminist activists, whose policies will make poor women's lives only more difficult than they already are. For Brooke, a vote for a feminist politician means a vote for abortion, which she opposes on moral grounds. For Mary, a contribution to NOW means endorsement of Patricia Ireland's public celebration not only of bisexuality but of open marital infidelity, and it means an uncritical acceptance of the story of Anita Hill. For Patricia, support for feminism more likely than not means condemning black men as brutes and rapists. However unfair these increasingly widespread perceptions are judged, each contains too much truth to be turned aside.

Feminists have their own explanations for these attitudes, which they reject as outright bigotry, backlash, or mere stupidity. As the early feminist goals have been realized, feminists have discovered that even outstanding gains for women have failed to produce the "equality" they longed for. Impatient and frustrated, they have formulated a story of women's persisting disadvantages at home and work. Women are not just doing more than their share of the dishes and child care, they are battered, raped, and dying of eating disorders in alarming numbers. By the beginning of the 1990s, just when women's position seemed to be improving decisively, the feminist elite was sounding dire alarms. Naomi Wolf warned women that they are prisoners of a "beauty myth" that warps their minds and encourages them to hate their bodies. Susan Faludi warned them that they are victims of a "backlash" that is eroding whatever modest, fragile gains they have made.7

Faludi claims to be writing for all women, but she focuses on the experience of those young single women in business and the professions who earn enough to support themselves in at least modest comfort and lead the lives they choose. She is not talking about women who can barely earn enough to support themselves, much less provide for children. Inadvertently, she leaves by the wayside women who might prefer — or feel a responsibility — to stay home while their children are young. What, we may ask, of the lives of the majority of women — who are outside the ranks of business, the academy, and the professions?

Frustrated by divisions within the feminist ranks, the more radical leaders have increasingly insisted that anyone who rejects their views is "anti-woman." And anyone who speaks of family values is necessarily defending the religious right. In The Second Stage, Betty Friedan made a valiant attempt to reintroduce the family at the heart of feminist programs, but, resoundingly, she failed to convert radical feminists. Ellen Willis, speaking for the radicals, announced that "the family is a dying beast" and denounced pro-family feminists as no feminists at all.8 For Willis, it is time for women to look out for themselves and let the devil take the hindmost. Yet most women, for good reasons as well as bad ones, see their connections to others as a central part of their own identity and are unwilling to enlist in a feminism that declares war on the family.

Feminists accuse the religious right of trying to dictate what a woman should be and how she should think about a vast array of complicated problems. Meanwhile these same feminists practice the very thing they preach against. Feminist evocations of diversity by gender, race, and class rarely acknowledge the real differences in women's lives and needs, much less deep-seated differences of political philosophy or religious and moral values. Thus, feminist diversity does not embrace women who oppose abortion, do not view heterosexual encounter as rape, prefer to stay home with young children, see some value in single-sex education, or do not want every workplace flirtation to be punished as sexual harassment. As a result, many women, including no small number who have benefited from feminist gains, find no place in feminism for themselves.

Some feminists, like Katie Roiphe and Naomi Wolf, are now challenging feminist correctness from the inside.9 Roiphe and Wolf worry that feminist campaigns to impose "correct" thought and behavior will curtail the freedoms, including sexual freedom, feminists have been fighting for. They offer a refreshing corrective on the feminists who would program and regulate us all into compliance, but their feminist story has no more to do with the lives of ordinary women than the story they reject. For, like their opponents, they focus exclusively on the hopes and needs of young elite women like themselves without considering that their experience may be atypical. And even so, Katie Roiphe has come under attack from Susan Faludi, who condemns Roiphe and various others who do not share Faludi's views as "faux feminists."10

As a white middle-class professional from a professional family, I have considerable sympathy with the hopes and fears of such young women, among whom are students to whom I am deeply committed. But I also know that our lives interlock with the lives of countless other women who lack our social and economic advantages, as well as with the lives of women who may enjoy those advantages but have different social, religious, or political beliefs. Any attempt to lump the lives of very different women under a single formula — any formula — is likely to exclude more women than it includes. If the experience of men has any lessons to offer women, the first must surely be that men's interests and beliefs differ dramatically by class, race, and ethnicity, not to mention such intangibles as political or moral convictions or even intelligence and talent. And the vast majority of men who differ in these ways are, in one way or another, tied to women — to mothers, wives, partners, daughters. The same is true for women. During the past thirty years, both women and men have been living through a momentous dual revolution — the unprecedented sexual and economic revolutions of our time — that has deeply marked their expectations and their sense of their relations to others. But even as the world changes, the most meaningful stories about our lives continue to be rooted in stories we have inherited from the parents and communities that have shaped us.

Feminists might hesitate before dismissing the majority of American women as bigoted, reactionary, or stupid. NOW, the media's favorite feminist organization, claims only 300,000 members. Yet numerous other polls show that women's issues — equal pay for equal work, sexual harassment, day care, and shared responsibilities in marriage — have mass support. At the time of the 1992 election, when Clinton was strongly endorsing women's issues, the majority of women who voted claimed that health care was the issue that most mattered to them. Even in the wake of what many women perceived as the Senate's offensive grilling of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, only about a third of American women are willing to call themselves feminists. The proportion of college women who "definitely" consider themselves feminists is lower yet — fewer than one in five.11 In the wake of the 1993 NOW convention, USA Today took ordinary people's attitudes toward feminism as the topic for its daily debate, asking five random people, "Has feminism become a negative label?" The respondents, one black and two white women and two men, did not offer much of a debate. Janis Hedstrom, a twenty-seven-year-old registered nurse from Minneapolis, set the tone, saying, "The feminist movement has made it a word that carries a negative connotation. And while I believe the movement has done a lot for women in helping them to become more equal to men, it has pushed an agenda that has been negative toward the family."

Thirty-seven-year-old Joe Lese likened being called a feminist to being called a chauvinist — both negative labels — but affirmed his enthusiastic support for equal rights for women. James G. Musat, who was seventy-three, was not bothered by the term unless people used it to gain unfair advantage over others. For him, equal rights must include equal responsibilities. No more than the men was Tanya Davis, a forty-seven-year-old teacher from New Mexico, "bothered" by the term feminism. She strongly favored equal pay for equal work, but did not like the movement's militancy on some issues. Victoria Haucly, an African-American, thirty-four-year-old director of marketing research for a company in Yardley, Pennsylvania, shared the others' commitment to equal rights for women, but would not herself want to be associated with the word. "It's a word that is not appropriate for the '90s and carries a negative connotation, particularly in the business world."

From these women and men, as from those with whom I have spoken, comes the really bad news for the feminist movement: The overwhelming majority of American women perceive feminism as irrelevant. In their view, feminism has no answer for the women's issues that most concern them. It is not even talking about the women's issues that most concern them. It is not writing a compelling story about women's lives. Worse, it is not writing a convincing story about our world. These are the women (and men) for whom this book is written.

Endnotes:

  1. Hadley Arkes, "Anti-Abortion, but Politically Smart," The Wall Street Journal (March 28, 1995): A26
  2. James Wm. McClendon, Jr., Systematic Theology, vol. I, Ethics (Nashville, TN. Abington Press, 1986), 172.
  3. Jane J. Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA (Chicago. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1986); Kristin Luker, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1984); Donald G. Mathews and Jane Sherron DeHart, Sex, Gender, and the Politics of ERA (New York. Oxford Univ. Press, 1990).
  4. This position emerges with special clarity in Adrienne Rich, "Cumpulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 4 ( 1980); Catharine A. MacKinnon, Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law (Cambridge, MA. Harvard Univ. Press, 1987); and Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex" (New York and London. Routledge, 1993).
  5. Michael Skube, "Gender Wars Take a Ponderous Turn," Atlanta Journal and Constitution (July 24, 1994): N10. For the record, Michael Skube has abundant sympathy for women's issues.
  6. Kate Malloy and Maggie Jones Patterson, (New York: Plenum Press, 1992), 206.
  7. Naorni Wolf, The Beauty Myth:How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women (New York. Morrow, 1991); Susan Faludi, Backlash; The Undeclared War Against American Women (New York. Crown, 1991). For a critique of feminists' and the media's misuse of statistics, see Christina Hoff Sommers, Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).
  8. Betty Friedan, The Second Stage (New York: Summit Books, 1981); Ellen Willis, No More Nice Girls: Countercultural Essays (Hanover, NH. Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1992).
  9. Katie Roiphe, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus (Boston. Little Brown, 1993); Naomi Wolf, Fire With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 2Ist Century (New York: Random House, 1993),
  10. Susan Faludi, "I'm Not a Feminist But I Play One on TV," Ms. Magazine 5, no.5 (1995). 30-39.
  11. Nina J. F,aston, "I'm Not a Feminist But. . . ," Los Angeles Times Magazine (February 2, 1992).

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese. "What's Feminism Got to Do with It?" Chapter One in Feminism is not the Story of My Life (New York: Nan A. Talese, 1995), 9-34.

Used by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.

For online information about other Random House, Inc. books and authors, see the Internet Web site at http://www.randomhouse.com.

THE AUTHOR

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese (1941-2007) was the Eléonore Raoul Professor of the Humanities at Emory University, where she was the founding director of the Institute for Women's Studies. She also served as editor of The Journal of The Historical Society. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese was the author of Women and the Future of the Family (2000), "Feminism is Not the Story of My Life": How the Feminist Elite Has Lost Touch With the Real Concerns of Women (1996), Feminism Without Illusions: A Critique of Individualism (1991), and Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South (1988), which received the C. Hugh Holman Prize of the Society for the Society of Southern Literature, the Julia Cherry Spruill Prize of the Southern Association of Women Historians, and was named an outstanding book of the year by the Augustus Meyer Foundation for the Study of Human Rights. Elizabeth Fox-Genovese served on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright 1995 Random House, Inc.


Subscribe to CERC's Weekly E-Letter

 

 

Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.