I missed last Thursday’s Blog Against Sexism by, uh, a week now. But I was intrigued by the entries on petitpoussin’s link round-up, especially the ones like this on the cleverly titled (and clever!) Persephone’s Box. Sage organizes her entry by means of a feminism Q&A with questions like “Why do all feminists disagree?” and “Why do so many feminists hate men?” Petitpoussin uses the same strategy in her “everything you wanted to know about . . . ” page (except she has a snappy one-size-fits-all answer to the questions she poses).
Are these really questions people are asking you? Now I realize that not everyone is having the same conversations I’m having (many of you don’t spend most of your day talking to 14 year olds, for example) but I’ve found remarkably few people who don’t already identify with feminism interested in talking about it. In my experience, and much to my frustration, most people are either already engaged with feminist issues, or they don’t think feminism is relevant. They’re either talking and thinking about it already, or they don’t think about it at all.
I hope that I’m wrong and there are people out there asking sincere questions and finding feminists willing to spend time talking to them. But it often sounds like, even in the vast blogosphere, we’re just preaching to the choir.
The figure of the man-hating feminist, as raised by both H. and Sage, is one we have yet to shake and perhaps we never will. But I think the spectre of the woman-hating feminist is worth raising as well.
To that end, I introduce you to my grandmother.
My grandmother is a tiny but formidable woman, the kind of old-school lady who never wore pants until she was forced to during rehab from knee surgery in her 80s. She still gets her hair done at the salon twice a week and she wouldn’t think of going anywhere without fixing her lipstick. I’m sure she’s never missed a mass in her life.
But for all her traditional manners and mores, my grandmother is (and she’d be horrified if she heard me say it, so let’s whisper) a feminist.
She went to college (in the 1940s, mind you) and majored in economics because she wanted to become president of the bank her father owned. After graduating she became a bit more realistic and decided the best she could do, being a woman, was to become an executive secretary. And so she went, college diploma in hand, to Katharine Gibbs Secretarial School in New York. Something happened, and she wouldn’t elaborate, so I don’t know if it was just a change of mind or perhaps something juicier, and she decided that route wasn’t for her, so she went home and got married.
By the time she was my age, she’d already given birth to two babies, one who lived only a few days, and one who became my eldest aunt. She had two more babies, a lawyer husband, a country club membership. But her father always told her she was wasting her life, all her intelligence, and when he died something shifted in her again and she went to work. She started as a junior assistant case worker at a social welfare agency in the rural county in Pennsylvania and by the time she retired she was director of that agency.
She told me this story only recently and in an offhand kind of way, as if it wasn’t at once both remarkable and emblematic of so many women’s struggles in her and my lifetime. Which is fine. Not many women, especially my relatively unassuming grandmother, are willing to see their own lives as symbols of anything. I like this story for all the contradictory twists and turns, not least the unexpectedness of it, coming from a woman I’ve known my whole life but know fairly little about.
But this is the same woman who, when finding out that my cousin and her husband had lived together before marriage, remarked, at that same cousin’s wedding, “Looks like the bloom is off the rose.”
This is the same woman whose unflagging manners failed her for more than a moment when introduced to the female minister who was to marry my cousin. My aunt had to introduce the offending minister twice before my grandmother could recoil her claws enough to shake hands.
And so on.
Haven’t we all known – and likely occasionally have been – the much-discussed “token woman”? I feel like one of the most dangerous tendencies in well-meaning feminism is the inability to reconcile being just as intellectual/savvy/tough/fill in your own adjectives as any man with not wanting to also believe that you’re more _________ (fill in your own adjective) than any other woman. So many of us think really critically about our own choices, from education to relationships to dress, and we carry that critical stance into our dealings with other women.
I think there’s a real tendency for women – especially, perhaps, for feminists, who are aware of the multiplied obstacles still facing women – to believe that their accomplishments are the result of being specially able, specially hardworking, etc – and to then want to criticize/demonize/look down on the women around them. I can’t tell you how often I hear my female students say things in the vein of, “I hate girls – they’re so catty/mean/gossippy.” Hell, I know adult women who will proudly declare that they don’t have friends who are women, for the same reasons. And I’ve heard myself say or think some pretty awful things about other women and have been much appalled when I’ve rethought the impetus of that criticism. I think there’s still a strong sense that there’s only room for a very few women to be special and successful – and many of us have a pretty vicious tendency to want to push other women out of the competition.