February 19, 2013

(Dennis Cook/AP) Heeeere’s Betty!

I first read “The Feminine Mystique,” the Betty Friedan classic that turns 50 this year, sitting on top of a washing machine.

This seemed oddly appropriate, given the theme of Laundry as Anathema in the seminal work (if seminal is the word you should use for an iconic feminist text). Both glancing back now and that first time, on the washer, I was struck by how poorly it had aged. It’s the same reason reading “Huckleberry Finn” or “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” can be awkward — it is a book that changed the world, and we judge it by the standards of the world it has given us, not the world in which it was created. There is much wrong with it from a modern perspective — some cringe-inducing comparisons to the Holocaust (“Comfortable concentration camp”?) to name just one.

Much has happened since then.

The most common use of “feminist” in a sentence, these days, is, “I’m not a feminist, but…” It’s what writer Jessica Valenti calls “I’m Not A Feminist, But” Syndrome. We want the same things feminists wanted, but the word chafes.

And part of the trouble with it is this book. It is abrasive. It is dated. Civil rights is one thing. It is a perpetual and ongoing struggle. But any movement ending in -ism smacks vaguely of the moment of its conception, no matter how hard it tries not to. Impressionism. Modernism. Post-modernism. Existentialism. Communism. Progressivism. Say each word, and it conjures up a moment in time, after which its ideas were either dismissed, subsumed into the mainstream, or some combination of the two. 

The movement has succeeded so well that we forget that much of what we have and want could be described as feminist. To say that we deserve as many options as our male counterparts is so obvious that it often goes without being stated. That’s not feminist, we think. That’s common sense. I’m not a feminist. I’m an Alexandrist.

There is a lot of part-time feminism. We don’t want to put our own dreams on hold to focus on The Goals Of Womankind. We’re not Women. We’re individuals. “Someone else worry about Women’s Rights,” we say. “I am too busy trying to become an astronaut.” And then a state legislator says something, and we all come roaring out of the woodwork. Perhaps this is the future.

Few doors are overtly closed, as they were in Friedan’s time. A woman can be president — she merely hasn’t. A woman can go to the schools where men alone once went and study whatever she wants and apply for whatever position she likes afterward. We can dream as big as anyone. Obviously.

The problems now are more subtle than they were in Friedan’s time.

Call it the backwards-in-heels school of female accomplishment, to adapt the famous Ann Richards quote. We can do everything men do, but we have to do it backwards and in heels. If we are CEOs, we have to give birth to a live human, take maybe six seconds of leave and insist that everything is grand. If we are in politics, we have to have hair and makeup, or ELSE! And if you don’t believe me, look at how Michele Bachmann had to dress on the campaign trail to be taken unseriously as a candidate. We have to work as hard as Michael Jackson and make it look effortless, like Beyonce. Men, we hear, age and become distinguished. Women, to achieve the same effect, have to rub ourselves with bizarre unguents and go in for injections. Or so we hear. But if that is the price of admission, it’s what we’ll do — and we won’t complain. The instant you complain, point out that no one else has to complete this additional series of nine labors, clean out a stable with a river and retrieve a three-headed dog from the underworld to qualify for a directing Oscar nomination, you lose.

There are other, deeper problems that you discover when you try to live your life with the assumption that no movement is needed. At the shallowest end of the troubling culture there are the Nice Guys of OkCupid, who think that they are entitled to — all sorts of things they are not entitled to. There are still people who grope and whistle when you walk down the street. Still! In 2013! In the sciences, resumes with identical credentials and names of different genders do not get the same response. There are those state legislatures that like to address you as objects and vessels, not as humans. These always come as unpleasant surprises. “Are we not past this?” we ask, and then we resume what we were doing. Men do not have to put up with this, but — don’t complain. You’re losing time!

The idea of a cohesive movement centered around our shared identity as women has faded.

The outcome of feminism up to this point is that we are all individuals now. Look at what passes for a feminist text these days, Caitlin Moran’s “How To Be A Woman.” It’s not about how to be A Woman. It’s about How To Be Caitlin Moran. There aren’t Women Comics. There is Lena Dunham and Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling, to take three random examples, all of whom have distinct voices. They don’t speak for all of us. They speak for themselves. And this is great! The end of the movement was supposed to be a moment when we were all judged as individuals. We want that moment to have come already.

So each of us is tackling this on her own. And the problems each of us is facing in isolation are enough to spin a movement out of. A few months ago, one woman reported being groped on the sidewalk — and hundreds and hundreds poured in with similar comments. But it takes one to start it. And we try not to. We are here now and we want to be all we always assumed we could be.

Maybe we do need a movement. It is good to remember what Betty had to say. Our problems are still problems. But compared to what used to be stacked up against us, they’re nothing we can’t handle. We’ve gotten pretty adept at walking in heels. And I think we’re moving forwards.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.