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Book Review: 'Bad Girls Go Everywhere : The Life of Helen Gurley Brown' by Jennifer Scanlon
What's revelatory about the book is the description of what was missing from women's lives before the second wave emerged. Brown infuriated feminists by urging single women to essentially expect payment for their sexual availability -- men, she argued, should buy meals and trinkets, if not hand over actual cash. As awful as this notion is, it forces us to think back to a time when bright young women were locked out of the good jobs in advertising, publishing, law and other fields and herded into such appallingly underpaid secretarial or research roles that they could scarcely make ends meet. Though sometimes marred by a fondness for such PC terms as "problematic" and "oppressor," this primer on our pre-feminist days tells a story worth retelling, and one whose implications are worth reconsidering. For American women are at a crucial turning point.
Friedan's second wave feminism, loosely described, was sincere in its emotional tone, reformist (though many would say radical) in its goals and middle-class or upper-middle-class and overwhelmingly white in terms of its most visible spokeswomen. Its great strength lay in analyzing entrenched gender-based power and challenging it politically, ushering in the great triumphs that made women's lives today possible -- from reproductive rights to Title IX to laws against sexual assault and domestic violence.
But its shortcomings grew more visible with wear: Second wave theory and practice tended toward humorlessness. The movement often saw men and women in opposition (rather than seeing sex discrimination as the enemy). It sometimes viewed domesticity and family life as a trap rather than a potential source of joy for both sexes. It could be puritanical about sexuality, and it often cast a skeptical eye on what it saw as women's frivolous pursuit of romance, fun and fashion.
Then third wave feminism came along, critiquing its staid mothers and reinvigorating -- while simultaneously giving some political heft to -- the kind of gestures Brown had set out in her 1962 manifesto. Third wave feminism is pluralistic, strives to be multiethnic, is pro-sex and tolerant of other women's choices. It has led to an embrace of what was once so politically suspect -- the notion that you can be a "lipstick lesbian" or a "riot grrrl" if you want to be, that you can choose your persona and your freedom for yourself.
But that very individualism, which has been great for feminism's rebranding, is also its weakness: It can be fun and frisky, but too often, it's ahistorical and apolitical. As many older feminists justly point out, the world isn't going to change because a lot of young women feel confident and personally empowered, if they don't have grass-roots groups or lobbies to advance woman-friendly policies, help women break through the glass ceiling, develop decent work-family support structures or solidify real political clout.
Feminism had to reinvent itself -- there was no way to sustain the uber-seriousness and sometimes judgmental tone of the second wave. But feminists are in danger if we don't know our history, and a saucy tattoo and a condom do not a revolution make.
The fact is, we know the answers to Western women's problems: The way is mapped out, the time for theory is pretty much over. We know the laws and the policies we need to achieve full equality. What we lack is a grass-roots movement that will drive the political will. "Lipstick" or lifestyle feminism won't produce that movement alone.
As Scanlon puts it: "Ever the optimist, [Brown] chose to see pleasure where others saw danger, allies where others saw oppressors, and opportunities where others saw obstacles. If other feminists could be faulted for overemphasizing the ways in which women were victimized, Helen Gurley Brown can be faulted for underemphasizing women's workplace and personal challenges."
Surely we can find a way between the merely personal and the mostly political -- a synthesis of Brown and Friedan. If Michelle Obama's generation is getting closer to it, maybe Sasha's and Malia's generation will find it at last.
Naomi Wolf is the author of "Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries."