The professor was telling a story. It was a story about the Third World, a library and Playboy magazine.
Years ago, this man had tried to find out why Playboy was the most popular item on the bookshelves of the university in the African country where he lived. It was not, he discovered, because the students were ogling the centerfold. What they lusted after were the ads for stereos and scotch and sports cars.
The professor finished by explaining to his dinner audience that in the Third World, the symbols of status were scotch, stereos, sports cars, and only then women.
The women in the audience, First World women, looked at each other and at their men across the tables littered with dessert plates and coffee cups. Eyebrows were subtly lifted, eyes politely dilated with messages to each other.
A list of questions for the speaker formed in at least one woman's mind: 1) Were "they," the inhabitants of this professor's Third World, only men? 2) Were the women in that country, that university, in his mind, just objects that the "people" might want? 3) Did the professor hear what he was saying? 4) Did she, dear gawd, have to raise these questions again? Still?
The woman sighed, not in anger but in exhaustion. The innocence of this professor's remarks was untouched by self-consciousness. Ten years of reminders by women that they want to be counted had glanced off him.
Suddenly this woman knew she too was suffering from what a friend had called "feminist fatigue." There had been a lot of outbreaks recently. Hers was just the most recent case.
Feminist fatigue is a special kind of weariness: weariness at the persistence of old attitudes, and weariness at the idea of explaining it all again.
A couple of weeks ago, it had struck two women planning a debate about the nuclear freeze issue. The women had entered a hotel elevator to find the three men inside, joking and jostling with each other to "make room for these girls." The two who had been "girls" at 30 were now apparently "girls" at 40.
Another case report came from a friend who had spent 10 years in one city on the cutting edge of change-- first woman here, first woman there. She had recently been promoted to a new town and a new job. After a month, she realized with a thud that it was like moving back to Box Two.
They all had acute attacks of feminist fatigue. Caught in innumerable replays of the 1950s mentality, they heard their own responses like songs of the 1970s. It was as if someone kept putting quarters in a rusty jukebox demanding that they play once again from the top a feminist standby like: "I'm not a girl, pal, I'm a woman."
The victims of this recurring disease were women who had been into anger and had come out the other side. They had had their consciousnesses raised to electric sensitivity and then modulated with a sense of humor and a sense of complexity.
They were women who wanted to move on and yet were confronted with people pushing them back. Sometimes they felt caught in an elaborate game of chutes and ladders, and wondered if they had the energy to climb the same paths again and again.
The woman in the audience at this dinner had recently been to Betty Friedan's class at the Kennedy School of Government. Friedan was teaching "The Second Stage" of the women's movement. This was a more mellow place where feminism folds into humanism, where men and women together create their own shared society. It was a vision driven by Friedan's own desire to move on, not to be everlastingly frozen into a first stage of confrontation.
But the same men and women evolving into this second stage also live in a world where they must explain why women are different from sports cars, why women are different from girls.
Yes, there's been enormous change in 10 or 15 years. But today it's less a matter of two stages, one replacing the other, than of two cultures, existing side by side. One culture has been enormously affected by this change, grown out of rhetoric and into easy living with the new ideas and ideals. The other culture remains powerful and pristine in its old ways. One culture understands. The other demands tired explanations or ancient passivity.
The constant commute between these two cultures could make anyone come down with a case of feminist fatigue.
c1982, The Boston Globe Newspaper Company