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Feminism is dead! Long live feminism!

Feminism is dead. Long live feminism!

Every so often, like clockwork, someone announces that feminism is over, that it has achieved its goals, and it needs to stop burning its bras and screaming, “DIE, ALL MEN, DIE! [EXPLETIVE} THE PATRIARCHY!” — which, as everyone knows, is all feminism does. Invariably feminists get a little baffled by this and say, “But I am not doing that now. It is possible I never did that. I recognize that women have made great progress. These days, I limit myself to pointing out obstacles still confronting women in the workforce and elsewhere.”

Hanna Rosin, over on Slate, is the latest to suggest that the patriarchy is dead and that feminists need to accept it. In a deftly written piece that frames all dissent as an “irrational attachment to the concept of unfair,” she suggests that the big fight is over, feminism now confines itself to picking petty fights and seeing oppression everywhere, and we need to, well, get over it. Which, when you put it that way, is hard to argue with, lest you be branded as some sort of whiny feminist with an irrational attachment to the concept of unfair.

Susan B. Anthony didn’t die fighting in the snows of Mount Rushmore so you can complain about being whistled at on the way to Work in your Important Job, where you have yet to encounter any glass ceilings whatsoever! Look at you, achieving things! Feminism complains that it has no shoes, but remember, it used to have no feet!

Fair. But now it has no shoes. This is still a problem.

“The patriarchy” is one of those terms that makes you cringe and carries a potent whiff of burning bras. If you define it as an “organized structure of oppression” then, all right, Rosin may squeak through. But I don’t think current feminism is squaring off against anything that resembles that. The problem these days is disorganized.

I agree with Rosin that if all you want to see is oppression, you can find oppression everywhere. “Help!” you can shout, all day long, “I’m being oppressed!” At a certain point this ceases to be productive and you should just go forth and do your best to accomplish things instead of screaming that you are being held back.

Rosin suggests that certain women who are “in positions of influence, widely published and widely read” were actually “reassured to be told that men are still on top, that the old order had not been shaken?”

Reassured? This reminds me of the part in Orwell’s 1984 when O’Brien suggests that the police have a vested interest in the continuation of crime, because if there were no crime, they’d be out of a job. This is, to a degree, the case in all movements whose job is to complain about something. If that thing goes away, what will you do? You’ll have to toss down those signs and go rethink your lives. But I don’t think so little of today’s feminism as to assume that if the problems it confronts went away, it would continue to find ever-more-specific and tinier things to complain about. I think it would heave a sigh of relief and get back to its, er, whatever the opposite of knitting is.

This bean counting and monitoring—an outdated compulsion to keep your guard up, because sexism lurks everywhere—has found new life online, where feminist websites (including our own) and the Twitter police are always on the lookout for the next slight.

Again, I think this is a shallow way of looking at it. The fact that there’s a community online that is vigorously trying to reinforce norms that sometimes aren’t reinforced very well on the ground (see: the whole argument about rape jokes) does not mean that the norms are being enforced well on the ground, if that makes sense.

Sometimes the critical eye is useful, such as this week when outrage over sexist and racists tweets got Business Insider exec Pax Dickinson pushed out. (Though this is not a sign of THE PATRIARCHY—this is relatively easy victory.) Sometimes it’s just petty, like when Jennifer Weiner recently complained about a critic calling her “strident.”  As a form of blogging or tweeting, pointing fingers is endlessly satisfying. But as a form of political expression, it’s pretty hollow and out of tune with reality.
This strain of feminism assumes an exquisite vulnerability, an image of women as “creatures too ‘tender’ for the abrasiveness of daily life,” as Joan Didion put it in her 1972 essay “The Women’s Movement.” (Is this why we now put “trigger warnings” on stories that mention rape or sexual harassment?) Maybe now we pay such close attention to words like “strident” because they are all we have, the only way to access the outrage of darker days. If so, we should treasure them as tokens of how far we’ve come. After all, if the most obnoxious members of the patriarchy can be brought down by a few tweets, how powerful can they really be?

The idea that if something is such a small problem that you can fix it by tweeting about it (see, Pax Dickinson) then – well – you shouldn’t tweet about it and fix it, seems patently odd.

As far as I understand her case, it runs as follows:

“Feminism used to consist of people banding together to overcome huge obstacles, like not being able to vote or work outside the home! Now what does it deal with? Pointing out sexist jerks on twitter? Complaining about mansplaining?* Making tumblrs of Nice Guys of Okay Cupid and ruining perfectly sweet Redditors’ lives? Feminism needs to get a real job.” That’s putting it a little strongly, but the idea that the Big Problems Have Been Dealt With Already, and Feminism needs to, you know, stop being such an uptight shrew and ruining everyone’s good times at the open mic by whining that Rape Is No Joking Matter, is a fairly prevalent critique.

I used to fall closer to that camp than I presently do.

I didn’t use to think a great deal about feminism. I went to an all-girls’ high school where I was assured that I could Be Whatever I Wanted To Be. I assumed that the Big Problems Had Already Been Dealt With. After all, I’m sitting here working outside the home, owning property, and I could go out and rub contraceptives all over my body if I wanted to, although it probably would frighten everyone else at the Rite-Aid. What’s to struggle against? If you brought Susan B. Anthony here, she’d probably faint dead away from a combination of joy and horror.

What forced me into the Not-Actually-All-That-Hairy Arms of feminism was the fact that this idea didn’t cut it.

Maybe we don’t do the best possible job of expressing our daily gratitude that, hey, we can leave the house! We don’t have to wear bustles! Or visit! Yes, thank you. I appreciate it. I appreciate it so much.

But there are still problems. Maybe they aren’t as big, but they’re still big, and they persist.

To name just a few: It’s 2013, yet I can’t go jogging without people shouting, “How much?” from their cars. Routinely, women walk down the street and get groped. It’s happened to me. It’s happened to lots of people.

And it’s more than that. When you write something on the Internet that people disagree with and you’re a guy, no one says, “WELL I CAN’T LISTEN TO HIM, HE HAS HAIRY EARS.” But when you’re a lady – well, forget what you said. If you’re attractive, you shouldn’t be listened to because you’re some sort of bimbo. If you’re unattractive, you shouldn’t be listened to because you’re some sort of Creepy Horsefaced Reaver. People still, these days, write pieces assuming that the mere presence of a drink in a woman’s hand or a skirt that hits above the knee implies consent. And, no.

To say, “Well, it’s good enough” is like complaining that you seldom see doctors solving big problems like smallpox and now they just deal with petty things like common colds, and concluding that medicine is no longer necessary, because you can live just fine with a cold, especially if you’re smart and motivated.

I am so, so grateful not to be in a hoop skirt now, and I thank my lucky feminist stars that I have reached this point. But there are still worlds into which the light of No, Actually, You Can Be Funny Without Saying That, or Hey, You 100% Would Not Say That About A Man, Please Go Home And Rethink Your Life, hasn’t penetrated. Look at the Hackathon, where was an app that people thought was a hilarious idea.

Feminist sniping at feminism isn’t new, and it can turn quickly into a giant hamster-wheel-race of online opining capable of generating enough ire to power a small city. But I reject the idea that, just because things are generally better, we should quit. I don’t think this is what Rosin is arguing, but it’s close. She writes:

The closer women get to real power, the more they cling to the idea that they are powerless. To rejoice about feminist victories these days counts as betrayal.

Really? Betrayal?

There are problems with the feminist movement today – it’s not as all-encompassing a We as it should be. It tends to be most vocally composed of White Women Who Have Disposable Income And Jobs As Writers. Which, hey, I have nothing against them. Some of my best selves are white women. But that’s a problem that Rosin doesn’t address, instead preferring to point out that things are better than they were 40 years ago. No argument there! The feminism of 40 years ago makes no sense today. But to stop here and say, “Well, this is fine,” I think does both men and women a disservice.

I’m not saying we’re biologically identical (obviously we aren’t!) Ideally, you allow people to be their best selves and know that the outcomes are going to be different. At a certain point your complaints become vanishingly small. But that’s every generation’s call to make. For my part, I think we’re not quite there. And I believe we can actually reach a point where there’s nothing to complain about, instead of just “well, less than there used to be.”

*I hate this term.