It’s “Women’s History Month,” where we’ll hear about the struggles of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug and Naomi Wolf. Or about the highlights like the 19th Amendment, the Rosie the Riveter days of World War II and the founding of the National Organization of Women in ’66. Or of landmark Supreme Court decisions like Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) — which ruled the 1879 Connecticut law prohibiting hormonal contraception usage unconstitutional and proclaimed that the US Constitution did protect our right to privacy — and Roe v. Wade. That’s all fine and dandy. But from where I sit, there remain many tensions within American feminism and in everyday relations between women and men and women that are unresolved and are usually left unspoken even during Women’s History Month.
The main refrain from Alana Davis’ ’97-’98 hit song “32 Flavors” 32 Flavors.m4a (a cover version, yes, but she did make it her own) includes the words “I am what I am.” The song serves as a reminder that women aren’t the equivalent of cookie dough cut into even circles by cookie dough machines at a Pillsbury plant in Minnesota. Yet leaders of the feminism movement lean toward the cookie cutter methodology of describing the roles, rights, and relations of women in our still sexist nation. It makes me cringe whenever I hear these feminists speak of “women” in the universal. Even with the emergence of third wave feminism in the ’80s and ’90s, of people such as Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Hill Collins, Trishala Deb, bell hooks and numerous others, when feminists in this country say “women,” most of the time they’re only referring to White women.
Even more to the point, they’re really talking about professional, middle class White women with at least a four-year college education at a liberal arts or state institution. Given the middle class and affluent backgrounds of these folks, when they discuss things like “women” facing a glass ceiling in politics or in corporate America, or how “women” are struggling with their relatively new roles as caregiver and primary breadwinner, they’re really talking about their friends. It’s not as if Black or Latino or Asian women haven’t been struggling with these issues and their dual roles for decades. It’s not as if poor and rural White women haven’t faced aspects of these bread and butter issues off and on since the 1920s. But when presented at conferences or in the media, whether it be Nadine Strossen or everyday commentators on MSNBC or in the New York Times, the universal “women” remains in vogue. It’s drives me nuts, because it doesn’t represent most of the “women” I’ve known in my life. “Thirty-two flavors and then some” isn’t typically represented by their faces and voices.
What also drives me nuts in our gender discourse are double-standards that are also like double-edged swords. We still live in a world where men — regardless of race, class or sexual orientation — are expected to treat “women” as “ladies,” a very Victorian idea indeed. Of course, this applies to everyday practices like holding doors open for women, letting a woman take your seat on a train or bus, allowing a woman to exit an elevator or train before you move to do so yourself.
These ideas are also applied and implied in dating and in marriage. In these scenarios, men are expected to be assertive but not aggressive, or, at least, most of the time, assertive and on occasion aggressive. Preferably in the bedroom. Men are expected to be vulnerable but not expected to be emotional, or at least, it’s okay to express your full range of emotions sometimes.
While much of this is ambiguous, some of this isn’t at all. Men are still expected to be the primary breadwinners, to be bad at parenting and to be decent and dumb fathers that learn to be pretty good by the time their kids are in college. Men are expected to deal with all of the big family issues like finances and bills, getting the car fixed, retirement accounts and life insurance, and mowing the lawn, while women do all of the cooking and cleaning and child rearing. At least, that’s what even feminists in the media eye often imply. I consider myself a feminist, a good father and at least a decent husband, and I still find all of this confusing. Luckily I tend to treat my wife as an equal, for no other reason than I can’t do it all, that I’m hardly perfect.
Which leads me to that other thing that annoys me to no end. When women — and this one really is universal in our culture — describe themselves with adjectives like “strong,” “assertive,” “aggressive,” “bitch,” “sensual,” “sexy,” and so many others. In my experience, women who say these words often don’t demonstrate the meaning of these words in their lives. The women I known who are such don’t go around saying these things about themselves. Some of the strongest women I’ve known in my life demonstrated their strength in their actions, not by describing how they would like to be in a casual conversation about it. Could you imagine any man describing themselves with the adjectives “strong” and “assertive.” Or for that matter, “masculine yet effete” or “in touch with my feminine side?” And all as part of an everyday adult conversation, casual or political? In this case, action and activism that demonstrates all of this is more important than asserting these adjectives over a glass of red wine.
One last point. If the goal of all branches of feminism is to level the playing field for all women, to speak truth to power, to overturn patriarchy — or at least to separate patriarchal wheat from chaff — then it should also respect the rights of women whose views of gender relations and feminism may not fit with the full program. From Rihanna and Chris Brown to the “Octo-Mom,” commentators and bloggers have gone overboard with their criticisms of men and women who don’t fall in line with the feminist mystique. In both cases, we don’t or can’t know the full story. As someone whose mother was abused by her second husband and was abused as well, I understand the sense of anger and outrage expressed in the blogosphere. As someone who spent his teenage years helping my mother take care of her four youngest children — ages between one week and five years old at one point — you have to shake your head at someone who doesn’t understand why women from every stripe fought for Griswold and Roe.
But people are more complicated than feminist philosophy, and circumstances are never as easily sorted in real life as they are by Nancy Grace or Campbell Brown. If we all truly believe that women are “32 flavors and then some,” then we should stop with the rabid knee-jerk responses to what comes out of our popular culture or political discourse. We should be truly universal when talking about the contributions of all women — and a few good men, I guess — to expanding and preserving the rights of women in this country and around the world. We should recognize that sexism in this country isn’t just practiced by men, and that feminism itself isn’t completely innocent in preserving aspects of American sexism. All that said, I hope that I’ll continue to meet women who are strong, assertive, aggressive, and even sexy, but hopefully without them saying so.