Division in the Ranks

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I was reading an article this morning in Salon about the divide among feminists when it came to the vote between Obama and Clinton. The writer divided feminists into optimistic feminists and pessimistic ones. Second Wavers tend to be pessimistic: they saw the Clinton campaign as the one chance in a generation for a woman to get close to the Oval Office. (Geraldine Ferraro was in 1984). The optimistic feminists tend to be mostly young women who just don’t think that sexism is a big issue anymore.

Although I agree that Clinton’s campaign has broken new ground for women in politics, I still think this is a much more patriarchal (and white) society than people want to admit. For one thing, the infusion of immigrants has done little to dispel that: many of the immigrant groups are just as patriarchal in their structure as American society has ever been. Many are even more patriarchal. While it can be argued that second-generation immigrants often become assimilated to their new country and its mores quite quickly—which means that they put their family’s patriarchal outlook behind them—there are still going to be vestiges of their parents’ prejudices toward women in their attitudes for at least another generation. I don’t think the battle is won yet. For all the women who have broken the gender ceiling there are hundreds more who wouldn’t even think of trying.

I’m probably displaying my Second Wave sentiments with that last statement. Not every woman has to try to break the gender ceiling. Women should be as free to choose the kind of women they’re going to be as men are free to choose what kind of men they’re going to be (which, admittedly, is not as often as or to the degree that even they would like). What I want for women is that they can genuinely feel that they have choices, and more significantly, that their daughters have even more choices. A woman who stays home with the children by choice but still feels unfulfilled is not investigating all her choices. She could work part-time or get child-care while pursuing an interest. She could get her husband to take on more child-rearing responsibilities while she takes advantage of income-making opportunities. But for many women it’s easier to “just” be a mom. Thus a free choice becomes somewhat of a trap.

Then there are the women who work out of economic necessity. Where is the quality and affordable child care that makes it possible for them to be mothers as well as workers? That is another manifestation of sexism. Those women are not being well-served in this society. Their needs are being left out of the equation, because, after all, no one made them have children, or go to work after they had them. Right.

Yes, things are better than they used to be for women. But as long as biology dictates different responses to reproduction and sexuality, there are going to be differences in the way that women are treated as compared to men. As long as women and men look at each other from across a broad divide, there will be a certain amount of competition between them. And the men are used to winning. They won’t give up their power easily. They may play lip service to the idea of sexual equality, but they don’t really believe it and they undermine women in subtle ways. And in a post-feminist world (as many see it), they are even more careful to keep their sexism under wraps.

If this sounds like I’m paranoid, it’s because I’ve tried to function in a sexist world all my life. I graduated from high school in 1970, I was married by 1972 and by 1980 I had four children. I’ve been married four times and divorced three. I was married to a minister the first time (instead of becoming one myself) and was made to feel inferior for being a woman. (For instance, I wasn’t supposed to talk in adult Sunday School discussions.) I’ve fought for custody and lost, gotten poorer after each divorce while the man went on with his life unscathed (or even flourished), and found myself directed toward womanly pursuits and livelihoods at every turn.

Maybe the feminist movement is divided because it’s not the same world it was for Second Wavers. We’re not going to breathe easy and young women are not going to be cautious. We need to understand each other’s worlds. Older feminists are being made to feel extraneous and younger feminists are being made to feel naive. As each new generation comes along they have a tendency to throw the baby out with the bathwater: their parents’ ways have no validity for them. And the older generation finds it difficult to transition to what is a very different world than the one they grew up in.

My generation would love to be more optimistic, but we fear that the younger generation is too optimistic. A healthy balance between the two would be the way to go. The worlds each inhabit are neither black nor white. Life has a tendency to be shades of gray. We need each other to make it through the danger zones to our destinations. And we need to remember that each woman’s destination is her own to choose.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

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