Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Are feminists necessary?

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was all over the Sunday news shows last weekend, plugging her latest effort: 'Are Men Necessary? When sexes collide'.
Personally, I like Maureen Dowd - a not entirely universally shared opinion. The President is reputed to have a pretty stiff loathe-on for her, and word is, former President Bill Clinton has crossed her off his Christmas card list as well. Interestingly, she claims Bush-the-Father is something of a fan; their bantering and edgy, teasing flirtation a long-standing tradition between the two.
And that's what I like best about her: a liberal who takes appropriate shots at her own side should their hypocrisy rise above generally agreed-upon nausea levels, a Democrat who can find common ground with the political enemy.
The question is, with her new book (already firmly affixed on the New York Times bestseller list) can she find common ground, or even a reason for existence for the gender enemy? The short answer is yes; the longer answer (the: 'but what does it all mean? answer) is somewhat less clear.
What is clear is that adversary or no, she does indeed love the enemy.
Dowd points out, in language and with examples no sentient woman can deny, that the women's movement has arrived in the 21st century somewhat off the rails... missing a wheel or two, or at the very least experiencing a chronic flat tire on the road to absolute equality.
Where once we sought to compete, now we want to be Jerry Maguire 'complete'.
Dowd is considerably older than I, but she clearly began her journey in much the same place I did: that is to say, with expectations equal to her hopes, and trust that the natural order would naturally favour a recognition of the undeniably worthy status of women unquestioned in our hearts. How could it not we thought, living in our own buffed-to-a-high-luster skins, several generations into votes for women, only slightly off-put by the failure of the ERA, striding through the 60's and 70's (Dowd) and the 80's and 90's (me) with the world at our fingertips and the support of our gung-ho mothers close behind.
I think Dowd and I share another root cause for similarity in outlook; a similarity of opportunity that kept our eye off the prize (or focused elsewhere, same dif) in the earliest days of our careers.
As a writer (Dowd) and a then broadcaster (me) we were already occupying pretty rarefied ground; when you have a position even nominally in the public eye, even slightly celebrified (when somebody knows your name) you're already treated better... your opinions sought and noted... your pay packet considerably fuller than those of your contemporaries.
"What's wrong with everyone," I remember thinking. "Why are they whingeing about opportunities and equality? They should do like me and work hard and ask for what they want and show up with a smile on their face."
This was what I really thought, I am embarrassed to admit, completely ignoring the fact that as a disc jockey or television presenter, I didn't actually work all that hard (relatively speaking) and as a young, white, English-speaking somewhat attractive woman, I didn't have much to battle against within the limited range of my pseudo-celebrity.
It didn't occur to me then - and not for quite a few years - that no matter how well I was personally doing in my own little world, equal ease of access was not always on offer to my peers. And in the larger sense we had all sacrificed the larger view whilst dreaming our Mary Richards dreams. (Cute clothes, a cute apartment of our own, a cute job at WJM)
I remember when the penny finally dropped. I was dating this guy, who was even in the late eighties/early nineties bemoaning affirmative action hiring, and stating with that certainty that only the simultaneously miffed and privileged can achieve that women had not already arrived, but were in danger of taking over the workforce. Or at least the part that he was interested in.
"Look at your industry," he said. "There's Pamela Wallin reading the evening news - spreading the word across Canada from as vaunted a position as anyone could ever want. See: women have got it made; they've got nothing to complain about anymore."
"Pam Wallin is reading the weekend news," I replied. "The traditional primetime ghetto for women. She might fill in for the anchor from time to time, but she's just the one occupying the 'Girl' chair for the time being."
He wasn't convinced.
"That's still Prime Time," he said. "Women everywhere get to see her as a powerful person. And that's the measure."
The problem begins. This guy is deciding what the measure of success and satisfaction is for women and young women on the way up.
"Okay," I said. "I accept that things could be worse. (He makes a face.) But in the scheme of things, she's nowhere! There isn't a single woman in a position of power on the board of directors of the network. The only female VP is in charge of Human Resources - another traditional pink collar present from the powers that be."
I began picking up a little steam.
"But there's not a single woman making a decision about what programming is being purchased or broadcast. No women signing any cheques that represent the direction or destination of serious resources, No real decision makers in any positions of any power whatsoever."
I'd like to report that my argument (entirely accurate at the time by the way, and pretty much as described: I remember it vividly) swayed him and made him question his long-held opinions and prejudices, but truth be told, he simply veered off into Margaret Thatcher/Golda Meir territory and I, not wishing to makes a scene/create a fuss/ get him mad, let him go down that twisty pointless path.
Will we still be hearing twenty years from now about the two powerful women who once ruled nations? Even when not a single successor has succeeded?
Time will tell.
But what time has told in the four decades or so, and as Dowd suggests in her book, is that women themselves have done an about face, abandoning not only the movement, but even the word 'Feminism'.
(It's icky - and boys won't like you if you say you are one. They'll ask you if you shave your legs, or wear a bra, or hate men with every fibre of your being. And then how will you get a date to prom?)
The combined power of the feminist movement and the sexual revolution just wasn't enough, or didn't have the staying power necessary to keep the momentum going. We don't - or won't - elect women into the highest echelons of power; we don't - or won't - cough up equal pay for equal work. Still. And we don't - won't has nothing to do with it - band together with our gender to make demands, not for supremacy, but simply for equality.
What's going on? Why did we stop? What's the current status quo?
Dowd relates with anecdotal evidence the mood and modality of young women today. They reject the old feminist movement for its singularity - for being so one-note and punitive. And for not appreciating that some women - even women who want to succeed - resent being told that pretty clothes and high-heeled shoes and appreciating certain male attentions run counter to achieving male-style success.
I get it. I agree with it. I've always been a 'lipstick feminist', with just enough confidence and self-esteem to decide even way back when that I could define the sort of feminism I wished to pursue. It didn't actually occur to me that the day would come when calling someone a feminist (of any stripe) would be tantamount to calling someone a butch-dyke, man-hating lesbian Commie.
So alas.
So now we come to the present, and having lost a lot of steam as we swayed back and forth between desiring economic equality and the right to be mothers or executives or bimbos or any other damn thing we pleased, we've now lost a certain amount of momentum - and a certain amount of certainty.
What do you do when you only have 'Girl Money' (an actual new term: it means not having the sort of money one would refer to as boy money - i.e. a goodly amount) and the boy of your dreams asks you out to Susur or the Four Seasons? Do you pull out your mortgage agreement and calculate the cost of acquiring a second on it, or do you sit back, relax and enjoy as your paying host offers you seconds on dessert?
It's a conundrum alright - but only for women over forty. For our younger sisters, it's a confusing reality. How do you play and fight with the enemy? When do you put on ladies-who-lunch gloves, and when do you drop the gauntlet?
For Dowd - and I admit, for me - the most disappointing result of the defunct feminist movement is the argument it made and sold, the argument we accepted and bought: that the best thing about being a feminist was that you could be as smart and equal and ballsy as you wanted and you could still enjoy the attentions of men.
For Dowd apparently - and for me, definitely - the upshot is that the men we wanted to attract were more likely to be attracted to women who weren't interested in competing. Not that there's anything wrong with that - it takes all kinds, which was one of the dropped balls of the feminist movement - but as Dowd writes, she has come to realize that men find her 'draining'. For myself, I've heard 'exhausting'.
The irony is, I feel the same way.

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