Friday, July 11, 2008

Gender issues were further sidelined by questions of life and death and the clash of civilizations in an era of terrorism

The Sex Difference Evangelists (and a History of Feminism by Camille Paglia)
from Integral Options Cafe by WH

For another take on the issue of women and feminism, here is the newest from Camille Paglia, writing over at Arion. She is essentiually looking at the history of feminism as a reform movement.
Feminism Past and Present: Ideology, Action, and Reform
CAMILLE PAGLIA Click Here to View .pdf Version (Recommended)

Two technological innovations—cable TV and the World Wide Web—broke the hold that American feminist leaders had had on media discourse about gender for twenty years. Suddenly, there was a riot of alternative points of view. Most unexpectedly, a new crop of outspoken conservative women arrived on the scene in the ’90s—Laura Ingraham, Barbara Olsen, Monica Crowley, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin—who blurred conventional expectations about female self-assertion. These women, who had attended elite colleges and in some cases had worked in the Republican administrations of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, were aggressive, articulate, funny, and startlingly sexier and more glamorous than their dour feminist adversaries. The old Pat Nixon stereotype of conservative women as dowdy, repressed, soft-spoken, and deferential was annihilated. Old Guard feminists, who came across as humorless and dogmatic, were losing the TV wars to a spunky new breed of issues-oriented women. Barbara Olson, who died in the attack on the Pentagon on 9/11, was a co-founder of the Independent Wo­men’s Forum, an association of conservative and libertarian women that was first formed as a response to liberal media bias in reporting during the Anita Hill case, in which Northeastern women journalists were directly and perhaps inappropriately involved.

After 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, gender issues were even further sidelined by questions of life and death and the clash of civilizations in an era of terrorism. There was a resurgence of popular interest in military regalia and history and in traditional masculinity, showing up even in children’s toys. Feminist commentary on this development—which was predictably labeled “reactionary”—has seemed out of touch with the times. Perhaps whenever survival is at stake, we need to unite as human beings rather than as quarreling genders. The legacy of 9/11 has certainly presented a problem for Hillary Clinton in her political aspirations. The necessity at this time for a woman candidate to look strong and to show command of military issues certainly led Hillary to vote for the fateful war resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force in Iraq—a decision that has come back to haunt her and that has made her a constant target of that audacious and ingenious female guerrilla group, Code Pink.

  • What precisely is feminism?
  • Is it a theory, an ideology, or a praxis (that is, a program for action)?
  • Is feminism perhaps so Western in its premises that it cannot be exported to other cultures without distorting them?
  • When we find feminism in medieval or Renaissance writers, are we exporting modern ideas backwards?
  • Who is or is not a feminist, and who defines it?
  • Who confers legitimacy or authenticity?
  • Must a feminist be a member of a group or conform to a dominant ideology or its subsets?
  • Who declares, and on what authority, what is or is not permissible to think or say about gender issues?
  • And is feminism intrinsically a movement of the left, or can there be a feminism based on conservative or religious principles?

While there are scattered texts, in both prose and poetry, which protest women’s lack of rights and social status, from Christine de Pisan to Anne Bradstreet and Mary Wollstonecraft, feminism as an organized movement began in the mid-nineteenth century, inspired by the movement to abolish slavery—just as the resurgence of feminism in the 1960s was stimulated by the civil rights movement, which targeted segregation and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. Feminism was therefore keyed to the expansion of liberty to an oppressed group. And feminism was always linked to democracy: it is no coincidence that feminism was born in America and that that became the early model for British feminism.

In general, feminist theory has failed to acknowledge how much it owes to the Western tradition of civil liberties grounded in ancient Greece, not simply in the flawed democracy of classical Athens, with its slave economy and its severe circumscription of women’s lives, but much earlier in the first appearance of the individual voice in Archaic poetry, one of whose finest practitioners was the world’s first major woman writer, Sappho of Lesbos.

Second, feminist theory has failed to acknowledge how much the emergence of modern feminism owes to capitalism and the industrial revolution, which transformed the economy, expanded the professions, and gave women for the first time in history the opportunity to earn their own livings and to escape dependency on father or husband. Capitalism’s emancipation of women is nowhere clearer than in those magical laborsaving appliances such as automatic washers and dryers that most middle-class Westerners now take for granted.

Third, feminist history has insufficiently acknowledged the degree to which the founders of the woman suffrage movement—that is, the drive to win votes for women—were formed or influenced by religion. It is no coincidence that so many early American feminists were Quakers: Susan B. Anthony, for example, was the daughter of a Quaker farmer, and Lucretia Mott was a Quaker minister. It was in Quaker meetings, where men and women were treated as equals, that women first learned the art of public speaking. The quest for suffrage, motivated by religious idealism and paradigms, cannot therefore automatically be defined as a movement of the left. Indeed, the social conservatism of most of the suffrage leaders was shown in their attraction to the Temperance movement, whose goal of banning alcohol in the US finally led to the fourteen socially disruptive years of Prohibition after World War One. In the nineteenth century, alcohol was seen as a woman’s problem: that is, working-class men were alleged to waste the meager family income on alcohol, which led in turn to the neglect or physical abuse of wives and children. Temperance, flaring into public view in the 1870s, was called the “Women’s Crusade” or “Women’s Holy War.” Temperance women gathered in groups outside saloons, where they prayed, sang hymns, obstructed entry, and generally made nuisances of themselves. Many saloons had to move or close. It was one of the first examples in history of women mobilizing for social action.

However, the impulse to regulate private behavior that can be seen here was a persistent element in feminism that would resurface in the virulent anti-pornography crusade of the 1970s and ’80s. The nineteenth-century suffrage leaders reacted punitively to Victoria Woodhull, who espoused free love—an issue that Susan B. Anthony and others felt would tar the entire movement and doom it politically. They were motivated by a contrary goal to rescue women from “vice,” that is, the clutches of prostitution. Sexuality outside of traditional marriage was seen as a danger that had to be curtailed by moral norms. The preeminence of ideology over the personal can also be seen in Anthony’s nun-like devotion to the cause and in her prickly resentment of the way her colleagues were pulled in another direction by the needs of family and children. By the end of her life, Anthony was revered and universally honored, but her obsessive focus on a single issue was perhaps not a model for the balanced life.

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1 comment:

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