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Radicalizing Life Events: If I Was Truly Feminist, What Was I Doing About It?

December 12, 2014
by Sophie Brickman
A drawing of people Image source: Detail of Illustration by Rebecca Bradley

From the moment I got engaged last year, everything I touched became fraught with meaning about my role in the world as a woman, wife, and future mother.

Just a few of the questions that came up in the months surrounding the wedding:

Would I circle around Dave seven times under the chuppah to signify that we were creating a new life together? (No, but not because it was symbolically subservient. I wasn’t religious enough and didn’t want to trip in my stilettos.)

Would our kids’ last name be his or mine, hyphenated or blended? (I have no idea, but after spending time on an anagram website, I’m guessing blended is off the table. The least offensive option: Greenbackernimbsi.)

Did I plan to demand, as Sheryl Sandberg does of her husband, that Dave do 50 percent of the housework, because women do 30 percent more housework on average than men, and if we don’t figure out how to divide chores now, it’ll just get worse and then I’ll become unhappy and bitter? (And exactly how many percentage points is it if he does make the bed but puts the comforter on upside-down and flipped 90 degrees?)

I clearly didn’t feel comfortable navigating the waters of what it means to be a young professional married woman in the modern day—which seemed problematic, seeing as I was about to be a young professional married woman in the modern day. And so it was that I decided to embark on a mini crash course in feminism.

It was around that time that a tumblr feed called Women Against Feminism began to spread virally online. The website featured women, most from the millennial generation, taking selfies holding handwritten notes about why they were part of the #womenagainstfeminism movement.

A sampling of the reasons these women gave for not needing feminism:

“Because feminism emanates contempt for honor, grace, class, maturity, respect, and responsibility.”

“Because discriminating against men and treating all men as scum is not being strong and independent, it’s being a sexist bigot.”

“Because I can form my own opinions without the influence of other women, politicians, and liberal college professors.”

“Because my BEST FRIEND is a guy!”

The pages seemed to represent all the failings of what happened when my generation met the Internet, and to show why many other generations look at ours with moderate contempt: We’ve been encouraged to speak our minds (and loudly), but without having actually read and thought about seminal texts and ideas.

I was not act­ively en­gaged in the move­ment, not out there pe­ti­tion­ing, not out walk­ing the streets. And I wondered why.

Theirs was an extremist view, but it dredged up some uncertainties I had in myself that had recently come to the surface because of all the wedding planning. I was decidedly not a #womanagainstfeminism, but could I really call myself a #womanforfeminism if I hadn’t actively embraced feminism at any time in my life? And what, exactly, did actively embracing feminism entail?

My parents had both participated in the second-wave feminist movement. I am a follower of news and supported all the college students across the country demanding that their universities, and their government, take action to prevent sexual assault on campus. I (and many of my peers, I realized after asking around) was aware of and disgusted by the discrimination faced by women every day. But I was not actively engaged in the movement, not out there petitioning, not out walking the streets. And I wondered why.

One hot summer day, I headed to the Gender Studies section of the bookstore to start my research. I pulled down the first three titles I saw—Slut!, The Bitch in the House, and Cunt—and sat down on the floor.

Attracted by the friendly photo of a large orange flower on the cover, I opened Cunt by Inga Muscio to the dedication page: “To everyone with Cuntlove in their hearts, especially my Sacred Mother.” I continued reading through the Foreword, in which Dr. Betty Dodson writes that her first book, Liberating Masturbation (1974), contained “sixteen full-page pen-and-ink portraits of my friends’ cunts.” I considered how many of my friends would drop trou for such a project and glumly realized I could count only three.

On a nearby display table sat a stack of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, the heralded book that started its own modern feminist movement when it was released in 2013, the book that is supposed to be the clarion call to women my age. I wasn’t sure it would speak to me: Sandberg wants women to stand up for themselves in the context, largely, of the corporate world. I am a writer who often works at home, alone. (Sandberg encourages women to “sit at the table” alongside their male counterparts. I have to encourage myself daily to put on pants.)

But Lean In was certainly the mainstream answer to the fringe books now fanned out on the floor next to me. So I picked up a copy and read it here and there, gleaning bits about making my ideas heard, and demanding that my partner and I have a 50-50 relationship. It all sounded fine, if a bit blinkered in its focus towards women in business suits, and I resolved to talk to Dave about putting his socks into the hamper, not just next to it.

Then I called Cynthia Enloe, a professor at Clark University who earned her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and is author of multiple books on feminism, including Globalization and Militarism, and Bananas, Beaches and Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Politics. It was Enloe’s expert guidance that made me realize the corporate focus—and housework percentages was the least of it. She pointed out that Lean In is just one of myriad books with a faulty approach to the issues facing women today.

It sud­denly oc­curred to me that it is easy to dis­par­age the cause when you’re ig­nor­ant of it (as seems to be the case with #wom­ena­gain­st­fem­in­ism). It is also easy when you have reaped its be­ne­fits.

“Whether she intends it or not,” Enloe told me of Sandberg, “she blames women for not getting ahead. Somehow, structure doesn’t matter. The fact that the United States doesn’t have public child care or paid sick leave. Those things are ignored. The idea is, ‘You can do it if you just lean in.’ The responsibility is on the individual. Actually, we need structural change.”

This tension between the individual and the collective has been an issue in the movement for decades, as I found out later that week when I headed to the library across town, way down in the basement stacks, and found myself surrounded by the feminists of yore—Friedan and Steinem and Greer.

Despite being written in 1979, it was Steinem’s essay “Why Young Women Are More Conservative” that spoke loudly to me from the page, and underscored Enloe’s point. As Steinem writes, although the public may expect younger women to be more engaged in the feminist struggle, they “haven’t yet experienced the life events that are most radicalizing for women: entering the paid labor force and discovering how women are treated there; marrying and finding out that it is not yet an equal partnership; having children and discovering who is responsible for them and who is not; and ageing, still a greater penalty for women than for men.”

She continues, “Sadly enough, we may have to personally experience some of these reality checks before we accept the idea that lawsuits, activism, and group pressure will have to accompany our individual excellence and crisp new degrees.”

Had I personally experienced any of those reality checks? I started with her first check, “entering the paid labor force and discovering how women are treated there,” and thought back over the past seven years of my professional life. After a brief stint working the line at a restaurant, I took a job as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. There, in the paper’s food section, I worked under an exceptional female editor who remains my mentor and advocate today. It was a job I loved, deeply—I interviewed chefs, reported on environmental effects upon marine life, went behind-the-scenes at various restaurants, and even landed a byline on the front page.

Until I got on the phone with Professor Enloe, I never once thought about the fact that my front page byline could be credited to anyone besides myself and my hard work.

There was some comfort (cold, perhaps) in knowing that even Enloe had, years ago, shared my naïveté. When women’s bylines started sprouting on A1, “I thought, ‘Oh, progress!’ ‘Oh, history!’ ‘Oh, they must be really talented!’” she recalled. “Of course, that isn’t the answer at all. The reason there are women on the front page, covering wars and things, is because of revolts. It’s not because of ‘leaning in.’”

The revolts she was referencing began in 1970, when 46 women at Newsweek sued the magazine for sex discrimination. (The story is told in Lynn Povitch’s The Good Girls Revolt.) It kicked off a slew of other gender discrimination lawsuits filed by and on behalf of women, as women from Time and NBC, the Associated Press and similarly banded together and demanded equality.

In other words, I faced no obstacles in the newsroom because other women had cleared the path. It suddenly occurred to me that it is easy to disparage the cause when you’re ignorant of it (as seems to be the case with #womenagainstfeminism). It is also easy when you have reaped its benefits.

I’ve not yet been married long enough to find out that ours is not an equal partnership, nor have I aged considerably—although Dave and I now have a standing weekly euchre game with our close friends. But I have a feeling the reality check, that moment when my individual experience will unite with the greater fight, will involve our future children. And Berkeley alum Bettina Aptheker, an activist, author, and professor who has been teaching feminist studies at UC Santa Cruz since 1980, agrees.

“A great deal has been gained, and your generation is a beneficiary of that,” she told me over the phone. “For many women of a certain age, there’s not the same urgency that we felt. But where that breaks down is with sexual violence, and reproductive rights and child care.”

If my gen­er­a­tion has any real shot at get­ting in­to this so­cial fab­ric, of iron­ing out all its ruffles and bumps, we have to join forces. And the ob­vi­ous place to do this is on­line.

She is optimistic about the first issue, pointing to recent campuswide movements that have brought sexual violence to the forefront of the national conversation and prompted President Obama to launch a campaign pushing young people to do more against campus assaults. His administration is currently investigating more than 70 campuses. But Aptheker is pessimistic about the other two problems.

“We thought this was settled by Roe v. Wade,” she said of abortion rights. “The enormity of the hatred of women that’s embedded in this debate, the stupid remarks from some of the right-wing Republicans and their ignorance, the sheer contempt? It’s appalling. And part of what’s appalling is that they get to say it, and it becomes grounds for debate rather than being seen as completely out of line.”

As for child care, “we may never get anywhere with that,” she said, emitting a rueful laugh. “It’s very hard to get into the social fabric, to make society understand.”

So where, exactly, did this leave me?

And then it occurred to me: If my generation has any real shot at getting into this social fabric, of ironing out all its ruffles and bumps, we have to join forces. And the obvious place to do this is online, that place I’d so forcefully balked at when I began my feminist quest.

Yes, there is plenty of inane chatter there, plenty of ignorance, plenty of #womenagainstfeminism, but it is also a place where billions of people can share their voices—on campus message boards where they can talk about rape; on feminist websites where current events are being analyzed; on parenting sites where working mothers can commiserate.

And it will be the place where this piece, long after it is printed on paper and bound into a magazine, will live on. This article will be my small contribution, my soft peep that—combined with all the other individual peeps of essays and blog posts and articles written by other young feminists wrestling with their role in the world and in the movement—will, if we manage it correctly, eventually become part of the scream we need to help our sex take the next step forward. 

Sophie Brickman is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared in Saveur, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker.

From the Winter 2014 Gender Assumptions issue of California.

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