Hillary Clinton is vilified as untrustworthy and unlikeable, and Phyllis Schlafly gets the last laugh. It makes me wonder what’s happened to feminism over the years. What explains the persistence of the idea that women are weak, unreliable creatures fit only for domestic life? Why do people — even women — so easily accept the narrative that a strong woman is bitchy and false? Why don’t people recognize the blatant sexism? Why do so many women see marginal improvements in our status as total victory, and then abandon the struggle? Did everyone just fall for the “You’ve come a long way baby” ads and the pseudo-women’s lib of “Sex and the City”?
Before I go any further, let me get one thing out of the way.
Victim blaming is deplorable. I’m starting with that because I know that, by the time I’m done, someone is going to call what I have to say victim blaming. No woman deserves to be the object of sexist ideas or actions, no matter how she chooses to live her life. Bigotry is the fault of the bigot.
But that doesn’t mean that women should be complacent. If we should learn anything from Phyllis Schlafly, it’s that all the gains women have made over the past few decades could evaporate in a heartbeat, because old-fashioned notions about women’s “proper” role are alive and well and waiting in the wings to make a comeback. And if the Trump candidacy teaches us anything, it’s that the embers of bigotry can be fanned into a roaring flame a lot more quickly and easily than we might think.
Challenging ourselves to buck expectations is not wrong. Putting conventional notions of femininity under a critical microscope is not self-hatred. Recognizing the toxic messages we’ve internalized since childhood is not victim blaming.
If anything, those are the ways we seize the agency we need to create change.
There’s a tendency nowadays to see old-school feminism, with its rejection of traditional femininity and its focus on the evils of objectification, as unpleasantly strident and even self-hating. Some look at the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, which turned against a lot of the outward trappings of femininity, and ask, why do advocates for women seem to hate actual women? It’s a fair question. When anger and disapproval are aimed at things closely associated with womanhood itself, from bras and makeup to mothering and homemaking, people feel attacked. It becomes impossible to have a free and open discussion about choices and messaging. The sense that feminists are a small subset of women who hate most women is understandable. Utterly wrong, but understandable.
The problem is, how do you stand up against a widely accepted, oppressive, male-privileging definition of femininity without criticizing the outward manifestations of that definition and, by extension, the people who embrace them?
When we value how we look over what we know and what we do; when we police our own behavior to avoid seeming aggressive or unlikeable; when we accept the notion that we are delicate, fragile, and weak; when we project the idea that our bodies are tools for sexuality and little else; when we spend our precious time highlighting culturally privileged physical characteristics of whiteness, thinness, and youth — then we perpetuate what oppresses us. And that’s where the idea of victim blaming comes in. To say that women should be doing something differently in order to save themselves from a great evil sounds an awful lot like saying we are responsible for the great evil.
But in truth, those two things are worlds apart. When we lift ourselves up, we do it for ourselves. When we break out of the prison, it is to seize our freedom. It’s not the fault of the unjustly imprisoned that they have been imprisoned, whether they have the will to break free or not. Nevertheless, it’s the will to break free that will force change. And every little act of defiance breaks a link in the chain.
There is plenty of room for women of good faith to debate what constitutes an act of defiance. Is it refusing to support the “beauty” industry by eschewing its standards, or is it subverting that industry by taking control of it and broadening its standards? Is it taking control of our sexuality by being unabashedly sexual, or deemphasizing our sexuality in favor of traits we’ve long been denied the right to celebrate, like intelligence and strength? Is it succeeding in male-dominated fields, or elevating female-dominated ones? Are these either/or choices or false dichotomies? These are valid and important questions. The key is remembering that we all share the same goal in asking them: to change a system that prevents us from achieving the personal fulfillment that is every human being’s right.