The Girl Who Cried Feminism

After hearing the rave reviews, we just started watching Mad Men on DVD. After only two episodes I understand how compelling the show is, not just because of clever dialog set in a fascinating time, but because it is like watching a well orchestrated car wreck. Red meat, chain smoking, drinks before noon, these are nothing compared to the devastating treatment that every woman on the show endures. It is like watching a worst case scenario doomsday movie, but then you realize it’s not fantasy. These women could be my grandmothers and they were on the front lines of this seemingly impossible war against militant, but oh-so-gentile, sexism every day.

Discovering feminism in college was like finding out there were new shades on the color wheel. I was born in 1979 and have never withstood a fraction of what women fifty years ago met each day, but I took to the canon of modern feminism like that fish on a bicycle took to water. Exploring my identity as a woman gave me the Goddess, a sense of independence, and inspired my entire academic path. It also armed me against a few of the demeaning pitfalls that mark the experiences of most nineteen year old girls.

Almost a decade later, my feminist edge begins to dull and my sharp critique of the media become a little less strident. Removed from the sphere of activism and late night dorm room rants and now living with a man who teaches me to laugh at my own earnestness, I have shed most of my intense radicalism. Though my liberal backbone remains strong, I find that opinions intended to shock and exclude the uninitiated hold little allure now. I had to marinate in the purest feminist ideals so that I could eventually emerge a woman who could survive in a world that may not be as damning as 1960s New York, but certainly still nurtures chauvinism and enduring double standards.

I cannot be alone in this sort of evolution from blatant f-you feminism to a more internalized sense of power and presence. Two of the most important voices in my feminist education seem to have found themselves on similar path: Sinead O’Connor and Ani DiFranco.

No Man’s Woman” and “Not a Pretty Girl“? These were my anthems and I still need them sometimes to remind me of who I was, of the bits of steal at the foundation of this softer persona I now use to greet the world. Sinead has since had her own odyssey of faith and discovery and speaks to God rather than the men in her life in albums like Theology. Ani just released Red Letter Year, and though I will probably never love her newer music like I did those essential first eleven or twelve albums (yeah, she’s wicked prolific), I still respect what she is creating. The righteous rage still burns, but she looks at the world as a mother now, and as I near that phase of my life, I think I can understand how her anger smolders at a different temperature. The love of a lioness for her cub is much more evocative than rebellion for the sake of pissing someone off, and her music speaks to me in this new space

When I skip the feminist blogs I used to read avidly and instead seek sites about the soul, the environment, creativity, or the politics of race, am I abandoning the feminism that gave me freedom to engage in such topics? Or, instead, can I satisfy myself with the belief that the ideas are integral to my work and that women’s wisdom is working its magic at every turn? Can I find a way to follow my own path without worrying that I forget my sisters who redraw their feminist stripes every day so that the rest of us do not have to?

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2 thoughts on “The Girl Who Cried Feminism

  1. Tess November 11, 2008 / 7:40 am

    Interesting post. I’m not familiar with Mad Men but just googled it. Wonder if it’ll make it to our screens in the UK.
    Pre-dating you by a good few years (born in 1953), I can remember the excitement of the late 60s/early 70s when Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinhem, Germaine Greer et al burst into our lives. We had a feminist magazine (which I still miss) in the UK called Spare Rib, which was filled with ads for consciousness-raising groups, in which we gathered and politicised each other.
    There was a kind of tension between the new sexual freedom of the pill and the whole groupie culture of the 60s, which Marge Piercy captures very well in her book Vida. In other words were we exercising our sexual freedom by sleeping around, or being used as sex objects?
    Some of us were lesbians some (like me) bi. Both these choices were far less acceptable in the mainstream than they are now, but for some, lesbianism became a (rather joyless!) political choice, and lesbian and feminist separatist politics flourished for a while. Many people worked in collectives.
    Some feminists then rather looked down on our sisters who were married with children.
    Even when straight, we derived more of our identity from our female friends than our male partners.
    Our female musical role models were to a great extent still the doomed divas (Joplin et al) and I wish we’d had Ani DiFranco, who I only recently discovered and share your love of.
    I miss the excitement and turbulence and sense of shared purpose and discovery of those early days but, like you, I believe we move on. I like what you say about ‘a more internalised sense of power and presence’.
    Also like you, I rarely read specifically feminist blogs and books any more.
    I do think, though, that the battle is far from won, but perhaps that men are now suffering also and that the issues are slightly different.
    When I look around at work, I see young women worried about their femininity, their weight, what they look like, whether they have a boyfriend. Frankly I often want to hit them!
    But I also see guys worried about how they look, buying skin products, not sure of their place in the world. I read the other day that male cosmetic surgery is the fastest growth in that industry.
    And I think the huge dumbing-down of Western culture, the cult of the (cheap) celebrity etc is a deliberate media and political ploy partly to make money and partly to distract the masses.
    So I think a movement is still needed. Perhaps more than ever. Is it a feminist movement that’s needed? I’m not sure.
    I didn’t start out to make a post-length comment, but you stirred a lot of memories and thoughts with your post.

  2. girlwhocriedepiphany November 14, 2008 / 8:22 am

    Tess – Thank you so much for your thoughtful reply. Though I intellectually understand the foment of the 60s and 70s, I realize how one really had to live through it to understand how much things changed and how that time, though easily romanticized, was also born of a lot of confusion.
    I want feminism, with the larger umbrella that the third wave is trying to introduce (understanding men’s issues, the problems of race and class, etc.), to be the thing that carries us through to the next awakening, past the foolish trivialization and commodification of today’s culture.
    Do we need a new word that is inspired by the revolutionary acts of our feminist foremothers but does not get people tangled up in the “feminine”? But then of course, if we are still distracted by the belief that feminism is a dirty word we must not be ready to move on.

    We need a movement, and it needs to include all people, regardless of ethnicity, gender, class or sexual orientation… However do we begin?

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