Note: In order to understand the content of the following post you need to read the introductory one, here.
At no point, when I conceived this debate after reading Charlotte Raven's article in The Guardian (read the original text here), did I predict the amazing response I've had from both the five participants in the discussion and those who decided not to take part but still e-mailed their opinions through. As I mentioned in a message to one of the five bloggers whose comments you'll read in a minute, tonight's first part and next Thursday's second instalment of this discussion threw me a few years back when I used to organise a monthly off-the-cuff session at an arts centre where I was one of the project managers. From 2004 until 2008, when the company closed down, I brought a diverse bunch of artists (mainly performers) to one of the most deprived areas in London, where I've also happened to live for many years now. From those sessions it is the film-screenings that I always remember the best because they introduced both the audience and me to a cornucopia of independent directors and companies of which I had never heard. After each film we used to have a Q&A session with the producer and or director. I chaired these post-screening debates and besides having specialists on the panel I always invited other parties whose work was relevant to the topic addressed by the film.
And that was the same sentiment that overcame me as soon as I started getting your replies about feminism and its role in today's society. As I trudged through your answers, my dear fellow bloggers, I felt like a child in a sweet shop. Sometimes I nodded in agreement, occasionally I shook my head, but above all, you made me think and I hope readers will walk away tonight giving more thought to some of the issues you raised.
As promised all bloggers' biographies have been posted and you'll see that they all come from different walks of life. Some of you did not send any photos, so I've taken the liberty of using your blogs byline pictures and I hope that's OK. I've also linked all your blogs or websites.
What else can I add? Well, that I had a ball drafting the questions, receiving and reading your answers, preparing the posts (don't miss the second part on Thursday 29th April at 11:59pm GMT) and now I look forward to digesting your feedback. Without any further ado, let the debate commence.
Deborah (The Temptation of Words): Anglo-Canadian by birth and culture, I spend most of my time in the south of France with my favourite Belgian, and the rest in the shadow of the Rockies in the thoroughly enjoyable company of whichever of my three grown children happens to be there.
Hema (Wading Through Words): I currently live in the U.S, but I grew up in India; I draw inspiration for my writing from my rich and diverse cultural heritage. I am a software engineer by training and a writer by choice.
T. Allen Mercado (Tea and Honey Bread): mixed media artist, msn.com award winning essayist, wife and un/homeschooling mother of two. She concedes to a near unhealthy fascination with the human condition and writes about it often from the perspective of a neurotic humanist, womanist, pacifist, socialist. She is also an occasional pessimist.
Miriam Levine (Miriam Levine's website): Born in Paterson, New Jersey, Miriam Levine now divides her time between Florida and Massachusetts. Currently she is at work on a new novel and a poetry collection. She is Professor Emerita at Framingham State College, where she chaired the English Department and was Coordinator of the Arts and Humanities Program.
Catherine Smith (Jumbleberry Orchard): I am a postgraduate student in linguistics, currently living alone in a small flat in York. I grew up in an ex-mining town in West Yorkshire, with hardworking parents who have achieved a lot from very little. My parents always encouraged me to work hard and to be independent, and pushed me hard to achieve good results; getting a good education and an exciting career has always been their priority for me.
1- Feminism has often been accused of being a movement led by and directly benefiting middle-class, educated, western women, thus, overlooking the role played by many female activists on the frontline of social and political struggles, such as: domestic violence, pay inequity, restrictions on reproductive rights. What do you think about it?
Deborah: I do tend to agree that a form of two-tier feminism exists, although the feminist leaders of the 60s and 70s gave enormous impetus to what was a more isolated, under-the-radar struggle to bring greater freedom and equality to women. While the well-educated and articulate, high-profile and media-savvy principals of the feminist movement may have had greater appeal to an audience of their peers, the emergence of public debate and personal discourse fuelled a wave of awareness that gave front-line activists a support base and a credibility that might have otherwise been much longer to arrive – if ever. For the generation that followed the first major wave of contemporary feminists, however, the message and the movement have been diluted. My daughter’s generation has assumed the fact of both their equality and their right to access education, professional success and reproductive freedom but for many of them, feminism ends there. The activists who work in the ‘gritty’ areas—for the rights and betterment of the lives of sex-trade workers, immigrant child-care providers, native women (in Canada) and low-literate women, don’t get a lot of attention from those who have benefitted from the social change effected by their predecessors. For them—and even for many of us who came of age during the Golden Age of Feminism—the deal seems done. We got what we were after, didn’t we? Well, some of us did, and many more didn’t. In British Columbia, for instance, scores of women have disappeared off the streets of Vancouver in the last 15 years – and for much of that time, there was no reaction from the media or the police. It was only because of the constant efforts of family members and women’s activists that the magnitude of this loss was finally acknowledged and the push to open an investigation was resisted for far too long. It’s all too tempting to suspect that the victims’ public invisibility was due to their gender, their poverty and their line of work, which was in some cases was in fact the sex trade, but in many others was just incorrectly assumed to be the case. Ergo, they’re not that important, or they got what they were asking for. This is a case in point where the feminist movement has made very little difference, where—not unlike the economically comfortable middle classes of the West who remain largely uninvolved with the problems of the developing world—those who have reaped the incomplete rewards of contemporary feminism have taken what they needed to be comfortable, and left the rest.
Hema: I would agree with this assessment, only when it comes to feminism as an organized movement. As a teenager in India, in the 80s, I knew of a woman (as just one example) who used to buy school supplies every year for her neighbor’s daughter, so that that girl wouldn’t have to drop out of school for lack of money. So, that lady helped empower a girl-child by supporting her education. Did she do it keeping in mind the concept of ‘feminism’? Probably not. Just because she has not been part of the bigger movement, does that make her any less of a feminist? No.I think the basic philosophy behind feminism – struggle for gender equality - is practiced every day, either at grassroots level inside many homes, or on a bigger scale by female social activists and such all across the globe. However, feminism as an organized movement has been more or less a western concept (or restricted to cities, for the most part, elsewhere in the world). Overall, my take on feminism resonates very much with that of Sarojini Naidu – a poet and a prominent voice in the nationalist and women’s movements during India’s freedom struggle. She once said (I paraphrase) that she wouldn’t call herself a feminist because to do so would be to acknowledge that women are weak, and hence need an organized movement to uplift themselves.
T. Allen Mercado: Women of color who served on the front lines and fought for civil rights/human rights aren't lauded for their contributions to the feminist movement, this is clear and a topic of intensity. Part of me resents the "othering", while the other embraces the greater picture. I am not just a feminist. Feminism is but one link in the chain. This is exceptionally important to recognize as we encounter the complex subtleties of gender and how it is both defined, accepted and understood.
Miriam Levine: In America, in the nineteenth century, educated feminists were tremendously influential in the Abolitionist movement that helped end slavery. Feminists fought for the right to vote, a right that helped all women. More recently, feminists continue to struggle against domestic violence, which affects all classes! They are also in the forefront of efforts to guarantee reproductive rights, and access to birth control and abortion. In 1971 more than three hundred French women stood up and publicly stated that they had had an abortion. Following their example, in its first issue in 1972, Ms. Magazine published a petition “in which 53 well-known U.S. women declared that they had undergone abortions.”
Catherine: I agree that Western women are feeling most (if not all) of the benefits of the feminist movement, but then it was Western women who started and carried out the revolution in the first place. In Europe and America we are blessed with the overall freedom of our societies; the struggle for equal rights was always going to be easier in countries which prioritise democracy and human rights. The worldwide battle has a long way to go, but there is a strong movement of liberated women who are involved in struggling for those women who are still waiting for their freedom. I believe that these issues are being tackled, if very slowly. If a movement is going to be lead at all, it will always be those who feel they have a voice who will lead it; in this case, it is the educated middle-class women who can speak the loudest, possibly as a result of being the principle benefactors. However, it could be that these women don’t actually benefit from the feminist movement as they don’t actually need to; they are not the women suffering in social and political struggles. Many female activists living through real struggles may well see the Western idea of feminism in its stereotype: a plight to gain equality with men in terms of money, power and social respect. This stereotypical Western feminist is a far throw from the women suffering from circumcision, violence and forced pregnancy on every side of the globe; these issues go beyond feminism to fundamental human rights.
2- It seems that sometimes feminism is not compatible with women's freedom to choose, especially if that choice sometimes hinders their own progress. What are your thoughts on this issue?
Deborah: It’s difficult to address the issue of ‘feminism’ without a definition of what it was, and what it has become. As a woman who came of age in the early 70s, I now see some aspects of the feminism of that era as restrictive, in the sense that its philosophy was frequently oppositional. In the push for equity of pay, of opportunity, of power and control based solely on gender, there was little room for disagreement without appearing to be ‘unenlightened’ or ‘under the thumb’. There was a lot of pressure on women from each other to discard everything they had ever learned, accepted and even enjoyed about their female-ness, or how they related to men, in order to become New Women. Not a lot of tolerance for individual circumstances, preferences, or the potential for an attitude of entitlement to backfire both personally and professionally. Feminism has lightened up since then in some ways, but the debate that still rages on about ‘having it all’ and the ambivalence still widely expressed about professional women who maintain their careers while raising a family on the one hand, and the often disparaging depiction of women who elect to focus on their children on the other, clearly demonstrates that we haven’t come to terms with anybody’s freedom to choose.
Hema: At the height of the feminist movement (and by that I mean the 1960s and 70s), this may have been partly true. (I concede this point with some reluctance because my impressions are from having read books and watched television shows about that time period, for lack of a more objective data for myself – I was too young in the 70s to have had first-hand understanding of the movement’s ideology and workings.) During those days, if a woman chose of her own accord to give up a high-paying corporate job (for instance) to stay home and nurture her kids, then she’d have been labeled anti-feminist. I would like to believe (though I don’t have concrete data either way) that the feminist movement ideally did not begin this way, and that this kind of hindrance to a woman’s personal choice was a radical off-shoot of the original campaign, as it usually happens with organized movements over time. These days, I believe women definitely have more freedom (in view of feminism, at least) to make their own choices, based upon their own perception of progress, and not be tagged for it one way or the other.
T. Allen Mercado: Within the Black community this is a highly divisive topic. Freedom of choice is heavily slanted in favor of having children and marriage versus career advancement and activism. The church and family mores within our community are certainly foes of feminism. To that end, as stated in my answer to question one. Black feminism is so heavily shrouded under the umbrella of equality as a whole, that much of the detail is lost in the bigger picture.
Miriam Levine: It is hardly Feminism that restricts women’s right to choose. Think of the church, think of fundamentalist religions that often dictate dress, sexual relations, child-bearing, work life, domestic life, etc., etc. Women who break those rules sometimes risk death. In contrast, Feminism fights for individual freedom. While conditions have improved in the work place, the business world still restricts women. Can anyone cite important examples of Feminists speaking against women who choose to have children, not to work outside the home, etc.? As a feminist, I am horrified by those feet and back destroying spike heels so much in fashion and by so much of cosmetic surgery, but I wouldn’t take away women’s right to choose no matter how much the shoes hobble their steps, no matter how painful the surgery. I’m all for fashion that liberates the female body. Spike shoes restrict; cosmetic surgery is painful and not long lasting. The best thing women can do for themselves is to get an education and keep physically active. I believe it is economic and historical forces that influence progress for better or worse.
Catherine: As a woman with a good education, just about to start out in my first career, I feel incredible pressure to do what I’m capable of, and not necessarily what I actually want to do. I don’t know whether this stems from my position as a woman in a situation of potential success, or if this is an instinct general to men and women alike. I do know, however, that I want to bring up my own children, and in many ways, revert to that stereotypical domestic lifestyle that women fought so hard to free themselves from. I know I’m not alone in this choice, and I know that many women are unsure about giving up on their personal dreams to pursue a domestic lifestyle: does it mean we are giving ourselves away to our gender roles by fulfilling a basic human instinct to nurture our offspring? Even so, progress in terms of career only comes at the expense of this instinct, and choosing to stay at home and bring up a family comes at the expense of a successful career (at the extremes of the spectrum); at the end of the day, feminism has to stop somewhere and let nature take over. If women are to reproduce, then their babies need to be looked after; either way women must choose, and if that is not compatible with feminism then there must be limits to feminism’s compatibility with nature.
3- The author appears to believe that writers and journalists are the only 'thinking women'. What's your opinion about it?
Deborah: The author’s comparison sampling is a bit limited, confined as it seems to be to female celebrities and media personalities on the one hand, and intellectuals on the other. It has distinct echoes of the eternal (and absurd) conflict between brains and beauty (in whatever form you see it) with the supposition that women cannot be endowed with the one, and have any semblance of the other. Because the media, in its various forms, tends to reflect and define the most evident—or are they just the most entertaining?—attitudes and sociological trends, the error can be made to believe that what we read/hear/watch on television is true of a majority. It is not. There are thinking women a-plenty out here beyond the tabloids, the celebrity press, the sometimes limited research and accompanying dubious conclusions of serious writers and sociological commentators, who tell us how they think they see it
Hema: I would like to give the author the benefit of the doubt, since she’s not in front of me to defend her stance, that she used writers and journalists in that context as examples of ‘thinking women’, not as all-encompassing categories of the same. Even then she would have done better to include others from disparate walks of life.If I am being too generous and the author did mean it when she said that writers and journalists are the only thinking women, then she couldn’t be more off the mark. Let’s take a woman who does menial labor for daily wages as but one instance of women who couldn’t be any farther in the spectrum from the thinking women that the author has come up with. The woman in our example - who would often be considered uneducated in the traditional sense of the word - is usually wise and astute; and at most times she shoulders the burden of her whole – usually large – family. She may not be making momentous political and judicial decisions everyday that would make or break the country’s future, but she definitely is thinking about things that are far more important to her family’s survival. Just because her thoughts are more practical and immediate, do we have the right to trivialize them?
T. Allen Mercado: The author, as it appears to me discusses theories gleaned from several publications, hence her comment about writers and journalists in par. 2. I believe she was calling upon other writers and journalists-albeit after the fact -to counter the views expressed (successfully promoted and sold) by Price and others of the same vein. Exclusionary, perhaps-but it read to me that she was critiquing/admonishing a group of her peers.
Miriam Levine: I didn’t get that impression from the article.
Catherine: I can’t really say I have an opinion. I can only disagree! Since she is a journalist herself it seems reasonable that she would use this position as her viewpoint into other situations; I didn’t interpret any suggestion of thinking being exclusive to female writers and journalists, but if this is the case, well, I’m neither a writer nor a journalist, yet I would probably say I’m a ‘thinking woman’!
The 2nd Part will be published on Thursday 29th April at 11:59pm (GMT)