Is feminism moving backward?

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Lately, the word "sexist" has been tossed around more than a squealing teenaged girl at cheerleading camp, and it seems everyone has a different definition of what it entails, (both in practice and philosophy). Is it envisioning a certain female political candidate in a star-spangled bikini, or deliberately refraining from asking her the "hard" questions because she's a girl? Is it standing up for stricter abortion laws because that's what some women believe in, or passionately fighting for the right to choose? These questions inevitably bring us to the underlying tension: What does feminism, in the western world at least, mean these days? And is it, as some would argue, propelling today's women backward?

Now that legal and institutional changes have been made, and the social liberation of the '60s and '70s is done with, what's left? Maybe women no longer feel crippled by the pressure to stay home and clean, but sexual objectification certainly hasn't gone out of style. However, to toss off the idea that feminism is "dead" isn't quite right, either. Plenty of women will tell you they consider themselves "feminists," but ask them what they mean by that and there's usually not a pat answer because after all, it's complicated. For some, the very idea conjures up images of the stereotypically threatening militant type who eats men for lunch, and few want to align themselves with extremists. Most seem to identify as feminist because it entails most simply, the idea of equality. We want to have the same rights as men do, which means equal pay, a workplace free from sexual harassment, owning one's own body, sexual freedom, the right to vote and all the other liberties we sometimes take for granted simply because we were born after certain pioneers ensured this would be the case. And that has some older women fuming. Because one look at grown ladies writhing around on bar counters wearing sparkly pink mini-skirts in the name of "feminism" (they're doing it because it's their equal right, see?), and some of these earlier feminists rightly ask themselves, "Where did we go wrong?"

There's a great interview with a male champion of women, Simon Doonan, in The Guardian this week where he talks about fashion and feminism (see Jennifer Romolini's post in Fashion and Beauty). What really caught my attention was this excerpt where he reflects on the state of women's lib then and now:

American women are something of a concern for Doonan. He bemoans the rise of "porno chic" and notes that there is "a lot of conformity, a lot of blonde hair ... I often wonder if feminism was just a dream. I can't believe how women feel so scrutinized, and they're still so self-critical - I thought they would have let go of that now but they haven't. There's a very masochistic thing with women now that I didn't used to see. My girl friends in the punk era weren't like that at all." He looks slightly forlorn. "You know, at least once a week someone calls me up and says, 'Don't you think it's terrible when fat girls have muffin tops over their jeans?' And I say,'Not if they're happy.' Who cares?"--The Guardian

It's true. The modern girl's self-esteem seems to be a state of crisis tantamount to Wall Street's; (are we experiencing a recession of female empowerment?). And then there's the idea of "us" against "them." We've all encountered certain circles of women that consider themselves true feminists for various ideological reasons and even superficial ones, such as they refuse to wear makeup or ever conform to fashion trends and only date a certain type of man, etc. These ladies seem to resent the girlier girls, and aren't afraid to express their satisfaction and impose judgment upon them. To me, this smugly delivered reverse snobbery is not only damaging to the idea of what it means to be a feminist, it's also just downright un-sisterly, not to mention rude. Does an interest in this season's hemlines automatically make you some kind of '50s housewife who is setting us all back? I guess it depends on who you ask. Again, the line is blurry.

Still, you have to agree that after all the tireless work done to shed traditional gender roles, sometimes it does feel like we're slipping. (The very existence of that frightening book The Rules is just one example that pops into my head, and a more serious and highly consequential one is that abortion rights are under attack, which I'll probably rant about in a post coming to a Love/Sex channel near you.) On the other hand, maybe in most cases, women adhering to certain roles that feel comfortable to them really is just part of being authentic--which is precisely what early feminists fought for in the first place. (And let's just hope they're not automatically ascribing to them because of what some patriarchy has set forth.) Some women are indeed saying, "You know what, I don't feel like I do have to do it all just to prove something. In fact, I'm not going to work during the first few years of my child's life and I think that will be the best decision for both of us," and that takes courage, too.

I suppose I could go on and on, but such a topic demands more than a blog post, and at this point, what I'd really like to do is take the temperature here on Shine and hear from you. What does feminism mean to you? Do you consider yourself to be one? Especially, to the ladies who've been around longer to see some major generational differences, what's your take on all this?