The Feminist Reawakening

Last night, Amy and I were talking about how the current Presidential race has been good if, for nothing else, showing just how deeply sexism is ingrained in our society, especially when it comes to being socially acceptable. The piece I wrote last Friday (which has driven more traffic to this site than anything in a really long time) was based on that very argument, that even people most of us would call progressive are guilty of being sexist, or saying sexist things and reinforcing sexist frames.

So thanks to Molly Ivors at Eschaton, I got to read this really interesting article from New York Magazine on the question of a Feminist Reawakening, thanks to Senator Clinton's candidacy. And I think, even though I have a really limited knowledge of feminist issues, that it's a good piece. The media gets taken to task pretty early in the piece, and like I and many others have said, they bear the lion's share of the responsibility for the ugliness of the discourse on this matter so far. But then Amanda Fortini tries to get at the meat of the matter, and that's what I found the most interesting, especially when she gets to a phenomenon I've observed both as a father and as a teacher of mostly first and second year university students.

Any woman who has spent time in the workforce likely understands what a powerful, defining force gender can be. “We used to have a saying in the women’s movement,” says Leslie Bennetts, author of The Feminine Mistake. “It takes life to make a feminist.” The real divide among women of voting age is between those who have encountered gender-based hurdles and affronts as they pursued their professional ambitions and those who have not: between women in their twenties, still in college or recent graduates, and women who have worked at a job where something (money, prestige, reputation) is at stake. This may in part explain why very young women voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama: The parity on college campuses, where women often outperform men academically, can feel like it must translate into parity in the world. I remember reading Sylvia Plath’s journals in a college seminar titled Biography, Gender, and Suicide—it was straight out of a Woody Allen movie—and finding them overwrought and whiny, a bitter recitation of every domestic duty and slight. Similarly, I wondered what Hélène Cixous and her feminist poststructuralist sisters were howling about. At that point, my only experience with sexism was a high-school debate in which my coach asked me to take my hair out of a bun so that I didn’t look “so severe” for the judges. (I left my hair up—and won.) To my mind, equality was the rule.
I often wonder if the women in my classes are aware of the sexism that likely awaits them when they get to their chosen fields after graduation. I have my doubts, and that bothers me. I'm a big believer in "forewarned is forearmed" and I feel like I haven't always done the best job, as a father or a teacher, or forewarning my students that the world outside academia (or even inside it, truth be told) is an ugly, cutthroat, and often sexist place.

And so I'm glad for this discussion, for this candidacy, even if Senator Clinton should fall short, if only because it has reawakened the issue of feminism, and proved decisively that, just as we are not in a post-racial world, neither are we in a post-sexist world, and that we have a long way to go on both counts.

Often, when people ask me how I'm doing, I'll reply "I'm not good, but I'm better," and I think that sums up where we are as a society in this case. Sure, things are better for women in society now than they were 30 years ago, but they're still not where they ought to be, and pretending that they are only makes the problem worse.

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