Monday, July 10, 2006
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I think Barbara Ehrenreich needs a time out
Without wading into the deeper waters of feminist thought -- a swim for which I might lack the proper training -- I did find my jaw dropping as I read this passage:
Cox is not the first post-feminist to denounce paleo-feminists as sexless prudes. Ever since Andrea Dworkin -- a truly puritanical feminist -- waged war on pornography, there've been plenty of feisty women ready to defend Victoria's Secret as a beachhead of liberation. Something similar happened in the 1920s, when newly enfranchised young women blew off those frumpy old suffragists and declared their right to smoke cigarettes, wear short skirts, and dance the Charleston all night.I find it hard to believe that there is any dimension in which the situation for women -- in the U.S. and across the globe -- is gloomier today than it was in the 1920's. There might be isolated exceptions in some countries, but by any aggregate measure -- women's suffrage, employment opportunities, educational opportunities -- I cannot see how Ehrenreich's implication holds.
I dare my readers to prove my assertion wrong.posted by Dan on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM
I wouldn't dare to try to prove you wrong.
My name is James, and I just found your blog. I was at the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Institute at the University of Delaware and had the honor of being in the smaller session with you. (I'm the one that asked about Cuba.)
I enjoyed your presentation in Delaware, and I look forward to reading a lot more of your blog.
Jamesposted by: James Boehm on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
She seems to be arguing that the direction of movement, not the absolute conditions women face, is "gloomier,", i.e., that the lot of women was improving in the 1920s, but now it is getting worse.posted by: Dan Nexon on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
Dan isn't wrong. During the 1920s a large number of the world's women, drawn into Stalin's forced relocations and China's unending civil strife, might have been forgiven for having missed the signs of their collective fortunes advancing. By contrast more women have left poverty behind in the last ten years than in any previous period in the history of the world.
Things are different in some of the predominantly Muslim countries, of course. But most countries are not predominantly Muslim, and not all the Muslim countries are being overrun with Wahhabism. I won't comment on Ehrenreich's comparison of women's status in the United States in the 1920s and today, as I'm not really sure what her point is. I'm not even sure if she thinks suffrage as important as contraception.
But you have to wonder about that last paragraph Dan quotes here. Islamic feminists would fight Islamism, and on their behalf Western feminists would offer their...sisterhood? Talk about throwing fear into the hearts of religious fanatics everywhere. Their sisterhood. I wonder how one goes about offering one's sisterhood to oppressed Muslim feminists thousands of miles away.posted by: Zathras on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
Speculation about the lot of women in the 1920's versus today with a view to some sort of better/worse thesis is really a non-starter.
Regressive political trends on issues such as abortion and gay rights notwithstanding, women are now an integral part of society in ways a 1920's woman couldn't even have envisaged. In the 30's a whopping 2% of American lawyers/judges were female - now it's around the 30% mark. Back in the good ole days under 20% of students who earned undergrad degrees were female (the privileged few) - now over 50% of grads are female and privilege has nothing to do with it.
It's a bit like a successful woman who lives in a spacious condominium with every modern amenity looking back nostalgically at her teen years when she lived in a dank basement, because that's when it all started to happen.
posted by: Aidan Maconachy on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
I think Dan N is right in that Ehrenreich is comparing trends rather than actual rights available to women. That is a more defensible case. EVen in that case she is probably wrong because there seems to be a small trend giving more rights to women in China and India, especially urban educated women. And since China actually encourages abortion, and India has no restrictions on abortion (although there are restrictions on sex determination of a foetus), they should meet Ehrenreich's definition of Heaven on Earth.
What this has to do with Wonkette's statement is another matter altogether. Its certainly a fact that some vocal feminists are contemptuous of any form of sexy display as encouraging anorexia etc. Some may even point to Professor Drezner;s tendency to publish links to pictures of Salma Hayek as a notorious indication of a sexist society and wonder how people as twisted as Professor Drezner ever make it to a lecture podium.
I've always had some contempt for Ms. Ehrenreich's analytical abilities since reading her simultaenous complaints in her book Nickel and Dimed about
Regardless, its pretty disengenuous to frame social progress on how quickly it is accelerating instead of in absolute terms. African Americans were 'gaining freedom' at a faster rate in 1865 than today but its highly cynical to wax poetic about the heady reconstruction era.
Feminists, by the standards of any era, have won a thunderous victory compared to 1920 or even 1970. And what about the metrics that are being ignored? Girls are outstripping boys at every level of education. Sexual harrassment that was common place 30 years ago is at least shunned and often litigated, if certainly not erradicated. Women and girls have been leading democratic revolutions all over the world, including making gains in the heart of the Middle East.
The truth is that George Carlin had it right, Feminists are interested in their own reproductive rights and their own pocket books, and everybody else can go hang. If a fraction of the energy spent chasing Larry Summers with torches was applied to supporting women's rights in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, I might be of a different opinion.posted by: Mark Buehner on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
Cox didn't say "sexless prudes". I think someone needs a hug.posted by: brent on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
Ehrenreich doesn't analyze, she emotes. Indeed, finding that your analyses match up with her prescriptions is normally a good indication that you've misthought something.posted by: Dave on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
Too bad we didn't get some comments from women - so far. I think they could add an alternative viewpoint to the discussion and it would be interesting to know what that alternative viewpoint is.posted by: DILBERT DOGBERT on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
One of the things Ana Marie Cox didn't like about Katha Pollitt's book was that she is "fixated" on the rights of women in the middle east! Pollitt writes a lot about women around the globe -- poverty, uneven development, lack of access to education, sexual slavery, fundamentalist threats to their rights. She reports the good news too -- she's not all bleak and grim as Cox implies. Cox is the one who only seems to care about women exactly like herself.
"But while Muslim women are being stuffed into burkas, American post-feminists are trying to stuff their feet into stilettos. Who are you going to call when the morals police attack you for wearing eye shadow in Kabul or flashing some ankle in Teheran -- a wonkette?"
"Ehrenreich doesn't analyze, she emotes." Exactly. See above. Stilleto heels are either the equivalent of a burka, or of eye shadow, but they can't simultaneoulsy be both.
The core contradiction in feminism is the conflict between people who want liberty - sexual liberation, freedom to enter new lines of work and so on - and control - PC thought police, control of men's access to their children, control of men's reproduction through easy access to abortion, and the like. Women flashing their flesh and enjoying it undermines this campaign for control. In effect, they are stengthening the divide between Whore and Madonna that they used to decry so much.posted by: Jim on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
As has been pointed out, Ehrenreich's argument is about trends, not absolutes, and as such, it may or may not be correct, but it is less jaw-droppingly stupid than you're reading it as.
More to the point, I think what's driving Ehrenreich's argument is the widespread *perception* among many US women that women's rights--particularly in the US, I think, though it's perceived and portrayed as a global thing, as above--that the women's rights movement is fighting a rearguard battle to defend ground already taken, rather than, as in the 20s, fighting an advancing battle to successfully take new ground. Again, you can argue about whether that perception is objectively correct, but for many women, it is certainly subjectively real, and that in turn has real effects in terms of momentum and morale.posted by: NK on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
I've always had some contempt for Ms. Ehrenreich's analytical abilities since reading her simultaenous complaints in her book Nickel and Dimed about
I guess I don't understand your point here. If Walmart paid their employees nothing, the items they sold could be priced lower but the they would be even less affordable to their employees. I am no economist but wouldn't it be the case that increasing the salary of your employees would always make the things they produce more affordable to them since labor is only part of the cost of production?posted by: etaoin shrdlu on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
Its not just Wal Mart employees. Ehrenreich's book is about low income workers in general. In fact, I believe the comment about how expensive it was to buy things came when she was not working at a Wal-Mart. The fact is that for lower income people, Wal Mart is a huge boon, since it reduces the cost of the items they buy (especially now that they're also selling food).
Comparisons to the 1860s-1880s are apt: all of the gains blacks made post-Civil War vanished in a wave of Post-Reconstruction policies that established Jim Crow laws and a political climate that encouraged terrorism against freed slaves. There had been a lot of black legislators, judges, and businessespeople in the South. In less than a generation, they were all gone.
Another comparison worth noting is post-WWII America. Women, who had run the homefront, worked in factories, and were trained fighter pilots and intelligence operatives, found themselves told to "re-feminize" so the soldiers coming home could take back up their accustomed status at the top of the food chain. The "ideal" of Woman as pretty, inconsequential, incompetent, airheaded, and essentially trivial was a reaction against the roles women had filled during the War.
The common thread in both reactionary eras was that the gains made by blacks and by women were possible only because men allowed them to happen. And once men changed their minds about what was allowable, the gains vanished like soap-bubbles. Legal protections, up to and including Constitutional law, were disregarded and unenforced.
What's different from those earlier regressive eras is that today, women, blacks, and other marginalized groups have better grips on the central power structures, in law and law enforcement, in politics, and (esp.) the economy.
Criticizing feminists for focusing on bodily autonomy sounds pretty damned condescending, coming from people (men) whose bodily autonomy is accepted as a universal, natural fact. No one's going to force men to have children they don't want, or tell men filling their birth control prescription violates the pharmacist's religious principles, or simultaneously punish men for having children they can't afford to provide for AND punish them for working full time in order to provide for the kids.
Criticizing feminists for focusing on their financial well-being is also insulting, since we live in a society where one's ability to assert one's personality, exert one's liberties, and even be assured of a basic quality of life is wholely dependent on one's financial status.
But Ehrenreich is correct in noting that certain sectors of society have moved backward dramatically. Chief among these is in advertising, where images of women as primarily sexual lures are again the standard; and in entertainment, where women are again largely relegated to the sidelines as someone the hero has to rescue, and as a trophy thereafter. This is particularly true in ads and entertainment aimed at the 16-34 demographic, which means it's the message young people are hearing, and internalizing. That doesn't bode well for the shape of society in the coming generations.
The lessons of Post-Reconstruction and Post WWII in America, and the resurgence of religious fundamentalism globally, is that there are no guarantees that what a previously marginalized group has gained can't be taken away if it suits the power structure to do so.
That's why feminists "bore" people by noting trends with alarm. We know it can happen. We've seen it happen. We see it happening again. Sorry if that gets on your nerves, guys.posted by: CaseyL on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
More to the point, I think what's driving Ehrenreich's argument is the widespread *perception* among many US women that women's rights--particularly in the US, I think, though it's perceived and portrayed as a global thing, as above--that the women's rights movement is fighting a rearguard battle to defend ground already taken, rather than, as in the 20s, fighting an advancing battle to successfully take new ground. Again, you can argue about whether that perception is objectively correct, but for many women, it is certainly subjectively real, and that in turn has real effects in terms of momentum and morale.
Yes, but even if it's true, it's a stupid comparison. In Ehrenreich's world, women going from 90 to 88 on a "liberation scale" are worse off than women going from 20 to 25, because the latter are "advancing" and the former are "regressing."posted by: David Nieporent on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
Yes, but even if it's true, it's a stupid comparison. In Ehrenreich's world, women going from 90 to 88 on a "liberation scale" are worse off than women going from 20 to 25, because the latter are "advancing" and the former are "regressing."
I agree, that would be a stupid comparison, or more accurately a stupid conclusion to come to based on that comparison, if it were the conclusion Ehrenreich drew. But it's not, or at least not in the article quoted by Dan. The argument Ehrenreich is actually making can be summed up as follows:
"Gee, women today seem terribly frivolous and unserious about women's rights issues. But perhaps that shouldn't concern us--maybe there's just a natural cycle at work: a period of militancy followed by a period of frivolity. One might suggest the 1920s as a case in point. But while the 1920s were a period of frivolity in which women's rights continued to advance from where they stood at the beginning of that period of frivolity, this era seems to be a period of frivolity in which women's rights are eroding from where they stood at the beginning of this period of frivolity. [Insert Ehrenreich's examples of erosions from recent standards here.] Therefore, this period of frivolity is different from that period of frivolity--not just a repeat of the same--and we should not let the example of the 1920s keep us from being worried."
In other words, she's not saying going from 90 to 85 leaves women in an objectively worse position than going from 20 to 25. She's saying that going from 90 to 85 is something we should worry about, while going from 20 to 25 was, at the time, encouraging. I don't particularly follow Ehrenreich and thus have no particular opinion on her as a thinker; but taken on its own merits, that seems to me a reasonable comparison to make, and a plausible, if certainly debatable, conclusion to draw.
In any case, at no point does this article state, explicitly or as far as I can tell implicitly, that women are in any absolute way worse off than they were in the 1920s, except in the very specific sense that in the 1920s, momentum seemed to be on the side of women's rights, whereas, in Ehrenreich's view, in this decade, it seems to be against them. In fact, she explicitly acknowledges that there has been a material improvement in the intervening time: "So, yes, maybe the paleo-feminists who chanted and marched for equal rights get a little tiresome at times. But you can thank them for your belly button jewelry and your right to display it in public." She merely worries that that improvement may not be here to stay.
Anyway, off to finish Sharpe's Eagles--which turns out to be a surprisingly feminist show.posted by: NK on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
NK summarized Ehrenreich's point better than Ehrenreich did. Ehrenreich has a tendency to use overblown prose that obscures legitimate points.
I find Ehrenreich's comments about conversative Islam interesting. It's obvious that punishing women for working, going to school, and communicating with men is not good for women and represents a degradation of women's rights. However, one should not assume that wearing a headscarf is tantamount to an anti-feminist statement. Years ago, during a college course on the Middle East, we watched a fascinating video of interviews of women about Islam. One Palestinian professor argued quite forcefully that wearing her headscarf and conservative dress was inherently consistent with feminisism, because her colleagues were forced to judge her on the wisdom of her words and intelligence of her analysis, rather than the beauty of her body and hair. *She* certainly didn't view herself as put down by her faith.
(Ehrenreich might extend this woman's argument to claim that feminists thus shouldn't wear high heels or make-up... but she can't, because she is too busy arguing that headscarves are bad for women.)
Islam is a complex religion, and it contains numerous cultures and sub-cultures that are hard to summarize or aggregate. Thus, it also should be hard to demonize Islam as an "entity," not that the current administration hasn't managed to do it.posted by: Jo on 07.10.06 at 01:42 PM [permalink]
"No one's going to force men to have children they don't want,"
Aside from judges forcing men to pay child support for children not even their own?
"or tell men filling their birth control prescription violates the pharmacist's religious principles,"
Some pharmacists and chains refuse to sell condoms last I checked.
"or simultaneously punish men for having children they can't afford to provide for AND punish them for working full time in order to provide for the kids."
Except that no-one forces anyone to have children under current law.
Dear Feminists in America,
Thanks for your support.
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