Quantcast

«

»

Apr 18 2013

An unsettling challenge that well-adjusted people instinctively avoid

Reading the long article on feminism by Wendy Kaminer from 1993, pointed out by hjhornbeck.

Today, three decades of feminism and one Year of the Woman later, a majority of American women agree that feminism has altered their lives for the better. In general, polls conducted over the past three years indicate strong majority support for feminist ideals. But the same polls suggest that a majority of women hesitate to associate themselves with the movement. As Karlyn Keene, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, has observed, more than three quarters of American women support efforts to “strengthen and change women’s status in society,” yet only a minority, a third at most, identify themselves as feminists.

And that’s still true, maybe more true. Feminism is a boogey-word. Why is that?

Many feminists take comfort in these polls, inferring substantial public support for economic and political equality, and dismissing women’s wariness of the feminist label as a mere image problem (attributed to unfair media portrayals of feminists as a strident minority of frustrated women). But the polls may also adumbrate unarticulated ambivalence about feminist ideals, particularly with respect to private life. If widespread support for some measure of equality reflects the way women see, or wish to see, society, their unwillingness to identify with feminism reflects the way they see themselves, or wish to be seen by others.

To the extent that it challenges discrimination and the political exclusion of women, feminism is relatively easy for many women to embrace. It appeals to fundamental notions of fairness; it suggests that social structures must change but that individuals, particularly women, may remain the same. For many women, feminism is simply a matter of mommy-tracking, making sure that institutions accommodate women’s familial roles, which are presumed to be essentially immutable. But to the extent that feminism questions those roles and the underlying assumptions about sexuality, it requires profound individual change as well, posing an unsettling challenge that well-adjusted people instinctively avoid. Why question norms of sex and character to which you’ve more or less successfully adapted?

I think that observation about “well-adjusted people” is brilliant. I think it’s true. It takes a certain…something, a willingness to alienate oneself, a willingness to be a little bit peculiar or off-kilter or pugnacious, to be at odds with things. That doesn’t appeal to everyone. One of our biggest tasks in life is just figuring things out so that we get along, we don’t make big stupid embarrassing mistakes all the time, we’re not always wrong and clumsy. Maybe we’re all four years old at heart, helpless, lost in a sea of people, having no clue about when you’re supposed to drink your orange juice and when you’re supposed to sit down and color. We like sussing it all out and doing a good job. We like succeeding at appearing normal.

Being political and posing unsettling challenges to the most fundamental way of doing things – that’s no way to succeed at appearing normal. I think that’s one reason most people don’t want to.

And the norms of sex and character are there already, they were there before we were, and we grew up among them. They’re like water to a fish. They’re our medium, and we’re not aware of the medium as a medium. Women are like this, men are like that; it’s what we’ve always known. It’s a lot of trouble to try to re-think that, let alone to argue that it’s not optimal. Well-adjusted people don’t want to do that kind of thing, because they’re well-adjusted, and what fun would it be to throw all that away?

11 comments

Skip to comment form

  1. 1
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    MLK: proud to be maladjusted

  2. 2
    Ernest Valdemar (@ErnestValdemar)

    Isn’t ’93 right around the time, or a little bit after, Susan Faludi’s Backlash came out? I remember reading that around that time.

    I sometimes despair that a lot of under-50 folks, having absorbed a Whiggish view of history, don’t realize that the late 70s, despite some lingering old-school chauvinism, was a far more progressive and radical era for women than anything you see today.

    I think few people even realized at the time just how deep and nasty the “Reagan Revolution” was for women in society.

  3. 3
    Simon

    I’m sure the person Kaminer quotes at the American Enterprise Institute could locate about a dozen people responsible for vilifying feminism on any given day at that organization’s offices.

  4. 4
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    And people wonder why I’m so obsessed with adjustment psychiatry and the current notion of “mental illness”…

  5. 5
    SC (Salty Current), OM

    I’m sure the person Kaminer quotes at the American Enterprise Institute could locate about a dozen people responsible for vilifying feminism on any given day at that organization’s offices.

    Not to mention that probably every single policy they advocate is harmful to women in one or several dozen ways.

  6. 6
    Simon

    I read the entire essay and here are my main disagreements:

    But only five years ago Dworkin and MacKinnon were leaders of a feminist fringe. Today, owing partly to the excesses of multiculturalism and the exaltation of victimization, they’re leaders in the feminist mainstream.

    I am fairly certain that the above statement about Dworkin is flat out false. She never sought nor indeed became a mainstream leader.

    As for the rest of it, there’s all sorts of weirdness like for instance attempting to somehow rate the experience of date rape vs that of breaking and entering rape. Or defending statements by Camille Paglia about not drinking at parties, or chiding women for not wanting to hear dick jokes at the office and on it goes.

    Overall, Kaminer seems to be voicing a common gripe against feminists which boils down to “don’t sweat the small stuff”. Well 1) Who gets to define “small”? and 2) Even if it is “small”, it still makes plenty of goddamn sense to discuss it because “small” today if unchecked can and does feed into bigger stuff. And by stuff I mean harassment and abuse.

  7. 7
    Nadai

    This reminds me of a quote by, of all people, Krishnamurti: It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.

  8. 8
    drusillablackfeather

    (Generally don’t have sufficient time to compose a thoughtful response, and so I merely lurk 99.99% of the time.)

    “Why question norms of sex and character to which you’ve more or less successfully adapted?” I think it is more than adaptation. By my reckoning, if one hasn’t seriously questioned ‘norms of sex and character’ by adulthood, one hasn’t merely adapted to these forces, one has most likely woven them into the fabric of one’s pyche and sense of self. I imagine the idea of unravelling ones self in order to enable the construction of a more authentic self would be terrifying, if even conceivable.

    By the age of four, I was at least a year into identifying gender essentialist norms of sex and character*, and considering them to be without foundation (as well as horrifyingly constricting). And yet I have had a massive amount of work to do, and have much work to do yet, to dismantle the self defeating ‘feminine’ parts of my social personality, inculcated by my misogynist fundagelical upbringing, in spite of my earlier perspicacity.

    Its hard work, and tiring, and it can be difficult to avoid self-loathing for the person I initially allowed myself to become, even as the new person I’m fashioning receives very little in the way of positive affirmation (wry understatement) from a society which doesn’t place much value on a skeptical, atheist, introverted, nulliparous, scientifically trained, vegan woman who cares little about her appearance, wears what is effectively hijab, and sees no use in being the favourite girl of the nearest alpha male, or the best friend of the most socially adept woman in the vicinity.

    Anyhow, the point I was trying to make: if one confronts the idea of gender essentialism being nonsense, for the first time in adulthood, its could be an enourmous relief, but I think probably for many it will be more than just a bit discomfiting – it would be fracking frightening. Possibly.

    “It takes a certain…something, a willingness to alienate oneself, a willingness to be a little bit peculiar or off-kilter or pugnacious, to be at odds with things.”

    I don’t know that I really have a choice in this, so I can’t really characterise this tendency in myself as being the result of willingness…rather that I can’t stand to do things that are harmful or make no sense just because everyone else is doing them.

    Whether its religious faith or gender essentialism or crap science or eating animals or frying my pale skin in the Aussie sun, once I realise something doesn’t make sense, it is very hard for me to go along with it, even though the older I get the more I become aware of the toll of failing to conform to the status quo. I’d be interested to know what it is like for other women actually, who had to confront as a adtults the idea that gender essentialism is pretty well baseless. Scary or liberating, or both, or something else?

    *not that I could have expressed it as such at that age

  9. 9
    Georgia Sam

    Why do so many women hesitate to call themselves feminists? Well, this is just my own half-baked hypothesis, but I think many people see feminism as exclusionary, that it implies concern for the wellbeing of women but none for the wellbeing of men, or even hostility toward men. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that’s a fair portrayal of feminism, but I think it is a widespread perception among those whose only sources of information are the mass media. I think another (related) reason is the fear that openly identifying oneself as a feminist would scare men away — a fear that is unfortunately well-founded in many cases.

  10. 10
    SallyStrange

    Why do so many women hesitate to call themselves feminists? Well, this is just my own half-baked hypothesis, but I think many people see feminism as exclusionary, that it implies concern for the wellbeing of women but none for the wellbeing of men, or even hostility toward men.

    This is the complaint typically presented by MRAs and their allies in the libertarian movement. The more common reasons people give for not self-identifying as feminists are:

    -feminists hate men
    -feminists are ugly
    -feminists are angry and bitter and hate men
    -feminists aren’t allowed to shave their legs or wear makeup
    -we’re all equal now so feminism is not needed and/or is really about subjugating men

    It is all part of an anti-feminist backlash which is well-represented in the mainstream media.

    I think another (related) reason is the fear that openly identifying oneself as a feminist would scare men away — a fear that is unfortunately well-founded in many cases.

    It does, but in my experience, they are usually men who you would WANT to scare away anyway.

  11. 11
    Pierce R. Butler

    With apologies to G.B. Shaw:

    The reasonable woman adapts herself to the conditions that surround her… The unreasonable woman adapts surrounding conditions to herself… All progress depends on the unreasonable woman.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>