Feminist reality check

April 25, 1994|By Erica Abeel

I HAVE lately picked up heartening-sounding messages from the new wave of feminists. Writer Naomi Wolf urges women to jettison the old "victim feminism" for a positive, inclusive "power feminism" that will ensure women's true equality with men. A recent issue of Esquire celebrating "The 21st Century Fox" declares that man-hating is passe. (Whose idea was that, anyway?) Make way for the "sexual-agency" agitators, "beating their swords into bustiers" and proclaiming women's right to pleasure.

Well, yes. But look a bit closer. Is the new wave of feminism genuinely inclusive? For women who came of age in the convention-bound '50s, Ms. Wolf's "power feminism" is an unintended mockery. The power she envisions is centered on money and work, on economic parity with men. Power feminism is limited to women who embraced careers with the same fire and left the starting gate at the same moment as men; it speaks to today's twentysomethings, who, according to a recent survey, want to be the success, not marry it.

Most women of my generation invested in family, not work; wives shaped their lives to accommodate a husband's career, sacrificing their own ambitions and pulling up stakes to further his. (I know, I know: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, et al. -- but they're the brilliant exceptions.)

Even today, the attitudes I thought we'd left behind resurface like unquiet ghosts. On a recent "Kathy and Regis Show," Jane Fonda allowed as how she'd given up her acting career to become a hearth-hugging wife. She added: "For the first time, I have a real marriage."

Did I actually hear that? And from Jane Fonda, long a feminist presence, cosmetic augmentations and all? (Of course, most wives don't have the option of quitting work to have a "real marriage." Nor would many want to.)

As for the new sexual forthrightness celebrated in Esquire -- charmingly dubbed "do-me feminism" -- I suspect it's limited to a fringe group of riot grrrls (young women involved with bands or fan magazines) and Drew Barrymore wannabes. The women quoted appear to equate pleasure with playing bedroom commando, dictating in locker-room language a smorgasbord of sex acts -- the point being to seize control.

One whiff of these "agitators" and men are likely to take to the hills clutching their codpieces and longing for the old man-hating. Worse, these women are aping guys: "Look, we can talk dirty, too!" Sadly, the new erotics seems more based in rage than eros. I agree, it is grotesquely unfair: Back when it was safe, carnal pursuits were lost on the maidens in Peter Pan collars; now that we're willing and ready, AIDs has altered all the terms. We may have seized the rudder, but we're navigating a ship of fools.

The burning issue for women in midlife, though, is not media fodder. It's the threat of sliding into poverty. There are all too many ways for a woman to become poor. Many of us went back to school or discovered work after the kids were out of the house or the marriage went bust.

Few occupy secure footholds in business or the professions; women who've juggled several part-time jobs do not see golden parachutes in their futures -- or even severance or pensions. One can only guess at the financial woes of ex-wives partially dependent on alimony from middle managers getting tumbled out of the corporations. Try talking to a displaced homemaker, fired from marriage and just hitting the job market, about power feminism.

I hear in the new feminism strains of the old blame-the-victim mentality we've long deplored. It conveys the message that women who lack power are primarily casualties of their own negative thinking. I had to chuckle at Ms. Wolf's finger-wagging admonition to female losers: "Poverty is not glamorous." Hey, you betcha!

Of course, we must celebrate and support the growing numbers of women moving into positions of power in every arena. But let's honor, too, the resilient women who have shot the rapids of cultural change, taken some spills and continue to reinvent themselves -- even if today they're not positioned to wield power on a parity with men. Perhaps at this juncture we need to reconfigure and stretch -- to make genuinely inclusive -- our notion of power.

Erica Abeel is the author of the recent novel, "Women Like Us."

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