Will the New Feminism destroy feminism itself?

The Argument

A distressing trend in new books expresses a backlash on the part of beneficiaries.

May 12, 2002|By Victoria A. Brownworth | Victoria A. Brownworth,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It used to be common parlance, but in these politically correct times it's just not politic to use the "f" word in public. The "f" word? Feminism. Arguably the defining political movement of the 20th century - more potent and world-altering than Marxism or Maoism - feminism is being forced from the political landscape and popular lexicon, its enemies not men, but women.

Unlike the "M" movements, feminism is neither oppressive nor outmoded; far from it. A cursory glance at compelling books such as Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan/Henry Holt, 225 pages, $23.00), Sex & Power by Susan Estrich (Riverhead Books, 316 pages, $14) or My Forbidden Face: Growing Up Under the Taliban: A Young Woman's Story by Latifah (Hyperion, 210 pages, $21.95), all of which detail the stunning lack of advancement women have made despite decades of feminist struggle, makes it obvious that feminism is more necessary than ever. The movement born 40 years ago with the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique continues to have resonance because women remain, in the First World as well as the Third, second-class citizens.

But a post-feminist generation isn't convinced. Feminism may still have resonance, but does it have the resilience to withstand a backlash from within its own ranks? Once feminism and the writing engendered by it were fearsome: Scores of female historical figures were revealed; political treatises like Friedan's, Robin Morgan's Sisterhood is Powerful and Andrea Dworkin's Woman Hating, broke silence as well as ground, illumining as they did the harrowing subjugation of women.

Those books - the histories that explored women's achievements and the dialectics that elucidated women's struggle for equality - engendered power. Once revealed, the facts could never again be hidden.

Or could they? Today feminism isn't just a dirty word, it's obsolete. Memoirs by former leaders of the feminist movement like Friedan's Life So Far (Simon & Schuster, 400 pages, $16) and Dworkin's Heartbreak: The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant (Basic Books, 215 pages, $24) delineate the achievements of the feminist movement, while also conveying a nostalgia for a time and a politic seemingly long past - and unrecoverable.

The tectonic shift from political to personal is evident in noted African-American feminist theorist bell hooks' Communion (William Morrow/HarperCollins, 272 pages, $24.95) which lambasts feminism for teaching women to trade love for power, which, argues hooks, diminishes them. Love, not power, is what women must strive for.

This is the tone of the new feminism, a pastiche of feminist-lite examinations of women's needs. It's a Sex in the City-ing of feminism with a little Oprah-ization thrown in. Friedan's groundbreaking expose of women's lives detailing how gender roles kept women virtual prisoners in the home, enforced motherhood and disallowed expressions of female sexuality has been replaced by books focused on women's bodies. This internalized backlash, retro-feminism, gets disguised as a reclamation of the feminine, as in The Art and Power of Being a Lady by Noelle Cleary and Dini von Mueffling (Atlantic Monthly Press, 190 pages, $22), which abjures women to be sexy without being vulgar, speak out without bullying. Advice from a bygone era.

Conversely in Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (Anchor, 436 pages, $14.95), Elizabeth Wurtzel lays claim to feminism even as she jettisons it in favor of dissing women who worked long and hard, earning the defamatory title of bitch in the process, to make inroads and break ground for Wurtzel's generation.

Emily White's Fast Girls: Teenage Tribes and the Myth of the Slut (Scribner, 222 pages, $22), Naomi Wolf's Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood (Fawcett Columbine, 300 pages, $15) and Paula Kamen's Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution (Broadway Books, 300 pages, $13.95) cannot be called anti-feminist, but are, like hooks, indicative of the new feminism. Here the political bar has been lowered so much as to make a glass ceiling seem unattainable; it's all about sex: Women should be able to have it with the same voraciousness as men and not be deemed sluts for doing so.

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