We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Feminisms: "Won't you wear my ring around your neck ...?" · 28 November 05

Dear Fanny,

On two major lists I’m on, there’s been a roiling debate on who and who is not a feminist. On WMST-l, a list dedicated to women’s studies and feminist issues, there’s such twisted self-berating and accustory turmoil that one woman who seems to lack any fellow feeling with the other active members keeps writing angry polemics against feminism and women’s studies. Both WMST-l and Women Poets get into angry debates over what it means when a woman does not keep her maiden or birth name when she marries.

One problem beyond the tendency in a group of people under seige to turn on one another is the vexed word feminism. What is meant by it? Many different ideas and goals, some of which are the result of coping with choices women are pressured into and are at odds with other ideas and goals.

Here is a reduced history of feminism. In the US the first active political movement begins in the mid-19th century and women seek to ameloriate their condition through legislation which will give them economic and social equality with men. They want to be able to own and to control their property and income, to be equally well educated, to have equal control over the children they share with men, to be protected against physical brutality. They want the vote and to themselves hold public office to make these changes happen. This phase ended in the US after women secured the vote.

A woman’s point of view was seen in public repeatedly. The campaign for prohibition was an effort on the part of women to stop male brutality and to get men to bring home the whole paycheck. It was understood this way.

This "first phase" was successful in the sense that much of the desired legislation was passed. But women still remained second-class citizens with men holding power over them. If a particular law or campaigned-for custom worked against some other group of people’s desires or needs (say drinking liquor which many people wanted to do freely, or multicultural perspectives where the white western women’s relative better status and power was hurt if she was lumped into a law which covered all women), the women’s needs were erased.

The second phase (the "second wave") seems to have begun in reaction to the 1960s. In the 1970s women again wanted improvements in legislation for equal opportunities in the economic and educational and social marketplaces of the society. This time they also demanded freedom from oppressive unrealistic and unjust sexual and familial mores. They saw the male desire to use a woman’s body as his property was at the heart of the social structures preventing women from living fulfilling adult lives. They did not want to be punished for what they were driven by men to do: be their sexual partners, the mothers of their children, the keepers of their homes.

Again some legislation was passed which extended economic and social help to women. However, the movement’s insight into sexuality and attempt to change the sexual arrangments and mores between men and women was counterproductive. Andrea Dworkin is so hated because she brought out and made plain how sexual "liberation" for women has made women sexually available to men without freeing women from the older stigmas and at the same time freeing men from having to "pay" the woman with permanent marriage and support.

The fight over abortion is a fight against compulsory pregnancy. The intense insistence on breast-feeding can extend a woman’s loss of all freedom and her body literally for years.

We come to "third wave" feminism. This seems to have begun in the 1980s and often turns out to mean anything a woman wants is to be respected and given the honorific word feminist. If she wants to try to gain power through gaining a man and does this by acting intensely sexually, this is feminism. If she wants to devote her life to being a mother, this is feminism. So pornographic sites are feminist. Why not change the word to walexes. We are all walexes.

To be fair, this phase was one where some women sought to add goals to "second wave" feminism and show where it was wanting. Third wave feminism took into account that not all women are upper class and can hope to have fulfilling jobs, not all women can network succesfully in the job arena, not all women want to.

There were and are faultlines among women. They subdivide through wealth in the family, race, class, ethnic group, religion. Hillary Clinton is a kind of Marie Antoinette from her background. Upper class white women go to Yale. For some women a job in the marketplace is tough drudgery, long hours, rebarbative treatment. Education as presently practiced in schools does not lead people from different classes to rise into another class at all. Some cultures encourage macho maleness far more strongly than others; some encourage men to be protective and gentlemanly towards women. In some culture wealthy families will (with severe limitations through hierarchy and allowed polygamy) protect privileged women.

The two important books on western society here are Ann Oakley, Subject Women, and bell hooks, Feminist Theory: from the margin to the center. To see how traditional society family groups can exploit and abuse women frighteningly based on the politics of the family system, Anne Seierstat’s The Bookseller of Kabul is the next book you must read.

Status counts for people almost as much as money. The two usually go together. So if a woman gains greater status in the larger society by taking her husband’s name she will; the problem for women in universities, especially the humanities, is that if the woman takes her husband’s name she loses status and social capital among her immediate colleagues. The one exception beyond these tiny circles of respecting a woman more if she keeps her maiden or birth name is that when a married couple work in the same place it’s convenient and helps hide the situation is she doesn’t change to his name.

The diamond ring (supporting the criminal rings, pun intended, which run Africa), the wedding, confer status; when your children have a mother with a different name from the father, they may lose status. Here Eleanor Rathbone’s Disinherited Family where she showed long ago how when the state helps the "family" based on the husband’s income, it often disinherits the wife and children is forgotten for the dream picture. But status pictures count and make visible one’s imagined niche in the power structure. Today I saw a working class teenage girl in Lynchburg working as a cashier in a down-scale supermarket. She had an enormous male high school ring around her neck on a thin iron chain. "He’s got power, and I’ve got power through him." People live through images no matter how impermanent and without any effectiveness, in this case even as social capital.

These kinds of nuances are taken into account in the "third wave." To put it another way in all social rearrangements, there are winners and losers. ERA lost. The discussion ran on symbols and how this would enable women to manipulate supreme court justices. (Ha!) The point for many women was, Will I be sure to get my portion of my husband’s pension or social security should he predecease me? And they were right to fear decisions of a supreme court whose members were even then instruments of global capitalism (the private property system). The privileged upper class aggressive personality women wanted a world of mores where women would have to work; thus perhaps they would be able to get equal salaries.

There were larger goals in the original two movements too, goals which went beyond helping individual women. I’d call these socialist. In the 19th century they linked feminists with abolitionists and fighters for progressive legislation (like universal health care). In both the first and second wave of feminism a woman wanted power so she could fight for her larger group and other groups (chattel slaves, working men), not just herself. In the third wave of feminism, the assumptions seemto be utterly individualistic; they support unqualified capitalism.

Problems that come to mind: preposterous unprovable assertions are made about influence of women, either as individuals or a group on this or that. I’ve now read that Hannah More was a feminist (!) and the statement is taken seriously. In much of this kind of talk it’s not sufficiently taken into account how what has freed women from the age-old burden of endless childbirth and frequent early death is effective contaception and modern medical science, nor that the capitalist, technological and industrial revolutions were, together with the concommitant development of institutions not tied to family nexus and cliques and religious control, freed her from family control relatively.

Relatively. Where you started out limits where you can end up.

On several grounds "third wave" feminism is contradictory. While motherhood gives a woman face-to-face social status, it makes her more vulnerable and helpless. Her child’s loyalty to her is contingent on where she is in the system; she is dependent on the husband’s salary. Sexual power is a joke except transitorily. The statistics on older men leaving older wives show this. Capitalism is an anti-humane system which rewards a few winners and keeps up values about success which are narrow and impoverished.

This is a thin picture where I’ve just drawn in large outlines.

I’ve not talked about the other feminist kinds of movements—in literature and culture and art from the later 17th century on in Europe. So to thicken the picture, and provide an individual woman’s voice, here is a poem from the later 17th century in England, a time in Europe when we find the first feminist writing and first woman playrights and publications of novels, poems, and memoirs:

To the Ladies

by Mary, Lady Chudleigh (1656-1710)

Wife and servant are the same,
But only differ in the name:
For when that fatal knot is tied,
Which nothing, nothing can divide,
When she the word obey has said,
Abd man by law supreme had made,
Then all that’s kind is laid aside,
And nothing left but state and pride.
Fierce as an eastern prince he grows,
And all his innate rigour shows:
Then but to look, to laugh, or speak,
Will the nuptial contract break.
Like mutes, she signs alone must make,
And never any freedom take,
But still be governed by a nod,
And fear her husband as her god:
Him still must serve, him still obey,
And nothing act, and nothing say,
But what her haughty lord thinks fits,
Who, with the power, has all the wit.
Then shun, Oh! shun that wretched state,
And all the fawning flatterers hate.
Value yourselves, and men despise:
You must be proud, if you’ll be wise. (1703)

Chudleigh’s "To the Ladies" is the most frequently-reprinted poem by a woman in 18th century England.

I ‘ve not touched on the effects of religious beliefs—George Eliot in her review of Madame de Sablé’s letters anticipates Freud in saying how religion controls sexual feelings and this is at the heart of its campaign to put blinders on women’s minds.

I’ve not touched on why publicity itself threatens the individual woman: "Anonymity runs in their blood. The desire to be veiled still possesses them" (Virginia Woolf). Fear of loss of reputation is fear of bodily harm. Another time.

I’ve omitted intrasex antagonism too. Just think of vaginal mutilation, to say nothing of Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Janeites joke alert).

I wanted just to lay out this groundwork in the hope seeing this larger perspective will enable us (all of us who care) to see where we are and to stop senseless, counterproductive berating of one another.


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Thanks for this overview. As all three feminisms have been programs for social reform, they were bound to uncover or create fresh problems.

    One positive achievement: feminism has reduced the philosophical proposition that men are inherently more reasonable to rubble.
    R J Keefe    Nov 28, 10:56am    #
  2. Dear Chava –
    Here is an article in the American Prospect by Linda Hirshman that might interest you:


    Homeward Bound

    Hirshman is not one to approach feminism with teflon mittens. She takes the watered down liberal feminism and stands it on it’s ear. I wonder what you think?


    Catherine Crean
    Catherine Crean    Nov 28, 1:00pm    #
  3. Dear RJ and Catherine,

    Thank you for the replies. Actually all three phases of feminism in the US and the other feminist movements have produced improvements in women’s lot in the countries these movements existed in. I quote Samuel Johnson again: ‘the progress of reformation is gradual and silent, as the extension of evening shadows; we know that they were short at noon, and are long at sun-set, but our senses were not able to discern their increase’.

    I read the Hirshman essay. She would fit into the "second wave" as modified by the more recent vocal awareness forced into public by "third wave" groups. She is saying that in the 1980s feminism went nowhere because it "didn’t fundamentally change how women related to men." Then she goes on to look at the realities of the workplace for elite women. It doesn’t take much extrapolation to see how much stronger the pressures on non-elite women are.

    Chava    Nov 28, 11:15pm    #
  4. Dear Chava,

    The Linda Hirshman article has generate debates all over the left-leaning blogosphere. On of the focii of the discussion is Hillary Clinton. The right wing has always bashed Hillary Clinton: it is a favorite pass time for them. The left wing bashes Hillary Clinton too because she is "not pure enough." I usually post about things one must consider when assessing Hillary Clinton as a Senator.

    "Hillary Clinton does an excellent job of delivering constituent services. Hillary Clinton attracks and retains qualified, dedicated staff. Her local offices provide legal and other services for people who would otherwise get lost in the beaurocratic shuffle. Hillary Clinton knows how to work well in the male-dominated colleagial Senate. Most Senators respect her. Hillary Clinton is smart, energitic and tough. She is a powerhouse fund raiser for the Deomocratic party." etc.

    Men on the net claim that Hillary gets support only "from women who indentify with her because her husband was unfaithful." Taking the emotion out of the discussion is almost impossible. Men fear Hillary Clinton. I think the reason is that men see Hillary Clinton is a woman who doesn’t need men. This same fear causes men to protest abortion and even birth control. If Alito is confirmed, he will help overturn Roe v. Wade. The fundies next target will be Griswold v. CT.

    Clinton is one tough woman. If Karl Rove and his smear machine try to go after H. Clinton, it won’t work. It is interesting that all the Hillary bashers assume that she is going to be the next Democratic nominee for president. The fear comes from the idea of a woman (who does not need a man) in the most powerful position in the country.

    Our reactions to Hillary Clinton tell us as much about ourselves as they do about her. For those of you familiar with J.K. Rowling, Hillary is the boggart in the cupboard. In Harry Potter’s world a boggart is a shape-shifter who presents its viewer with the thing that person fears the most.

    And finally, do we hold Hillary Clinton to the same standards as Chuck Schumer? Or do we hold her to higher standards?

    Catherine Crean
    Catherine Crean    Dec 4, 11:11am    #

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