The Fem Spot

So what kind of feminist are you anyway?

Posted in Feminist Theory, Personal Essays, Politics, queer theory by femspotter on May 22, 2008

May 22, 2008 (revised September 16. 2009)

Someone asked me that in an English graduate seminar. He was rather caustic about the whole thing. I think it bothered him that he couldn’t put me in a category.

In my ignorance, I thought you could either be a feminist or not be a feminist. The question had me stumped.

I’m not like…say…oh…we’ll call her “Kara.” She’s a militant Marxist, or socialist, feminist who hates men, specifically the kind who marry…or rather she hates the institution of marriage and thinks it shackles females.

I’m also not a conservative feminist who would criticize women who adopt a “male model” of careerism and public achievement. That’s far too restrictive.

I’m not a liberal feminist. While I do support the notion that all humans are deserving of equal treatment under the law, I do not support the idea that all women can assert themselves and achieve without altering the social constructs we live in.

In much the same way, I am not a post-feminist. I don’t deny the existence of oppression. I do think there is need for change.

It would seem that there is one extreme left: radical feminism. I do not believe that female oppression is rampant – at least not in the United States – nor do I believe that all, or most, men are out to stifle us in order to boost their fragile egos. Misogyny is a big problem – globally, but I believe it can be combated by the elimination of gender stereotyping. In other words, out with “masculine” and “feminine” labels! These are social constructs that fluctuate. To be feminine in 1950 meant to be submissive and quaint: ask no questions and challenge no authority. Today, femininity is part and parcel with a certain predatory quality that signals an interest in sexuality, rather than an indifference to it. If we stop expecting women to be feminine and men to be masculine; if we accept public displays of emotion from men and the lack thereof from women; if we celebrate the institution of stay-at-home paternity in addition to its counterpart, etc. then we begin to raise the status of all women without hindering the status of men.

The man at the seminar scratched his head when I couldn’t entirely identify with one faction or the other. He wasn’t quite sure what use I was to the blanket feminist agenda: equality.

I think we saw this same reaction in politics as Hillary Clinton strove to win the Democratic nomination for President in 2008, even with very little hope left. Let’s humorously examine what all these different feminists might have been saying about Clinton’s tenacity.

Socialist: She should be running under her maiden name. It’s archaic to adopt a man’s last name when marrying. It’s really too bad she married at all. And while she’s at it, why doesn’t she give her millions to starving children in China instead of to her hopeless campaign?

Conservative: Those pantsuits are very unbecoming. She should adopt a softer tone. Instead of talking about the gas tax, she should be sharing baking tips.

Liberal: Barack Obama and Clinton are equal, damn it. They have the same levels of intelligence, experience and likeability. Also, their policies are very similar. Wait…now I can’t figure out which one to vote for.

Post-feminist: As naive as it sounds, I’m voting for a candidate who thinks he can change the way Washington does politics. That’s a man. Sue me!

Radical: The media consists of misogynist freaks who always say negative things about Clinton, even when there are perfectly nice things to say. It’s all a big conspiracy. I think an Obama sympathizer masqueraded as Clinton that day “she” talked about being under sniper fire. Think about it. It all makes perfect sense.

I don’t agree completely with any of these positions on the Clinton candidacy, but they each contain interesting points, which I hope will fuel discussion at many levels, from water cooler conversation to university discourse, for many years to come.

I wouldn’t tell Clinton what to do with her money – I’m a capitalist – but I myself made the conscious decision to keep my maiden name, at least in so far as my career is concerned. (I don’t get mad when people call me Mrs. M*****.)

And while I would never say that Clinton should behave in a way that is unnatural or uncomfortable for her, I do think that she should remember that she is a female and can be “feminine” if she likes. I embrace the differences between myself and my husband. But, hey…if I don’t want to bake, I DON’T BAKE!

I think that it’s important to talk about the candidates’ inequalities, and thus make informed decisions when voting for political figures. While I don’t feel qualified to judge intelligence, I do feel empowered to say that Clinton has always struck me as the more concise, realistic and decisive candidate. In these aspects of character, Obama and Clinton are not equal.

Finally, I think it is necessary to examine the role the media played during this primary season. CNN, for instance, had been declaring a victory for Clinton impossible since March, 2008, demonstrating that Obama is its favorite. On the other hand, Fox News headlines read more like news bites, showing less favoritism and more feigned indifference. That’s probably a function of how far left or right each network leans.

But it could be misogyny.

Misogyny can be difficult to prove, however. I think the largest problem for Clinton has been much like the problem I’m faced with when trying to declare my allegiance with one or the other types of feminism: I don’t fit many of the established “rules.”

There are some who look at Clinton and see a woman defying femininity, and others who look at the role she’s in and think she’s too feminine – they think that only a masculine man will do. Does she appease the first half with a show of tears? Does she cater to the others and refuse to weaken, not apologizing for her Iraq war vote in 2002, or drop out of presidential politics altogether? Either way, she’ll do it as a woman. But everybody seems to want to pinpoint what kind of woman she is.

Perhaps former vice-presidential and presidential candidate John Edwards said it best in his Obama endorsement speech: “There is one man who knows and understands that this is a time for bold leadership. There is one man that knows how to create the change, the lasting change that you have to build from the ground up. There is one man who knows in his heart there is time to create one America, not two… and that man is Barack Obama.”

He could have said “one person” or “one candidate,” but he said “one man” and thereby left the window ajar for mighty Clinton to throw open. The quote means to me that, while Obama might know these things, there may be a woman out there who knows them too. The question has always been a definitive one: will the U. S. elect a woman to our highest office?

While Clinton kept forging ahead in the primary campaign, speaking forcefully into microphone after microphone, other women on the trail did something different: Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain, wives of Obama and Republican presidential nominee John McCain respectively, posed for the camera. They appeared in issues of Vogue magazine. (Where’s Bill Clinton’s fashion spread, I wonder?)

Clinton is loud; she’s tough. Often, she comes across as a bit abrasive. But that’s probably because up against these other two, the one’s who’ve embraced the supportive, eye-candy wife archetype – as she once did, or at least tried to do – she can’t help but appear to be rough around the edges. Mrs. Obama is wearing pearls; Mrs. McCain’s golden locks are blowing in the breeze. Clinton, meanwhile, has thick legs and a cropped coif. However will she compete with this idealized version of femininity?

I guess I’m the kind of feminist who would say that she shouldn’t have to compete. I would say, “No rules!” I support the personal choice to be a housewife, househusband, female president or whatever-we-call-the-husband-of-the-female-president.

And who am I or Clinton to tell Obama or McCain that they shouldn’t model for magazines? I just hope that it makes them happy.

That school acquaintance of mine didn’t like it when I said there shouldn’t be any rules. He threw up his arms in protest saying, “Well, if women can do whatever they want…”

I’m glad he didn’t finish that sentence. I would have had to ask him, “Why can’t women do whatever they want?” And I don’t know how to win an argument with a feminist who has rules for women just like everybody who isn’t a feminist has rules for women.

THAT kind of feminism – the feminism with all the rules – just doesn’t sit well with me.

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