Somewhere between the receding tide of 2nd wave feminism and the crashing thunder of the 3rd wave, I’m being sucked into the strange undercurrent of this election. At 42, my 2.5 wave status makes perfect sense and, normally, I actually enjoy it. I love to pull from all of the diverse ideas and experiences that define feminism (or refuse to define it). But, I have to tell you, with Super Tuesday fast approaching, I'm feeling a little lonely in my Barack/Clinton confusion.
I have taught graduate courses on gender, race and class for the past ten years. I’ve marched and protested and licked envelopes until my spit ran dry. Before joining ranks with the women’s movement, my political training took place at the dining room table. My father, a staunch Republican and my favorite debate partner, had two rules: You must have an opinion and you must back it up. Apathy was not an option and “just because” was not tolerated. It’s a dangerous approach to political parenting, because, as my dad discovered, you risk raising opinionated members of the opposition.
In my 20+ years as a feminist and my 35+ years of Brown-family training, I haven’t become the perfect activist, but I can certainly recognize bad activism when I see it. The idea that “We need a woman in the White House” is, perhaps, the worst kind of activism.
We need "a woman" in the White House like a fish needs a bicycle (2nd wave posters still rock). We need a president who believes in, and fights for, social and economic justice and equality. As a feminist, I do believe that excluding women in the political process guarantees that we will never find him or her; however, I also believe that shared biology does not mean shared values.
Any woman won’t do. If you don’t agree, picture Ann Coulter as our next president. The idea of a Coulter in the White House brings up two words for me: Bonjour Quebec. Hillary might be exactly who this country needs, but it’s not because of what she is, it’s about who she is.
I understand that my struggle to choose between Barack and Hillary is disappointing for some of my friends and sister feminists, but that doesn’t make me a bad feminist. Bad feminism is not taking a stand against the gender stereotypes that are being used to attack Hillary and her campaign (regardless of your politics). These attacks are built on the same name-calling strategies that keep many of us from speaking out. How many of us are silenced by the fear of labels like ball-buster, cold, aggressive, too ambitious, loud mouth, pushy, and, dare I say, unfeminine?
There’s an interesting article on feminine norms that I reference often in my work. Basically, the researchers surveyed women to determine the criteria for “conforming to feminine norms” in our culture. The findings are painful and important. Let’s start with the top three:
1. Be nice
2. Be thin
3. Be modest about talents and abilities
The bottom line is pretty straightforward, be quiet and don’t take up too much space. Other norms include investing in appearance, maintaining romantic relationships and sexual fidelity.
Understanding these norms makes it easy to see why Hillary is an easy target. It also might explain why Coulter’s dresses get sexier as her rhetoric gets meaner – maybe she’s trying to balance the ol' feminine norms. I bet those talking head appearances would all but disappear if she sported overalls and a crew cut. Of course, being white, educated and middle-class doesn’t hurt.
Honestly, I’d like to believe that this list of norms is as retro as bra burning, but you don’t have to click any further than askmen.com to know that the norms are alive and well. Check out the #1 woman on their list of the 99 most desirable women in the world: Katherine Heigl. I don’t know her, but she definitely seems nice, thin, modest and invested in her appearance to me.
Of course, they didn’t use the “conformity scale” to determine their list. They had their own scientific approach:
“[We used a] more primitive sex appeal test; how long it would take before male staffers made a comment about a) her anatomy or, b) what they would 'do' to her. Needless to say, about two seconds elapsed before a comment was made, which easily qualified Katherine Heigl for the Sexiness Hall Of Fame.”
Here’s the deal. I’m not sure if I’m going to support Barack or Hillary. I am still trying to figure out who will wage the best fight for peace and equality. In the meantime, I will continue to ride my own wave and wage my own fight for gender justice by supporting the right of every woman – Democrat, Republican, lesbian, straight, Muslim, Christian - to take up as much political, emotional, social, creative and spiritual space as she needs to be true to herself. This includes Hillary, Katherine and, yes damn’t, even Ann.
Development of the Conformity to Feminine Norms Inventory
in Sex Roles: A Journal of Research, April, 2005
by James R. Mahalik, Elisabeth B. Morray, Aimee Coonerty-Femiano, Larry H. Ludlow, Suzanne M. Slattery, Andrew Smiler