We don’t need ‘feminine-ism’ thankyou – we’ve already got feminism!

// 13 January 2008

Feminism has apparently been replaced by ‘feminine-ism’ (in the US). So says this column by Harriet Rubin in today’s San Francisco Chronicle.

Why does she say this? Because, if Hillary Clinton is selected as the Democratic candidate; if, come 4 November, she wins the day and is declared the first female president of the United States, women in that country will hold their heads up a little higher. “My female friends tell me they would feel an implicit invitation to speak their minds,” Rubin reports.

Most women are on a lifetime quest to be taken seriously, by spouses, children, doctors, everyone. What do women voters have in common with Clinton’s campaign? It’s about power, stupid.

All of which this feminist can agree with. It would be a good thing for women to see a woman take on the whole “leader of the free world” gig (whether or not that’s an accurate job description).

So, why is this feminine-ism and not feminism? And why does Rubin insist on making the distinction?

1) Feminism doesn’t exist anymore.

Feminism was a conflicted demand for power. Women worshiped male power structures. When Joan Konner became the first female dean of Columbia Journalism School in 1988, the people who were toughest to win over were women: “I didn’t have to explain myself because of the title ‘dean.’ It was taken as a given that I was competent. On the other hand, people projected on to me their relationship to power, which often had nothing to do with me as a person. Women, especially feminists, did this. After fighting to have a female in power, they treated me as the enemy from day one because I had power.”

Feminism referred to in the past tense. I hate it when people do this, because it effectively erases all the feminist work, the campaigning, the living, even the blogging that feminists have been so busy with ever since – in this case – 1988. What Rubin does here is make out that one incident nearly two decades ago demonstrates that feminism is kaput.

I can’t help but wonder – do we believe that US feminists such as Jessica Valenti of Feministing are not on the radar of a journalist who is writing a column such as this? Has she even googled “feminism” lately?

2) Let’s look at what she wants to replace it with “feminine-ism” – and how it differs from feminism.

With more women emboldened to express their power, things will change. I spoke to a female leader recently who left an important job. “I was constantly labeled bitch, bimbo and change agent.” Women in power make changes, which is probably why the status quo fears them. In political news, according to Konner, women who entered the newsroom for the first time in the 1980s made character an essential issue in media coverage. At first the perspective was deemed as “soft.” Now it is routine.

I can believe that one of the reasons that the status quo fears women in positions of power is to do with the changes they might bring in – not least because of a worry that women will do what men do – hire people who look like them, and come from the same background. However, other things that might just have a tiny bit to do with it include – a lingering belief that women are not as competent as their male peers and gender stereotypes about what women are ‘naturally’ like and what men are ‘naturally’ like – in short, stereotypes of femininity and masculinity.

And this – as you might be able to tell from the name Rubin gives her ‘new’ movement – is where she separates off from feminism. Because the article is run through with stereotypes about what women are like:

Women have become active in an increasingly feminine critique against men’s power to create war, subprime mortgages, and assorted ills of Mother Nature

These days, women are holding up much more than half the planet. The global world is becoming increasingly feminized – the economy’s fastest-growing businesses are fashion, service, shopping, luxury goods and the environment, once known as Mother Nature* – all symbolically female arenas. The definition of success is changing from aggression to affiliation.

I don’t mean to say that women don’t bring a different perspective to the table – or that the world wouldn’t be different if women were not disenfranchised from equal political representation, were not shut out of the economy (other than, as Rubin points out, as consumers).

But what does it mean for her to so easily equate “female” with “feminine”? For example, that results in analysis where it is a good thing that the economy is powered by fashion, and there’s no room for an analysis of how that same dynamic re-enforces the way that society reduces women to what we look like. And acts as an enforcer for the concept that looking “feminine” is good and right.

What Rubin’s article reminds me of most is this recent post by Jeff at Shakesville, on the difference between so-called “equity feminists” and “gender feminists”. We don’t really have a lot of people calling themselves equity feminists in the UK, which is good because, as Jeff points out very well, this is an anti-feminist construct. But Rubin does seem to be one of these wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing “equity feminists”:

The patriarchy is all about placing people in boxes that define who they are. Soi disant equity feminists think that’s okay, as long as the boxes are all the same size. It doesn’t matter if one box holds slide rules while the other holds baby dolls — those things are just natural. Soi disant gender feminists think that you yourself are the best person to pick out your own box, and fill it with your own stuff; indeed, they think it’s okay to choose no box at all.

Under Rubin’s “feminine-ism”, women would have equal political representation, but would girls would still be expected to wear pink and play with dolls not trucks? The biggest companies in the US would have women on their boards of directors, but would men be expected to challenge or deconstruct the idea that they are “naturally” more aggressive and less emotional? Women might be paid the same money as men for the same jobs, but would women still do “feminine” jobs like teaching not “masculine” jobs like engineering? Women might get to head up the department of the environment, because that’s a “feminine” concern, but would a man get the economic ministry because all that aggressive capitalist competition taps into masculine concerns?

“Feminine-ism” isn’t enough. Only feminism will do.

* My day job is as a reporter covering global environmental markets, and economic efforts to solve environmental problems. Men overwhelmingly dominate in the conferences I go to and the people I interview, with the exception of environmental campaigners. So much for the “feminisation” of the economy through greater focus on “Mother” Earth.

Photo by sskennel, shared under a Creative Commons license

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