Feminist solidarity abandoned

In 1913, Rebecca West, a journalist and suffrage campaigner, said, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express

In 1913, Rebecca West, a journalist and suffrage campaigner, said, “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”
Almost a century later, I find myself immersed in a culture still struggling to adequately or holistically define feminism for the world. Feminism, like humanism, should be an objective goal that strives to celebrate and revere the complexity of womanhood. But often feminism reduces to the terms of its limited stereotypes.
When the feminist foremothers mobilized at the turn of the twentieth century, they owned two very particular issues: women’s education and suffrage. Women congregated, petitioned, and lobbied together with this specific intent. In the 1970s, women gathered together in kitchens and library basements to discuss the transition from the home to the office, the “sexualization” of women in the Miss America pageant and the “dumbification” of women in publications like Good Housekeeping. They wanted real choices, a change in their social perception and the ability to do things like go to a bar or wear a short skirt without constraints.
A long time has passed since these historic events. In a June 1998 edition of TIME, a question on its cover asked, “Is Feminism Dead?” It featured three black and white images of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedman, Gloria Steinman and a fourth image, in full color, of Ally McBeal. According to the inside article, she had become “the new face of feminism.” In this array of feminist icons, the continually changing face of the feminist school of thought is evident: a religious virgin, a suburban housewife, a pro-choice lesbian and a sexually liberated lawyer.
Not only is the contemporary face of feminism unclear, but the sources of women’s oppression and discrimination range from salary and opportunity inequality, violence, sexuality, body images, abortion, cosmetic surgery, pornography and so on. Feminists feel compelled to attach themselves to all or none of these injustices in order to show their devoutness to the cause. Beyond the deterrent of entangled issues, many women simply shrink away from the “F” title because of the unpopular conception of aggressive, man-hating bra-burners.
Due to the insecurity and uncertainty in the definition of universal feminism, it is highly susceptible to distortion or manipulation, especially by the media. The representation of feminism performs a kind of fashion-show approach to politics. What the media does, whether intentionally or not, is reduce the complexities of a movement such as feminism into a marketable success or disaster story, one that interferes directly with the practice of feminist politics. But we are so hungry for a bottled-up image or sound bite that we eat it up.
Whether it is TIME or MTV, women have allowed pop culture to define feminism. In a duet ‘Lil Kim and Christina Aguilera sing, “the guy gets all the glory the more he can score, when the girl can do the same yet you call her a whore.” Their solution is to perpetuate the cycle of self-disrespect and disrespect of others by bringing yourself down to the level of men who are sexually promiscuous.
And if Ally McBeal, Christina Aquilera and ‘Lil Kim do not embody feminism for us, there always remains the four wonder women of Sex and the City, who use their ovens for storage, use and dispose men like compulsive addicts, drink excessively and maintain cosmetic surgery like a haircut.
Today, the popularization and exploitation of feminism has proven counterproductive to the movement of realizing equality. Feminism has transformed into something of a media religion, and each woman finds herself interpreting and personalizing it like it is not only her responsibility, but her right.
Still, there is a distinct absence of solidarity and accountability to a foundational ideal. The goal of equality has been supplanted by egotism, self-indulgence and superiority while Susan B. Anthony’s feminism of “men, their rights, and nothing more; women their rights and nothing less” has been completely abandoned.
Erin Cusack can be reached at erin.cusack@temple.edu.

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