Saturday, October 09, 2004

Time to Retire the F Word

I regularly teach "feminism classes" with a colleague in econ. We've taught classes on women and work and, most recently, a course on the economics and ethics of gender in the developing world. Most of our students firmly maintain that they are "not feminists but"... believe that women should get equal pay for equal work and get a fair chance to do the same kinds of jobs that men do, that being male or female shouldn't impose constraints on ones opportunities and that men and women should be assessed according to the same standards. We've always found their disavowals of feminism puzzling since we assumed that leveling the male-female playing field and opening the whole range of available options to both men and women was what feminism was all about.

There are certainly tactical disagreements about how you do this. Conservatives have faith that the Market will do the job. Unrepentant Liberals, like myself, worry about market failure, feedback effects, and the brute fact that people just want things to look right--and so don't want to see women driving tow trucks or men working as receptionists at high-gloss firms. We believe that only government intervention can create genuine, de facto equality of opportunity. Tactics aside however most of us agree about the end--seeing to it that, insofar as possible, people's chances to get what they want aren't constrained by circumstance over which they have no control: not only sex but race, national origin, class and dumb luck. This makes me wonder: what it the problem with feminism?

Maybe the term "feminism" isn't useful any more and may in fact have become misleading. So it seemed to me after a class discussion and so I suggested to students that it might be time to retire the F word. This is what I wrote:

In our last class a number of students had questions and comments about “the Feminist Movement”—reminiscent of my own kids’ remarks about the way things were in my “day.”

Although I remember the 50’s feminine mystique, Betty Friedan’s attack on it and subsequent changes in the social and economic role of women, I don’t recall a movement. To the extent that I remember the ‘60s, I remember an antiwar movement, which staged public protests, swung public opinion and ultimately helped change US policy. I don’t remember a feminist movement.

Things changed. The economic bubble of the ‘50s began to deflate. Real income for white males flattened out and it became increasingly difficult for families to maintain the ever-rising standard of living they expected on one income; meanwhile the growth of traditional “women’s jobs” in the expanding service sector drew women out of the home and into the labor force.

The Pill made sexual activity less risky for women: during the ‘50s conservative moralists denounced pre-marital sex on the grounds that it carried a risk of pregnancy, a decade later they denounced the Pill for making pre-marital sex virtually risk-free. The “traditional family” and the code of sexual conduct that went along with it were collapsing, without any help from a feminist “movement.” Moreover the civil religion that supported them was imploding. Most of all, perhaps, people just got sick of the ‘50s.

If there was ever a feminist movement it was epiphenomenal. Women’s roles were changing and, in an age of ideologies and revolutions, it was perhaps inevitable that that a movement should be invented to explain why.

Feminism is a very odd sort of ism. Most isms are either controversial political views, peripheral theologies, or physiological anomalies—Libertarianism, Arianism, astigmatism. If there is such a thing as feminist doctrine it is the claim that men and women should have the same opportunities at the same costs, that being male or female should not be a constraint.  This is neither peripheral nor anomalous, and it is hard to see why it should ever have been controversial.

Femimism seems more in the line of Literatism, the doctrine that children should learn how to read, or Dentalism, the doctrine that people should brush their teeth and see their dentists regularly.
I suppose “Literateism” and “Dentalism” weren’t invented, until now, because there is no work for them to do. When it comes to these doctrines, we don’t need to argue about them, anathamatize them or fix them so we don’t need to name them.

I am not sure that “feminism” ever did any useful work. Even if it did, it may now be time for retirement.


Anonymous said...

I have 2 daughters, ages 26 and 22. One is a research psychologist, one an illustrator. I asked both of them several years ago why they both use the "not feminists but..." approach. For what it's worth, they commented similarly, along the lines that the "F word" was now largely confined as a self-identifier to the radical feminist movement. Anyone else using it who did not obviously belong to that group was likely to be "of a certain age".

I don't know whether that sort of thinking is common elsewhere (I'm writing from Europe) but it might at least explain the general drift.

H. E. said...

You're probably right--and I hope that it is merely semantic.

The striking thing, at least amongst the American undergraduates in our classes was that "feminism" was largely detached from the economic issues that I assume are at the core, if not the whole of it: creating a level male/female playing field in the labor market. Our one professed feminist was a flake.

What was disheartening was that most students didn't think there was any problem about jobs, wages, parental leave or childcare. So, they inferred, the only thing left for feminism to do was deal with issues that were peripheral, flakey or wrong-headed.

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