My aunt Rosemarie celebrated her 80th birthday recently, and dozens of family members spanning three generations gathered to celebrate and reminisce with her. Somewhere in the three days of stories about family antics, Rosmarie’s professional accomplishments, and her love for attractive gentlemen, I learned that she was also on the front lines of early feminist activism. There were interesting and quirky stories, like her fight to remove the fee that women had to pay to use public restrooms in Connecticut: no kidding, women but not men had to put coins in slots to use stalls in public restrooms at rest stops along the highways!
Back in 1976, these are the things that my Aunt Rose said feminism got wrong.
“One thing that went wrong about eight years ago, was to confuse the question of what women have a right to.” She pointed out that women’s arguments gave the impression that they felt they had a “right” to freedom, jobs, success or happiness. The arguments confused legal rights with human rights and aspirations. “Did we really try to make men understand what the movement was, or was it a forced understanding?”
Another “wrong” she identified was the failure to recognize that men are trapped by gender roles as well. “We learned that while we were conditioned to stay home and raise children, men were conditioned to earn a living and have heart attacks.”
A third thing that she said “went wrong about 10 years ago” (remember this interview was in 1976) was that feminists were too critical of women who did not support feminism. “Some women did not attend meetings. We did not give them enough credit for what they were doing on the home front.”
Finally, she said that the 1960’s painted an overly-glossy picture of what life in the working world was like, and gave the impression that “a job is the only way to happiness.” But she noted, “Everyone knows that the business world can be a real grind.”
She also identified several things that the feminism of the 1960’s got right: it generated greater awareness of human liberation in general, it gave women the space to stop blaming themselves for everything, and it taught women that they can be successful in the professional world while still being women, rather than being asexual or “acting like men”.
My aunt Rosemarie is bright and chipper and as sharp as ever, and so at one point during her 80th birthday celebrations, I couldn’t help but corner her for a moment and ask her what she thought of feminism today. She admitted that she hadn’t really been keeping up with politics and social movements in the last decade or so, so I gave her a brief rundown of some of the “culture war” issues going on today: equality feminism versus “social justice” third-wave feminism, and the fact that some people have expressed concern over the ramping up of extremist rhetoric in “social justice warriors” style feminism.
She looked thoughtful for a moment, and this is what she said: “I’ll admit, I haven’t kept up with things, so I haven’t heard about this. But, when I hear you say that there is a problem, or a conflict, within feminism, the first question that I think you need to ask yourself is this: Who is telling you that? And what do they have to gain, by telling you that feminism is having a problem?”
Take that however you will.
It’s not the first time I’ve had that thought, either.
On the one hand, I’m against authoritarian censorship, and I think “safe spaces” are silly, and I think that people who say “all men are inherently misogynist” are not being particularly helpful with their rhetoric.
But when you hear people constantly beat the drums to harp only on those extremists…
And when you hear people make the small group of “extremists” out to be a bigger problem than they really are….
And when you hear people who want you to treat all of feminism as if it’s identical to the statements of a few loudmouths on Tumblr or Reddit…….
My aunt Rose’s question is one that is worth asking, at the very least: Who is telling you this? And what do they have to gain?