News & Politics

Give Me That Old-Time Feminism

While Muslim women are being stuffed into burkas, American post-feminists are trying to stuff their feet into stilettos.
Feminism, as you've probably been reading for the last 20 years, is dead. Most women today want to smash through the glass ceiling, run for the Senate, and buy contraceptives at will (not to mention abortions, at least if the fetus they're carrying turns out to be "defective.") But feminism? It's just a bunch of hairy-legged, man-hating harridans screaming slogans that were already obsolete in the era of Charlie's Angels.

The latest nail in the coffin comes from Ana Marie Cox, the famed blogger known as "wonkette," in her snarky review of Katha Pollitt's new book Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Times (New York Times Book Review, July 2).

All right, I have a personal stake in this: I wrote a blurb for the book, I'm a friend of Pollitt, and I'm a little on the strident side myself. In her review, Cox is irritated, among other things, by Pollitt's criticism of women who have their little toes amputated so they can squeeze into stilettos. Cox confesses that her own first thought -- "OK, maybe not the first" -- on reading about "pink-ectomy" surgery was, "Does it really work?"

Cox is not the first post-feminist to denounce paleo-feminists as sexless prudes. Ever since Andrea Dworkin -- a truly puritanical feminist -- waged war on pornography, there've been plenty of feisty women ready to defend Victoria's Secret as a beachhead of liberation. Something similar happened in the 1920s, when newly enfranchised young women blew off those frumpy old suffragists and declared their right to smoke cigarettes, wear short skirts and dance the Charleston all night.

Maybe there's a cycle at work here: militant feminism followed by lipstick and cocktails, followed, in a generation or two, by another gust of militancy. But this time around the circumstances are vastly different. In the 1920s, women were seeing their collective fortunes advance. The Western nations were granting them suffrage; contraceptives were moving beyond the status of contraband. Contrast those happy developments to today's steadily advancing war against women's reproductive choice: the banning of abortion in South Dakota, fundamentalist pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control.

Worldwide, the situation is far grimmer, as fundamentalist Islam swallows one nation after another. Iraq, once a secular and fairly woman-friendly place by Middle Eastern standards (although Saddam had no use for actual feminists), is degenerating into a contest between misogynist factions of various sectarian stripes. Somalia, which had been reasonably secular, just fell to the Islamists, who have taken to attacking insufficiently covered women in the streets. Then there's Indonesia, where, in some regions, women lacking head scarves or sporting cosmetics now face arrests for "prostitution," and women found in public with unrelated men can be publicly whipped.

I've always liked to think that feminism is the West's secret weapon against Islamism. How can an ideology that aims to push half the human race into purdah hope to claim the moral high ground? Islamic feminists would fight Islamism, and we Western feminists would offer our sisterhood in the struggle. But while Muslim women are being stuffed into burkas, American post-feminists are trying to stuff their feet into stilettos. Who are you going to call when the morals police attack you for wearing eye shadow in Kabul or flashing some ankle in Tehran -- a wonkette?

Cox seems to have missed the irony of Pollitt's title "Virginity or Death!" This isn't Pollitt's choice, but the kind of choice being imposed on a growing number of women throughout the world. The deeper irony is that women's right to wear lipstick, show skin, and consort with men in public go hand in hand with their rights to vote, own property, and purchase contraception. Outside of brothels, you don't get the stilettos without suffrage. So, yes, maybe the paleo-feminists who chanted and marched for equal rights get a little tiresome at times. But you can thank them for your belly button jewelry and your right to display it in public.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of 13 books, most recently "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."