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William C. Altreuter
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Thursday, November 03, 2005

A read the Sunday Times Magazine excerpt from Maureen Dowd's "Are Men Necessary" with some consternation, and has been engaged in an email discussion with her sisters and daughters and others about whether "feminism" as a movement has failed. Personally, I believe that Dowd is something of an intellectual fraud, and not half so clever as she thinks she is. I also think that a great deal of her premise is shaky. The question itself is, however, an interesting one: it does seem to be true that quite a few younger women seem to be more socially conservative than A and my age contemporaries. They take their husband's names, as Dowd points out, and, of course, the "soccer mom" constituency has been characterized by staying at home except when they go out to vote for George W. Bush. I know a lot of women-- ranging in age from high school on up, who have no qualms whatsoever in declaring, "I am not a feminist". Such a statement would have branded one as a backwoods reactionary, a gingham-attired, barefoot-and-in-the-kitchen victim back in the day, but I'm not so sure that the statement means what Dowd, and others, including A, think it means.

It is important to recognize that the sort of social and economic elite that we are operating in here came of age when everything, down to the music we listened to, was politically charged. For people our age it still is, and I'm afraid that I'm even able to level an accusation of "false consciousness" at someone who disagrees with me-- my undergraduate exposure to Herbert Marcuse has permanently stained my political thought. The political Right, however, has moved on, and determined that arguing about the way things are is not the battlefield where these fights are won. In a maneuver the my other undergrad hero, Ludwig Wittgenstein, would have enjoyed, they have decided to take control over the meaning of words, and, by so doing, have shifted the terms of debate away from actual substance. The paradigm is, I think, in the ongoing debate about reproductive choice. Conservatives seized the high ground here when they designated their position as "Pro Life". As an alternative to "Anti- Abortion" this was brilliant, and the "Pro Choice" alternative is pretty weak tea as a rhetorical reposte.

Examples abound, of course. You can be anti-war, or you can Support Our Troops. As AES points out in the comments to the post about "Janus Words" the other day, "family values" doesn't really mean what it seems to mean-- in many ways, in fact, you might say that "family values" has become the anti-feminist rhetorical position. The Orwellian re-definition of words and concepts by the right has stripped us of our ability to articulate and argue for the positions that we believe advance society and promote our common humanity. But does that mean that our beliefs have lost their validity-- or their appeal? I'm not so sure about that. Leonard Pitts spoke to the question the other day in the context of a column about the Geena Davis show about a woman president. I haven't seen the show, but I think Pitts is onto something when he speaks to the question of sexual equality: " Sometimes, we act as if feminism were about women. It isn't. It is, inevitably, about women and men. After all, male and female are two halves of a whole. One side cannot change without requiring the other to do the same. So I think some of us are asking the wrong question here. "

Exactly. A expressed the concern that feminism, as a movement, has had its day, and failed. She compared it to the Civil Rights Movement, saying, "People think that a long weekend in February means that it's finished, and it that's what they think, then it's failed, too." I don't know that I would distinguish the two, myself. It seems to me that both, and the slow movement towards equal rights for gay people, and progressive thinking generally, are all of a piece, and I am inclined to think that we will keep moving, even if we have slowed down. But we also need to get back the ability to discuss these issues.

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