Thursday, January 29, 2009

Et tu, Nina?

fig. 1: This is what a crusading feminist looks like.

An update on yesterday's post, in which I noted that only two of my students were willing to claim the name of "feminist." Several commenters noted that the Right seems to have won the branding war on this. But this morning... this morning, while reporting on the passage of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (hooray!!!), Nina Totenberg, whom I normally like (law geek that I am), began her report by noting that the 70 year-old Ledbetter, "doesn't look much like a crusading feminist." ::sigh::


Anonymous said...

Maybe she needs to hear a twist on that old Gloria Steinem line, "this is what forty looks like," as in "this is what a feminist looks like."

My favorite line is when people trot out the term "militant" as in "militant feminist." Oh, really? I must have missed the day in class when radical feminist leader Betty XX (formerly Betty Friedan, but she gave up her wifeslave name) delcared war on men. Women-only enclaves armed themselves to the teeth and called themselves the XX Panthers, kidnapping and killing men in a huge sex war that spanned the 1960s through the 1980s.

Hey--it's so crazy, it just might work!

Good Enough Woman said...

Did you know that at the online PBS Store they a bag for sale called "The Nina Totenbag"? I've considered ordering it.

Susan said...

Well, of course, Ledbetter *is* an unlikely feminist. From what I gather, she'd be the first to say so. But like so many terrific women, she's learned. And we've learned to admire her.

Twisty said...

Nice blamin'. I heard this very report and am ashamed to say this glaring antifeminst infraction slipped right by me.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Historiann -- I love this image! Fantastic. Don't forget that the XX panthers declared war on other women, too, taking away their lipstick and their right to have any fun.

@ GEW: I'll have to take a look at that.

@ Susan: Well, sure, she's an unlikely feminist (based on her own life story). But my objection was to the implication that a feminist looks a certain way, and it's not like a nice little old lady.

@ Twisty: you just made my whole morning. And welcome! I post over at your place, but under a different sobriquet. I'll have to switch over.

Unknown said...

When I was an undergraduate, the professor posed the same question, and few students raised their hands. However, in the ensuing discussion it turned out that most did this out of a sense of deficiency. They had thought that to be a feminist they had to have been an activist, meaning that they had to have done something for the cause. In other words, they viewed feminism favorably, but they just didn't think they had *earned* the label. Did you ask your students what the word meant to them?

@historiann: Thanks for "slave name." LOL.

Dr. S said...

Aren't we kind of all "unlikely feminists," in a sense? By which I mean, isn't one of the points of feminism precisely to broaden the idea about what can be thought "likely," so that our only common denominators are that we believe people of all genders should be treated equally and allowed (encouraged!) to live in accordance or not in accordance with whatever expectations they choose, and that we believe that gender is a crucial category for understanding the world and our place in it?

(That second question gets longer and longer the more I read and reread it, so I'm going to post this and stop--to read Scarlet Letter, of all things!)

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Hi S -- I agree, and I think your point, and Susan's, reflect a lack of clarity on my part as to what I find objectionable: the popular assumption that there is a certain way that a feminist (crusader or not) "looks" -- an assumption that underlies N.T.'s offhand comment.

S. & Susan (and Michael), if my students understood what you've all said, I think that many more would identify. But when little offhand comments feed the idea that feminists look (or act, or talk) a certain way, it rhetorically narrows a movement that we know is (and must continue to be) broad and open.

My question: I wonder if Ledbetter now calls herself a feminist, and why or why not?

Dr. S said...

Oh yes, I wasn't criticizing *you*. I was trying to participate in criticizing the very idea of commenting on someone as a "likely" or "unlikely" feminist. And I totally agree with you about the ways that small, apparently incidental or passing comments ultimately add up to people's belief systems. After all, it's not so often that someone in public life delivers a lengthy speech about how to understand the gendering of experience. (This is one of the reasons I was so excited about Obama's speech about race in March; it seemed like one of those rare moments when the right urgency appears and makes it possible for a person to claim a chance to speak at length, in a serious way. People don't always claim those urgencies and use them wisely; I think that he really did.)

What does it mean that my word verification is "shilled"?

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Interesting observation, S. It got me thinking a little: Imagine that Hillary Clinton had been the candidate. Can you imagine her, at the same place in her campaign as Obama's race speech, giving an equivalent speech on gender? Somehow I don't think it would have been as well-received as Obama's speech on race. Both of these are roots of persistent inequities in our society. Yet a speech like that on gender... well, I can imagine how that would have gone over, and it's not good.

Good Enough Woman said...

Last year, during the primaries, in my Lit by Women class, we were reading E. C. Stanton and Sojourner Truth, so naturally we started talking about race/gender bias and which is more pervasive or difficult to overcome. Of course, we connected our conversation to the ongoing election. We talked about the fact that racial bias is so hard to overcome because of the hatred and segregation involved, but we recognized that, historically, black men have made political strides ahead of women.

I suggested that it might be harder for a black man to get elected because of the aforementioned hatred and segregation, but I also suggested that misogyny is general, perhaps, harder for our society to overcome because it is more insidious and not everyone believes it exists or even thinks it's such a bad thing. For example, although few Americans would say that the Bible justifies slavery, many people would say that the Bible justifies inequality of the sexes. I mean, just compare and contrast the ways in which we view the civil rights movement with the ways in which we view the women's rights movement through out historical review mirror. They have very different vibes.

In fine, no, I don't think Hillary would have had the same response if she'd given a speech on gender in Philadelphia. In general, I don't think she is able to elevate the soul the way Obama does (in the Emersonian sense of the idea), but even if someone with Obama's rhetorical power were to speak about gender? I don't think many people would ever consider such a speech to be any kind of pivotal or defining moment for America. It sounds odd to even imagine the headlines, "Clinton Gives Historical Speech On Gender and Sexism."

It's very difficult to inspire people to "overcome" or "come together" about something that people don't believe exists (to any substantial degree) in the first place. Plus, people think activism on behalf of American women is just annoying. It's a bit different if we started talking about the struggles of women in extremely oppressive countries, but here? People just think we're whining.

Hillary said some very interesting things about the struggles of being a woman candidate in her interview with Tavis Smiley. He asked her what was hardest about running as a woman, and she said--quite honestly I thought--that it was navigating the realm of emotions. If she didn't show any, she was a bitch. If she did show some, she was either weak or fake. Hard to wiggle your way out of that one. How are we supposed to overcome such double binds as that?