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Free Radicals, Part 2

October 24, 2013

Camille Hayes

Read Part 1 here

Last time, I talked about the ongoing argument in American feminism between liberals and radicals, and how our failure to distinguish between the two has left the movement ideologically confused. This confusion causes people to compare fundamentally unlike things (e.g., number of women CEOs vs. unrealistic female beauty standards), and reach conclusions that look oppositional but are really just different perspectives on the same problem. To wit: “We now have women in the Fortune 500, so sexism = OVER!” versus “Women still get harassed walking down the street so we haven’t made any progress!” This kind of debate is of course un-resolvable, because it implies that one or the other is the superior—or even the only—measure of women’s progress. It’s like arguing over which is better, lasagna or cupcakes. It’s just not a useful comparison, and I would like to eat them both so what were we fighting about again?

Another sticking point in this endless back-and-forth is that neither side is actually wrong: women have both made tremendous strides toward equality and still suffer systemic oppression. If we’ve learned anything in the past 40 years, it’s that it is entirely possible to chalk up an impressive roster of political victories, and have all that wonderful change take place in a culture still rotten with misogyny. Women can earn more bachelor’s degrees than men and also face discrimination in the workforce. They can even be a VP at the world’s most famous tech company and find, in the third trimester of pregnancy, that they lack accessible parking. Which brings us to Sheryl Sandberg. Maybe you’ve heard the story about her marching her voluminously pregnant self into Sergey Brin’s office at Google and demanding maternity parking spaces. In the introduction to her book Lean In, she uses this as an example of how women change corporate culture just by being there.

Despite her overtly pro-woman message her book got a frosty reception in the feminist blogosphere. Many complained that Sandberg’s feminism was hypocritical since she advocates for equality from inside the corporate world, itself a primary cause of social inequity. Some seemed offended that she even called herself feminist; it was as though her business success canceled out the progress she represents. But again, it depends on which feminist lens you view her through. Sheryl Sandberg is literally the apotheosis of liberal feminist reform. A bigger piece of the pie? She pretty much owns the pie now, and seems eager to share it with young women strivers in her wake. But from a radical’s perspective, Sandberg’s formidable accomplishments don’t make her successful, they make her complicit with a system we should be trying to dismantle. Since those objections sound nonsensical to the liberal wing, they loudly take up the counterpoint and the sparring continues, contemporary activists carrying on a turf war that started forty years ago.

Speaking of the ’70s, it’s a time many would apparently like to forget, based on the way young women talk about the Second Wave today. Whenever the subject of feminism comes up in the cultural conversation, public figures (Katy Perry, Melissa Mayer) can’t run fast enough to put distance between themselves and the hairy-legged man haters of the past. And when a famous woman does cop to the f-word, it’s usually accompanied by a string of qualifiers like the ones Beyoncé used in an April Vogue interview: “I’m a modern-day feminist,” “I’m happily married,” “I love my husband.” (Like Second Wave feminists didn’t love their partners? They just wanted them to pick up a mop occasionally.) But if Beyoncé’s wary of embracing the women’s movement, feminists are even more suspicious of her; her recent appearance the cover of Ms. Magazine prompted a chorus of disgruntled booos on the Ms.Facebook page.

The comment thread was a little overwrought, but read between the lines and you’ll find an illustrative argument. Sure, critics said, Beyoncé’s wildly successful and famously in control of her product and brand, but she does it all while looking like a tarted-up pop princess. Since her success comes with the sexualized trappings of a male-dominated culture, we’re asked—as we were in the case of Sandberg’s triumph in the tech boy’s club—whether that success actually counts. Again, feminists are challenged to decide what a “victory” for women really looks like. And again, we’re tricked by surface differences into forgetting that whether it comes in a corporate boardroom or wearing 5-inch Lucite heels, a win is still a win.

Any victory feminists manage to eke out in our hopelessly flawed, thoroughly sexist culture is bound to be imperfect and incomplete, for how could it be otherwise? We’re working with, and within, a totally lousy system. If the only success we’ll accept is a philosophically pure one, unsullied by compromise or half-measures, then we’ll be waiting a very long time for it to come. Similarly, if we judge the achievements of liberal reform strategy by the lofty standards of radical feminist doctrine we’re doomed to be perpetually disappointed, not to mention pissed off. Feminists need to be familiar enough with our history, and aware enough of our assumptions, to tell the difference between the two philosophies. Only then will we finally lay to rest the debate over which one is better, a dead-end argument if there ever was one. The radical/liberal divide has always been a false choice, you see. They aren’t opposite sides of the feminist coin, they’re complementary visions, and feminists need both of them if we’re to succeed.

Unfortunately what we’ve gotten so far, in this country anyway, is 90% liberal reform strategy, leavened with just a sprinkling of radical ideals. A lot of the tension in the women’s movement today is attributable to the fact that we are clearly reaching the end of what can be accomplished through policy reform alone, but no one seems to have viable alternative strategies to pick up the slack when liberalism falls short. What’s so enticing about liberal feminism that we cling to it even as it fails us? Why didn’t radicalism ever really get off the ground? I’ll talk about that in Part 3!

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