Snatched from the Jaws of Victory: Feminism Then and Now

It was the summer of 2002 and I was traveling through a medium-sized town in Hungary when I looked up and saw a young woman coming toward me. Fifteen or sixteen years old, she wore a shirt that proudly proclaimed her to be a "Dirty Girl."

Six months later, in Philadelphia, I found myself speaking at a women's studies conference to an audience which included several young women wearing shirts with "Cunt" or "Bitch" written on their chest in an angry scrawl. Shortly after, I found myself in Panama watching a rotund 7 year old prance around in a hot pink tank top that shouted "Bling,.Bling." When I checked the web upon returning home, I discovered that "Dirty Girl" had been updated to "Stupid Dirty Girl" while another T shirt insisted "As long as I can be on top."

Are the young women wearing such T-shirts liberated women who have taken control of their own bodies and now reap the benefits of the women's movement - or are they simply dupes? These experiences, and countless others like them, raise a broader question for me. They make me ask how the insights and goals of the Women's Movement have been transformed and translated as they have been integrated into popular culture and daily life?

The Women's Liberation Movement that began in the 60s was originally a radical movement seeking deep and fundamental change. It identified the ways in which male and other forms of privilege had been woven into every social, political, economic institution and cultural practice in our society and went on to challenge white supremacy, heterosexist privilege, class divisions as well as the images of gender that had been normalized and in this way rendered invisible The Women's Liberation Movement I remember argued for the need for a radical transformation of all our institutions. It urged women to rethink every aspect of our lives, always asking us to reflect on whose interests were served by the ways in which society was organized and by the values we had been taught to embrace.

Central to this project was the distinction between sex and gender. In order to challenge the conservative view that women's social role was determined by her nature, many feminists argued that while one is born either a man or a woman and that is a function of biology (and yes, many of us mistakenly thought that there were only two possibilities at that time), gender roles were determined by society. Women began to notice that how we were taught to define ourselves, what it meant to be a real woman, served the interests of men and capitalism. This made us suspicious of what we had been taught were our "natural" tendencies or inclinations and made us wonder about our so-called "free" choice.

A very important article of the period, a true classic, was entitled "Homogenizing the American Woman: The Power of an Unconscious Ideology" written by Sandra Bem and Daryll Bem. The authors pointed out that even if discrimination were to end tomorrow, nothing very drastic would change, because discrimination is only part of the problem. "Discrimination frustrates choices already made. Something more pernicious perverts the motivation to choose. That something is an unconscious ideology about the nature of the female sex...."... In other words, many of us began to realize that we had been socialized to want things that would replicate and reinforce the status quo.

The Women's Liberation Movement of the Second Wave rejected prevailing standards of beauty, the Barbie doll image, (being thin and blonde), that were virtually unattainable by anyone who wasn't white and by most of us who were white as well. The critique took the form of recognizing and challenging the ways prevailing standards of beauty and rules of dress and decorum both reflected and reinforced the existing race, class and gender hierarchy in society. Women of the Second Wave were tired of being turned into sex objects by the fashion industry and so they threw out their high heels (which were understood to be on a continuum with Chinese foot binding practices -- a way of circumscribing women's movement and keeping them dependent), took off their girdles and their bras, stopped trying to be a size 2, and focused on healthy eating - healthy for them and the planet.

If we look at popular culture today - what do we see? Well, Barbie is back with a vengeance. Little girls start dieting in fourth grade and never stop. This used to be more of a problem among white girls but it has spread to all ethnic groups. And dieting isn't the half of it, anorexia and bulimia are occurring in alarming proportions.

Today many young women want to dress like, Paris Hilton, Brittany Spears, Lindsay Lohan, Mariah Carey, and L'il Kim. And it is not just women in their teens and older who are dressing this way, we have four year olds and six year olds dressed as sex objects. Cleavage is everywhere and we women can't get enough of it so we go out and buy more. Some of us stopped buying bras in the 70's; today women are busy buying bras and breasts to put in them.

The number of magazine stories about girls in their early and mid-teens who want breast augmentation surgery is increasing as are the number of teens who receive breast and nose jobs as birthday or high school graduation gifts. Dumb blondes are back in style: Jessica Simpson, Pamela Anderson, Paris Hilton. Women hack off their toes to fit into high priced, designer shoes. We are a generation awash in plastic surgery and Botox.

But the world is still a dangerous place and bad things happen to women and girls. In a world that is not safe for us, why would you dress your child to look like a sex object? Why would you dress yourself to look like a porn star? In a world where violence against women is rampant, why would you wear a t-shirt that says "Discipline Me."

It's easy to imagine the rejoinder from the women at that women studies conference in Philadelphia: shouldn't women be able to dress they way they want? The answer seems unambiguous. Of course they should. But first we need to create a world in which women are genuinely free to choose. Yes, retort those same young women, but isn't wearing such a t-shirt a way of asserting one's right to self-define and challenging the system? To this I answer that it can be, but the fashion choices that many women make today do not represent a challenge to patriarchy, let alone capitalism, instead, these "choices" reflect a total submission to those systems. We have come full circle. Girls and women now believe that they show how liberated they are by dressing like the ultimate male sex fantasy. Men used to have to go to adult sex shops to see women and girls dressed the way some of us dress to go to school and work every day.

In fact, women have been sold a bill of goods. We were told that the Women's Movement was about the right to choose. Corporate capitalism and patriarchy happily co-opted the slogan of the Second Wave so that any choice was defined as a liberated and empowering choice. But what did "the personal is political" really mean? I remember when it meant that what appeared to be purely personal choices made by women of their own free will (to marry, to have children, to dress and behave a certain way, to engage in certain sexual practices, the choice of whether or not to work and if we worked which career path to follow, etc) needed to be understood in the context of a system of domination where issues of race/ethnicity, class and sexuality intersected with gender to radically restrict women's opportunities and possibilities. This system had been so effective because it is virtually invisible, because the privileges at its core have been effectively rationalized and normalized in a myriad of ways through out time.

During the late 60s and through out the 70s, as women shared their stories, what had been normalized, gradually, or in some cases, suddenly, stood out and demanded our attention. We found out that what appeared to be my problem, my failing, my fear, my pain was in fact shared by other women, was part of their experience too. We came to understand that "the personal is political" in an empowering sense. It wasn't just that I couldn't get certain jobs; other women had the very same problem, not because I/we weren't good enough but because of a pervasive race and gender bias within the workforce. It turned out that I was paid less than my male coworkers, not because women were inherently weaker or less competent or less productive but because jobs and pay scales were defined in ways that valued work more and described it differently, simply because it was done by a man. And whether the man wore a tie and a jacket, a sweatshirt, or a uniform.

We came to understand that our dissatisfaction with aspects of our personal lives, our family structures, our most intimate relationships or our parenting responsibilities, did not necessarily grow from some deep, personal inadequacy or some psychological deficiency of our own but was rooted in the way that society was organized and the way gender (race, class, and sexuality) had been constructed.

To say then that "the personal is political" was to point out that you could start with individual women's lives and move straight from their realties to institutionalized privilege and hierarchy. We began to understand that what looked like individual choices were really social in nature and reflected the values and interests of those in power. As a result, we came to be highly suspicious of our choices.

Today the personal is simply personal. And that understanding has been incorporated into popular culture in the absence of any political context or analysis, Katha Pollitt puts it this way: "Women have learned to describe everything they do, no matter how apparently conformist, submissive, self-destructive or humiliating, as a personal choice that cannot be criticized because personal choice is what feminism is all about."

When feminism in the 60s and 70s demanded the right to choose for women, it was in the context of recognizing the coercive force of institutionalized racism, sexism, heterosexism, and class privilege. Women had begun to understand that what appeared to be individual issues turned out to be social problems, social problems for which there were few if any individual solutions. Women looked at the things that limited and coerced our choices and asked how we could change them, not just for ourselves, but for all women, all people.

Today there are no social problems. Thanks to the efforts of recent Republican administrations in Washington and the efforts of the conservative right in general, we live in a world where there is no longer a social dimension and there are no social problems. There are now only individual human beings who are worthy or unworthy, deserving or undeserving. The complex web of interlocking factors that once required serious and respectful attention to every aspect of social and economic life has been replaced by a simplistic and reductionist worldview. Social problems require broad solutions - changes in the way we do business. Individual problems get individual solutions.

Postpartum depression, very much in the news a few years back after Brooke Shield gave birth to her first baby, was a problem to be solved exclusively through medication rather than by looking at the social context in which the illness occurs. In the old days, we would have at least considered the possibility that women's depression after childbirth had something to do with the social conditions of parenting and the organization of the family and that it might be improved by re-thinking gender roles and childcare options. If a man becomes a father and doesn't want to spend time with his child, do we label him ill and prescribe anti-depressants?

Recently a doctor appearing on a morning television program discussed research findings that showed more adult women are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder. He described their problem as something like "woman rushing from task to task, unable to concentrate or complete them." The solution was to get them on medication. But the medical condition he described sounds to me very much like the daily life of the average super mom in today's high power society. Perhaps re-thinking social roles and responsibilities rather than diagnosing a new medical condition might be the answer.

In the summer of 2002, Clara Harris was found guilty of manslaughter after she ran over her husband who had been having an affair with his receptionist. By her own account, when she first discovered his infidelity, she immediately hired a personal trainer, dyed her hair blonde, started working out, and made an appointment with a plastic surgeon. At the height of the Women's Movement, she might have placed her individual situation within a broad social context and might have sought the support and council of a women's consciousness raising group rather than collagen injections and liposuction.

Once upon a time women facing high rates of unemployment, unequal pay, non-existent or inadequate benefits, lack of affordable (or often any) childcare, and a welfare system that channels them into dead end jobs and denies them funding for education, would have organized around issues of poverty and discrimination. Now instead of challenging racism and classism, highly touted solutions to these problem suggest that women should create charities to collect used business attire for these unfortunate job seekers. If only they dressed better! But according to 2004 figures,12.7% of the population live in poverty - approximately 1 out of every 8 people. And poverty is a social problem. It should be obvious that women living in poverty are not poor because they lack the correct fashion sense.

A major victory of conservatives in this country has been to severely limit class action lawsuits. During the 1970s and 1980s, class action suits racked up one victory after another for women and men who had been discriminated against because of their race or their gender or both. Such law suits were the ultimate reflection of "the personal is political" because they grew out of an awareness that meanings were social and that patterns of behavior could establish intent. Today it is necessary to demonstrate that an individual was specifically discriminated against. This change in policy effectively denies the existence of racism, sexism, heterosexism and homophobia. By refusing to recognize patterns of behavior that establish on-going discrimination, current practice denies history.

Once upon a time the personal really was political. Today, it is simply personal. Capitalist patriarchy has one again showed its extraordinary ability to take radical movements and demands that challenge the system, and re-package them in ways that actually reinforce that system and preserve the existing distribution of power and privilege in society. How convenient for capitalist patriarchy that young women today think that dressing like every man's sex fantasy is a sign of their liberation and that the women's movement was all about getting the right to choose and had nothing to do with making hard decisions about what values and what social vision should be reflected in our choices.

I remember well the sexual revolution of the 1960s. It seemed, briefly, to hold out the hope that women might finally control their bodies, control their own sexuality But it soon became clear that the new sexual freedom simply meant
more opportunity for men, not a new kind of experience for women, and that line comes from a 1972 article by Linda Phelps which first appeared in Women: A Journal of Liberation thirty-four years ago. In that article, Phelps wrote: "Our cultural vision is the projection of solely male experience." Has that changed? She went on to say "Women are bombarded with the same sex stimuli of the female body as is a man - hence females often respond in a narcissistic way to their own body and what is being done to it. The female is taught to be the object of sexual desires." Sounds painfully familiar. "Women are socialized to relate to a false world of erotic fantasies and images that are defined and controlled by men..." In fact, women are beginning to realize that nothing new happened at all. "What we have is simply a new, more sophisticated (and thus more insidious) version of male sexual culture. Sexual freedom has meant more opportunity for men, nor a new kind of experience for women. And it has been precisely our own experience as women which as been decisive in developing the Women's Liberation critique of the sexual revolution."

If you go to the Human Rights Watch website ( you will read the following:

Millions of women throughout the world live in conditions of abject deprivation of, and attacks against, their fundamental human rights for no other reason than that they are women;

Abuses against women are relentless, systematic, and widely tolerated, if not explicitly condoned. Violence and discrimination against women are global social epidemics;

We live in a world in which women do not have basic control over what happens to their bodies.

In such a world, going through the mime of empowerment defined by a masculine culture in the name of feminism is all the more disempowering and degrading. Empowerment, we are now asked to believe, is not about getting an education, not about becoming economically independent, not about taking control of our bodies, not about saving the environment, not about working toward social justice, but dressing a certain way and wearing the newest version of what ever t-shirt or body piecing we choose. And whose interests does this serve? Today cultural practices continue to occur within the context of unequal power relations. Racism, sexism, and class privilege are still alive and well. They frame our choices and define the meaning of what we choose. The women's movement of the Second Wave talked, not about "equality," but about liberation, because believe me, equality is not enough. We have gone from seeking to challenge and change the ways in which institutionalized privilege and hierarchy limit and coerce our choices to the illusion that the battle for women's rights and civil rights is over and done. We have been duped into trading social critique and collective action for a vision of feminism that offers us personal choice without social responsibility and without social context. We have exchanged the possibility of genuine change for feminism light and designer water.` And in the end, we know whose interest that serves.

Paula Rothenberg is Senior Fellow at The Murphy Institute, CUNY. She is the author of Invisible
Privilege: A Memoir About Race, Class and Gender; her diversity text Race, Class and Gender in the United States is in its seventh edition; a third edition of her anthology White Privilege: Readings on the Other Side of Racism will be published in late summer 2007; and her newest college text anthology, Beyond Borders: Thinking Critically about Global Issues, was published by Worth in July 2005. She can be reached at

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