In her Oct. 30 New York Times article titled “What’s a Modern Woman to Do,” Maureen Dowd states that in light of the past 30 years or so of backlash against the American feminist movement, men no longer need to objectify women because women now objectify themselves and each other. This point, among others, is an important one that Dowd offers as food for thought to a broad audience.
However, Dowd’s feminist statement adheres to problematic boundaries which she reinforces in failing to overstep them. Asking whether a woman is “less attractive” when she is more successful, she furthers the perception that “attractiveness” is contingent upon male standards of beauty. The question she poses itself restricts attractiveness to pervasive conventional understandings of it. She fails to challenge the assumption that a woman who is not found attractive by men has something to fear or feel ashamed of. This notion is taken for granted, qualifying and even buttressing Dowd’s entire piece. Feminist theorist Audre Lorde would warn that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”
But even at Yale, feminist conversation remains sadly undiverse and disappointingly safe. At the recent panel discussion about Louise Story’s New York Times article on Yale women’s desire to become stay-at-home mothers, the panelists ultimately agreed with each other — immediately making me skeptical that the event could provoke thought or spur progress. Most panelists offered platitudes about equality and how “if women stay at home, men should stay at home too!” Like Dowd’s column, the panel strengthened the walls between man and woman, mentioning “alternative lifestyles” as a tokenized aside and never explicitly addressing the specific experiences of ethnic minorities.
An audience overwhelmingly comprised of women in skirts crossing their legs at the knee in uniform gestures of feminine sophistication passionately nodded as Dean Salovey lamented that Yale students feel compelled to uphold traditional gender roles. But where is Salovey’s passion for gender issues as the Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies, Yale’s only resource for intellectual questioning of gender normativity and the only institutional structure for LGBTQ individuals on campus, nears its end? Where was Salovey’s vehement voice last year when Yale let go of leading queer theory scholar Seth Silberman, whose pedagogy deconstructs gender norms and complicates oppressively oversimplified ideas of “womanhood”?
It’s time for institutions like Yale to put their money where their mouths are.
How long will feminists cling to a “good girl” facade in dealing with such institutions? Strides towards gender equality have rarely been made by pleasing our patriarchal “Daddy” figures. Of course patriarchal institutions — yes, Yale included — scorn feminists who cause trouble. But any feminists who do not are inevitably playing into their hands to some extent.
For example, I would venture to say that self-identified women should ask whether men must be the objects of their sexuality — and question the narrow definition of the category “man” itself — in order to uphold feminist values. A self-identified woman feminist can date men or male-bodied individuals and simultaneously be wary of restricting herself to “heterosexuality.” A woman with a man, or a female with a male, can be as queer as any other relationship. It depends upon attitude, not anatomy.
Feminism has at points in the past been visibly dominated by upper-middle class white women who have furthered their cause while ignoring women of color and lesbians. As demonstrated by Dowd’s column and the Louise Story panel, this continues to happen. But a feminist group or movement should not cater to so-called “feminists” quick to scowl at butch lesbians or early lesbian-feminist movements without understanding their motivations. Likewise, such a movement should feel no obligation to accommodate anyone unwilling to consider the feminist voices of women of color as crucial, not merely complementary.
A feminist who assumes an inherent disconnect between distinct “man” and “woman” categories must step away from that myth of our social structure. At the same time, a feminist who claims that the everyday lived experiences of men and women — however you want to distinguish between these slippery categories — do not sharply diverge based on their social treatment needs to get out of his or her elitist bubble.
The multiplicity of voices within the movement indicates that feminism is more accurately discussed in plurality, as feminisms. However, that every individual should have access to the term does not mean that any given brand of feminism should be unthinkingly condoned or promoted. In fact, no style of feminism that remains stagnant could suffice to carry a unified movement. Even the criteria defining feminisms’ subject — woman — vary with context, for women are often only relatively identified as such.
When it comes to rape or the tangible repercussions of having been born in a body mapped as “female,” a temporary, strategic political suspension of difference among feminisms is an effective means of political change. But the struggle among feminists and a relentless pushing of the bounds of feminism itself must persist. Relatively privileged feminists — at Yale or The New York Times — must take up that challenge.
Loren Krywanczyk is a senior in Silliman College.