As I’ve mentioned before, I love to read some of the older feminist books. There’s a special joy in realizing that I am not alone in being uneasy about the everday rebellions that are such a part of this movement.
Who should read this: all feminists, past and present; anyone who wants to understand feminist theory, particular of the second wave
It’s easy to look at the known feminists and think that they knew what they wanted from the beginning and were so good at everything from the start, but there was a learning curve for them too. It’s also easy to take their victories for granted and think some things are just the way they always were.
I had no idea that battered womens shelters and rape hotlines are a product of the second wave of feminism. When I think about it, it makes perfect sense, but I grew up knowing that these things were around. I took for granted that this was always the way it was. For that, I sincerely apologize to the second wave feminists!
One of those little things that I didn’t expect to see and truly appreciated was the distinction between nonfeminists and anti-feminists, along with that there are many subtle levels of accepting that you are one. Not everyone can yell it from the rooftops right away, some of us spend years saying “I’m not a feminist, but …” before espousing feminist ideals.
Essays or articles on these struggles are just the beginning of this book. It is broken down into four major sections, which are:
- Learning From Experience
- Other Basic Discoveries
- Five Women
- Transforming Politics
My favorite is the Five Women. She talks about five famous women, what we know about them, and the ways that they were perhaps misunderstood. The women are Marilyn Monroe, Patricia Nixon, Linda Lovelace, Alice Walker, and Jackie Onasis. As celebrities (or First Ladies), they are often given just one dimension, but these essays explore the lesser known parts of them and treat them like the real people they were.
Then again, it’s hard to really have a favorite section. Learning From Experience has essays about her feminist awakening and personal experiences that reminded me that there’s no such thing as too little or too late to being a feminist. Other Basic Discoveries brougth depth to some issues of the second wave that I never quite understood like the problem with porn (never been a fan but I didn’t understand the feminist problem with it) and answered some other questions about that wave. Transforming Politics took a good look at the tactics that were being used at the time and the call to expand them. It talked about the reputation of feminists going all the way back to the suffragists who are revered now but were only spared the term “feminazi” and it seems like that was only be virtue of taking place before the Nazi’s. There were also some other writings that were fun to read as a woman, but I’m sure that a man reading it might find insulting or inappropriate, such as If Men Could Menstruate and Rx Fantasies: For Temporary Relief. This last section had an essay that was simultaneously encouraging and depressing as well. It focused on female genital mutilation. Having read Half the Sky some time ago, I have a reference for where this struggle is now, which is better than at the time of Steinem’s writing about it, but by the kind of margin that one might hope for in the decades between.
Unlike the other things that I have read about the second wave of feminism, this book does include black women and transexualism specifically and makes a call out to all women of color at times. Calling it transexualism instead of transgender does make the timing obvious, so any reader should bear with the outdated concepts of the transexual themselves. However, this essay pays closer attention to the gender dynamics that transgender people highlight by virtue of being themselves and the differences in the media attention that transgender people get. When Steinem points out that it is only transgender women that are famous and attributes it to this idea:
For a man to give up his superior role and become a women was easy-frightening, but no challenge. For a woman to rise out of her inferiorty and achieve manhood was unthinkable, impossible – just too big a job. Men were not about to accept a former female as an equal, but they expected women to accept and even be honored by a former man.
While I recognize this as grossly inaccurate when it comes to transgender people themselves, it is sad to say that her assessment of the cisgender people around them may be fairly accurate. It seems that the number of accepting people has been growing but that’s not to call it easy, ever. It is unfortunately true that I could not think of one transgender man that I knew of in the media, though there are some notable transgender women, not that there are enough of them either. Even the show Transparent focuses on a transgender woman and transgender men made a rare appearance. The only trans man was the one that one of the daughter’s dated. This lack of representation is generally true for all who are not of the gender binary, so please don’t think I mean to pit anyone against any other. It was an interesting observation of Steinem’s that appears to remain true. Again, the essay focuses on the way transgender people highlight the problems with gender roles for all of us, though it does discuss parts of their struggle. It should be kept in mind when reading this that it was written in 1977 and therefore devoid of the more recent revelations concerning transgender and other non-binary people.
There is an essay toward the end that discusses the problem with all dichotomies here:
It was as if feminism had pointed out the injustice of dividing human nature into the false polarities of “feminine” and “masculine,” but hadn’t yet become strong enough to get us past other bipartite either/or divisions that imitate them.
This is actually the last essay in this compilation and includes 3 “depth soundings” that talk about where we are and how both outrageious acts and everyday rebellions are part of moving forward. This one also includes three survival lessons for feminists going forward:
- Serious opposition is a measure of success (it is also explained that when we weren’t getting serious opposition, it was because no one cared about what we were doing and weren’t threatened that we would provide change)
- We have to push ourselves far beyond prefeminist, either/or, polarized thinking, and use a whole spectrum of talents and tactics. We must surround our goals.
- We need to know the history of our sisters- both for inspiration and for accumulating a full arsenal of ideas- and adopt what translates into the present.
From beginning to end, this has been one of my favorite feminist writings. It’s no wonder that Steinem is a legend.