Where is feminism getting us?

I’ve been having fun poking around in the world of Renaissance Venice and feminist writers. Why? For this same reason I get obsessed about grist mills and the weird spider living in my shower: it’s interesting. It feeds my imagination. And when I feel like grad school is about to swallow me whole, it reminds me that I’m not brain-dead yet. Now, I wasn’t expecting to get a blog post out of this research; after all, what do Arcangela Tarabotti, Moderata Fonte, and Lucrezia Marinella have to do with current happenings? Of course, they are affecting my life. With all this feminism ya-ya buzzing around in my brain, I can’t be blamed for indirectly calling one of my students sexist when he laughs about a woman voicing her concerns that a video game in which you can kill prostitutes will affect how boys and young men perceive and treat women. In my defense, I only (indirectly) called him sexist when he started talking about how much he respects women.

I was doing some half-hearted googling about Lucrezia when I turned up this website, Fathers for Life, specifically this post. The conclusion that the anonymous poster comes to after reading the inspirational ad for boys that “There is nothing for girls that is as tough on them” is easy to dismiss as short-sighted. After all, we have Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” as a suitable rebuttal.

But I was reminded of a conversation I had recently with some friends about how we sometimes struggle with humility, about how it’s hard to be humble when bombarded with so many mixed messages. On the one hand, we have those feminist messages about women’s independence and equality and about how we have to resist the man, and on the other hand with have the sexist, racist messages of popular media that justify teaching girls to be critical.

Which leads me to the references to Lucrezia at the end of the BOY WANTED post. At first, I noticed how the anonymous poster was criticizing Lucrezia for her breaks in logic; “typical man,” I thought, “over-valuing the logos at the cost of the pathos.” But the truth is, Lucrezia does sound a little crazy. And she’s not the only one. Feminists at this time were often arguing for the superiority of women in sometimes very cool ways and sometimes very weird ways. Arcangela has a whole section about how men are bigger chatterboxes than women are. She also thought that women’s beautiful hair was a sign of women’s natural grace and superiority.

I think that we need to make distinctions between feminisms. There’s pop feminism, the kind of thing you find in Cosmo magazine that encourages women to improve their self-confidence while also telling them that men want women to be porn stars in bed. There’s extremist feminism, like we see in Lucrezia or those feminists like Adrienne Rich used to be when she was arguing that it was way more natural for women to be lesbians than for them to be heterosexual (maybe I shouldn’t call that extremism, but to me it seems a little out of line). Then there’s what I would like to call humanist feminism, a feminism based in the idea that all people are equal, the feminist definition that most people who would never ever call themselves feminists can identify with. But too often, these humanist feminists don’t get heard. Why? Because moderation isn’t interesting. If we insist on being heard at all, we sound like extremists, and Fathers for Life and Angry Harry will tell us all the ways that we feminists are ruining the world.

So what does this have to do with rhetoric? Well, lots. All the feminist historiography work that’s being done, could that just be feminists going around and claiming things by peeing on them like male cats (as Robin Williams explains it)? Could we as feminists be overstepping the boundaries of moderation for the sake of being heard in the past as well as in the present? And what about the classroom? Is Susan Jarratt’s so-called “bitch pedagogy” practical for changing minds or does it just alienate those individuals who identify with the dominant? And maybe, just maybe, I get cranky about the fact that Scully is almost always wrong on The X-Files not because it’s a feminist issue, but because deep down inside I really do understand that Mulder will always be right because Mulder is a man and I want Scully to just shut up.

It’s not that I’m questioning my position as a feminist, even though I’ve had a quite weird journey getting here. I do think that feminist historiography is valid and important. And I do think that confronting students about faulty preconceptions is important as well. But sometimes, like Sharon Crowley talks about in Octolog I, I feel paralyzed. I feel like I can’t move anyway for fear of stepping on someone’s toes who might have been receptive if I had talked instead of walked.

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One Response to Where is feminism getting us?

  1. Jim Porter says:

    What if we think about these different types of feminisms — and I like your classification system, btw — as not innately what a given person “is” so much as a set of rhetorical options or responses that one can deploy for different kinds of situations? Meaning, at times I think it’s just fine, even necessary to do “extreme feminism” — e.g., in response to certain egregious types of behavior. Other times, situations call for a more humanistic type of feminism. “Bitch pedagogy” can backfire in the classroom, I think, cause males to dig in their heels, even push them away. It depends. Sometimes it is important to try to change minds; other times it is necessary to oppose, fight, reject.

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