Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Rethinking Feminism Series: Words

My first foray into sharing my reflections on how feminism needs to change to stay relevant and efficacious politically generated interesting comments. On the whole I think that much of what I said resonated with readers. However, my post certainly rubbed one reader the wrong way at The Reaction. I think that Marc (the formerly disgruntled reader) and I had a productive exchange over my post. What set him off was what he perceived to be my tone: a slumming, self-loathing, middle-class white woman. I found his reaction to be interesting, particularly because it was a perfect example of what my colleague SteveG means when he said in his post: "white guilt has a short shelf life."

I thought this was a good place to start my post today. In a post I wrote to criticize current feminist activists for failing to update their message and their paradigms so that our message might resonate with more people, particularly men, I pissed off exactly the kind of male I want to attract. I think that Marc might agree with me when I say that his irritation at my post came from preconceptions of what feminist arguments about "privilege" are. Upon rereading my post he decided that perhaps I had made good points and he even accepted my explanation of what I mean by privilege. So, this story had a good ending, but it perfectly illustrates how grating feminist arguments are to fellow liberals. I don't think that I am making the arguments that Marc thought I was. Nor do I think that my message is a major deviation from what feminists are doing now. But, where the communication breaks down is over words.

Unfortunately, I think that feminism needs a serious PR job. Many of the amazing writers our there in the femosphere are doing that work. But, we clearly have a long way to go. No matter how nuanced our arguments, no matter how reasonable our arguments, no matter how conciliatory we are toward our interlocutors, a few words--in this case, "feminism" and "white privilege"--had the effect of turning off and tuning out a reader. I could respond to this by picking on Marc for being narrow-minded, hostile to feminism, misogynistic, or in denial about his white privilege. But, to what end? I see this kind of total communication break down happen all the time in the classroom, among colleagues, or in conversations over beers. The minute a feminist opens her mouth and uses any of the language of early feminist theory--"patriarchy" or "misogyny" pretty soon someone at the table is going to roll their eyes or get pissed off. This is not what I consider to be effective political activism.

The shock and awe approach of feminism will only shore up our base, but it won't do anything to make real changes in our institutions. In fact, much of the "politically correct" analyses of my undergraduate and graduate school years have resulted in very little significant material change in the world. I know that sounds harsh, and I wouldn't be surprised if I ticked off more than one feminist reader, but it's true.

I became active in NOW this past year. I organized a local chapter and got lots of women at the meeting, ready to do something to make a difference in our county. Early on a member pointed out to me that we could really benefit from trying to change our message and our image to break through the entrenched and stultifying images of bra-burners, man-haters and baby-killers. She was and is right. While my chapter is still going and many members are passionately commited, I found myself getting pissed off regularly with the state and national leadership. During the Roberts hearing, I was called up at one point and told that I should take my chapter back to D.C. to get Senator Specter to talk to me, and if he wouldn't get arrested. I understood that it was a "media strategy," but from my standpoint it was a strategy that was not only logistically impossible (some of us had already taken off work to lobby) but it was destined to make us look like lunatics. I was outside the Senate buildings during the Roberts hearing. There were not a whole lot of us. In fact, we were woefully outnumbered by Roberts supporters. The media wanted to get any of us NOW folks to make some stupid statement so as to further sink our cause. We weren't going to win that one; I knew from that experience we weren't going to win the Alito cause either.

We aren't effective politically because we tend to play right into the worst stereotypes promulgated out there by right wingnuts and the MSM. We have not had enough foresight and cunning to craft a clever, enticing and powerful message. Our rhetoric simply does not resonate with many women or men anymore (although I think the "every woman is a working woman" campaign is good stuff). To start making change happen in our communities, to actually fight back the feminist backlash, we are going to have to use different words.

When I was first interviewed on TV and the radio (when the chapter was starting up), inevitably I would get the question: "how will your liberal message reach people in this conservative county"? I also had a few interviewers ask me if we were getting funded by National NOW (ha, ha, ha!). My response was always: "NOW is a MAINSTREAM organization. Everyone is loves, is related to, or was cared for by a woman. What NOW wants is to help families be able to cope with the changing economy: more pressure on both parents to work, lower wages, unaffordable daycare and healthcare etc." This approach almost always baffled my interviewers. They didn't know what to do with me. My co-President would also note that we were the National Organization FOR Women, not OF Women, hence men were welcomed to join.

The reason that we baffled the media was because they couldn't figure out why, exactly, we called ourselves feminists, given our mission. That was when I really got it; we are fighting an uphill battle. So, I spend hours and hours of time that should go toward sleeping thinking about how to cut through the stereotypes, the "gut reactions" that are not so positive, and get our message heard.