YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 3, 2012

The Sexual Revolution (2)

In part one of this miniseries on the “sexual revolution” said to have been accomplished during the second wave of feminism, I retrieved an ad from an upscale magazine distributed to my neighborhood in Southern California (see http://clarespark.com/2012/10/03/the-sexual-revolution-1-2/, and its lookalike http://clarespark.com/2012/11/15/female-genitals-as-red-flag/.) Don’t miss this painting showing how New Women as mothers transmit their demonism to their closely held sons!). It was obviously a backlash to the “liberated women” of the 1920s, taken from a Belgian artist who viewed the new woman as creating Pierrots out of their sons, emasculated doubles of themselves. Mother became puppeteer, turning the male child into a zany figure from the Commedia d’el Arte: Pierrot was a mask for Cain, a fratricide; while some saw Pierrot as feminized, the outsider who could never escape his mother’s influence. He was in the eternal grip of Mother, revealed now as Femme Fatale. (For more on this theme see http://clarespark.com/2012/07/29/girls-or-the-new-lost-generation/. The Mother figure in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture is no heroine.)

Yesterday, Oct. 2, 2012, the Obama campaign created an e-card directed to the female voters, depicting a flapper with the message “Vote like your lady parts depended on it.” The image was taken down before the end of the day, but it revealed the primary message of still-regnant second wave feminism: the liberation of women signified nothing but sex and the loose morals we associate with the Jazz Age, notwithstanding the recent passage of women’s voting rights. It is true that for many women, single and married alike, the need to control the timing of reproduction is not a “single issue,” but one at the forefront of  consciousness, for her economic status and life chances depend on controlling the timing of reproduction. But to propose, as the Obama campaign clearly did, that a Republican victory would mean regression to the bad old days is, in my view, absurd and objectively unproven as a claim.

On the popular Fox show The Five (Oct.2, 2012), Bob Beckel chided Dana Perino and Andrea Santaros for seeing Gloria Steinem as a washed-up feminist, implying that Steinem had paved the way for the cushy jobs enjoyed by Perino and Santaros at Fox. This sent me back into my memory bank. Gloria Steinem was indeed a much publicized star of the second wave. A strikingly beautiful young woman, she was considered “a babe” and was also known for her connection to powerful male editors in journalism. It is true that second wave feminists had an enormous impact on the culture, but the takeaway was 1. sexual freedom, even promiscuity as the central demand of “women’s lib” and 2. having emerged from the civil rights movement, many of the 1960s-70s feminists soon subordinated their goal of liberating women to anti-imperialism, joining with men in the anticapitalist crusade, and of course, ignoring the subordination of women in South America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. The West was now worst, and “white male supremacy” the enemy for right-on feminists. (For a related blog see http://clarespark.com/2012/09/01/sex-sex-and-less-sex/.)

But Beckel forgot a major fact of history: It was 19th century feminists of the first wave who were the original trail blazers, and their crusades on behalf of votes for women were linked to abolition, higher education for (excluded) women, entrance into the professions, temperance, and the uplift of prostitutes. Such were the “middle class puritans” decried later on by bohemians as Victorian battle axes. (Some of their number included Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Stady Stanton, Harriet Beacher Stowe, the Grimké sisters, Louisa May Alcott, Julia Ward Howe, and more.) The most important writers after the Great War fled this menacing figure, running off to the South Seas or, better, Harlem, Paris, Italy, and Spain. Gangsta rappers of today partake of the same bohemian reaction to middle-class mothers and to emancipated women in general. as all women became “bitches.” (See illustration in the first of this series.)

Herbert Marcuse was correct when he warned of “repressive desublimation.” The fashion and cosmetic industry, plastic surgeons, hair stylists, and a host of women’s magazines urged  all women to cultivate their sexual attractiveness, even into old age. The sex could be dark, as fashion photographer Bruce Weber and others eroticized the submission to male fetishes, for instance, stiletto heels. (For a more extended commentary on the regnant S-M, see http://clarespark.com/2009/07/13/eros-and-the-middle-manager-s-m-with-implications-for-multiculturalism/. On the link between misogyny and antisemitism see http://clarespark.com/2009/11/16/panic-attacks-and-separation-anxiety/.)

What then, has been the effect on young women and girls? The Hollywood celebrities today have come out for Obama and for sex. Their innocence lies solely in their ignorance of the past. Along with the bohemian authors of the 1920s and afterwards, they have gone native, in flight from everything that the first wave feminists advocated. Can we sink any lower? (For more on the first wave feminists of the 19th Century, see http://clarespark.com/2013/06/02/hair-and-make-up-megyn-kelly-smackdown/.)

Picasso 1918, seated Pierrot with mask

January 7, 2012

Feminism and its publicists

Naomi Wolf, 2008

{See a related blog http://clarespark.com/2012/03/03/sluts-and-pigs/, retitled Limbaugh v. Fluke.]

Naomi Wolf is purported to be the founder of “third wave feminism” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Naomi_Wolf. I have no idea what that means. I have tried to read The Beauty Myth (William Morrow, 1991), an international best seller. It is heavily derivative of Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique in that Wolf is clearly aiming her arrows at domesticity, a situation that makes many daughters of professional parents uncomfortable, for they have competed with men to enter the best private and public schools, then perhaps Ivy League or Seven Sister colleges, only to find themselves saddled with the same job that lower-class women perform as wives and mothers. Indeed, when I married in 1959 (after attending two Ivy League schools) and looked around at the wives of my  husband’s lawyer friends or the wives of other graduates of Harvard Law, I shook my head and wondered how these women would adjust to lives as consumers, thrown into the same pot as the women thought to have been left behind in the great race of life.

I knew very little about feminism until the late 1960s, when everyone was reading Kate Millett or Germaine Greer or Phyllis Chesler. I thought that young mothers who were fleeing their children were unnatural, and remember saying that to our friends. At that time, my three children were very young, and I felt that the duties of marriage and child-rearing were exhausting. I had not yet read Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, and have often thought that had I read her work, or even that of Doris Lessing in The Golden Notebook, that I would have been a stronger woman, more ambitious, and less docile in my marriage. But having chosen motherhood and marriage in my early 20s, I didn’t think it was a demeaning or unchallenging set of roles; quite the contrary. And now that I have become acquainted with attachment theory (as promoted by psychologists Bowlby, Mahler, and Winnicott), as well as discoveries regarding the crucial first five years in laying down brain connections that would affect intellectual performance throughout the life span, I am more committed than ever to the significance of parenting, with special attention to the full range of family relationships as they affect marriage and child development.

But the intellectual, emotional, and moral challenge of motherhood was not the focus of either second wave feminism or the Naomi Wolf variant (which seems to be no more than the ridiculous statement that the beauty myth is a backlash against the 1960s-70s feminist movement). I remember one famous artist’s wife handing out leaflets telling women that housework (and baby-tending?) was demeaning. While teaching part time at California Institute of the Arts, I recall the Feminist Art program run by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. One of their students came into my office, weeping, because a rule had been laid down that women artists could not represent phalluses or their symbolic representations; females did vaginas and focused on male cruelty, a sadism that was literally binding them to the home, a home that was a prison. Their creation Womanhouse was very clever and creative in expressing this theme, for instance the fried eggs that climbed up and down the walls of the kitchen (meant to represent breasts) and the bedroom that was devoted to makeup as imperative and mask. I myself did a slide show on “sex and violence in the art and photography of women artists and photographers,” and got large audiences for this demonstration of female rage, mockery of males, and the celebration of the female orgasm or other bodily functions (i.e., menstruation). (This was in the 1970s.)

To return to Naomi Wolf’s first book, a book that was as repetitious and as hard to read as Friedan’s earlier one, the feminists of the second wave did not respond to Betty Friedan as much as they responded to their treatment by New Left males, whose bohemianism and womanizing needs no elaboration here. Educated antiwar women had been consigned, as usual, to demeaning tasks, and to sexual promiscuity. (This was before the AIDS outbreak in the 1980s). Here was the source of second wave feminism, and women in the movement soon either subordinated their feminism to left-wing politics (especially anti-imperialism) in general, or took to writing about the oppression of women, attaining notoriety and fame in the process (for example Gloria Steinem).

The overriding theoretical construct was the term “patriarchy.” That implied, as both Wolf and Judy Chicago maintained in The Dinner Party, that all men victimized all women from time out of mind. With gender oppression the mighty variable, it was logical that separate Women’s Studies departments be established to accommodate growing female demands to be written back into history. Indeed, when I took Katherine Kish Sklar’s course on 19th century female reformers during my doctorate preparation at UCLA in the early 1980s, I was called on the carpet for separating working class women from upper-class women, and for objecting to an influential article Barbara Welter’s “The Cult of Domesticity.” [Background: we did learn in Sklar’s course that there was a big debate among feminists as to whether the status of women changed after men left the home to participate in industrial society. When women’s labor was visible to men, did they enjoy higher status? The point I am making is that some feminists are motivated by status politics and fame, and seem uninterested in the material condition of less privileged females, unless these are addressed within the protocols of the Democratic Party. I.e., these feminists were treating the woman question as a problem of caste, whereas a case can be made that it is a class problem, with women, as such, a subordinated class similar to that of chattel slavery in the earlier America. David Brion Davis made exactly that claim in a recent book of essays, Created in the Image of God. So a case can be made for Women's Studies, but even so, it would have to be integrated into a larger historical picture and set of determinations.]

Of course what these particular feminists overlooked was the perception by many men that women had too much power as it was (including sexual power), a widespread belief motivating many of the Symbolist poets and other authors I had read, some of whom were misogynists. See http://clarespark.com/2009/10/23/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets/. Also http://clarespark.com/2009/10/24/murdered-by-the-mob-moral-mothers-and-symbolist-poets-2/. In my view, the key was the clinging mother, who not only demanded that she be idealized, but set impossibly high moral standards on her sons, sometimes inflicting double binds on her children. (As described throughout my book on Herman Melville and the source of his prison imagery; e.g. the conflict between truth and order, or local loyalties with concern for the faraway. One was supposed to reconcile the irreconcilable without fuss or choosing sides.)

There are things taken up by Naomi Wolf that every woman knows: that too much time is taken up with make-up and the losing battle with aging; that successful men are relatively free to dump their aging wives for younger models; that many men are disgusted by women’s bodies and functions, that women’s magazines are retrograde, and so on. What she does not harp upon is the lingering fear that many women have of treading on male turf, for instance, the study of political, diplomatic and military history, of city planning, architecture, economics or of all the sciences. But that too is changing.

To conclude: nothing in this blog should be construed to mean that I am not a feminist. Far from it. Our society is largely hypersexualized and dumbed down. I am simply unqualified to make grand statements about women from antiquity to the present, or even women from the 1960s onward. That would require a lifetime of close study and more critical tools than I have at hand. For more see http://clarespark.com/2012/03/18/history-as-trauma-2-rosebud-version/. Also the first segment of this two-part series, see http://clarespark.com/2012/03/14/history-as-trauma/.

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