During a long thread on my Facebook page that started by my remark that I found it incomprehensible how feminists could simultaneously fight the Catholic Church on matters having to do with reproductive rights, and also to stick with the Democratic Party position on illegal Latino immigration that, if perpetuated, would drastically enhance the voting power of the Catholic Church, an institution that entwines sexuality with procreation, preaches abstinence until marriage, and forbids abortion, contraception, and abortifacients. As the thread lengthened, it evolved into a debate over the respective policies of Democrats and Republicans, with feminism firmly attached to the Democratic Party. I then promised a blog on how it was that I call myself a feminist.
First, consider the world in which I grew up. When the famed David Riesman wrote to a prominent teacher of American literature, Richard Chase, the mutual loyalty to traditional sex roles was apparent. (This excerpt is from my Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival.) I was sixteen years old, and still in high school. Had I read this private letter then, I would not have noticed that “the artist” was a male, nor would I have suspected that young women at Smith College were aggressively contesting Riesman’s segregating “bluestocking” “girl(s)” to weekday “blue-jeans informality.”
[University of Chicago Committee on Human Development sociologist David Riesman to Chase, 15 Apr. 1953:] What remarkable observations are contained in your letter of April 1! I wish you could write something about these experiences you have had with students. Your point that art is “insincere” seems to me a correct interpretation. The artist is not “being himself” so that the standard question “who does he think he is” is particularly applicable. I spoke recently at Smith College and got into a lengthy discussion in which I was defending the non-coeducational colleges. The students attacked me very, very fiercely on the ground that segregation is insincere and artificial and they would not listen to the possible advantages when, for instance, I suggested that it was pleasant to vary one’s pace, to live in an exciting intellectual and blue stocking culture five days a week and a boy-girl culture on the week-ends. They felt it was just this dichotomy which was insincere. They were in search of a blue-jeans informality seven days a week. [End, Riesman letter to Chase, first published in my book. Chase died under mysterious circumstances, a possible suicide, at the pinnacle of his career.]
Although I was an outstanding student at Forest Hills High School at the time, it never occurred to me that I should develop myself in any direction that conflicted with marriage and a family. I was, in short, the very type of woman to whom Betty Friedan was writing in The Feminine Mystique. Nor did I find friends or role models at Cornell University who deviated from the type.
[A brief digression, though I don’t like to talk about my family: My mother didn’t like housework or cooking, and was absent from the home much of the time, either doing social work (investigating welfare recipients in Harlem or writing gossipy pieces for the local press in Queens, New York). I felt obliged to take her place, probably to curry favor with my father the doctor, whom I worshipped. Yet this same male hero warned me not to allow boys and romance to derail from my future as either a great artist or a great scientist of some kind. “Men are all fickle,” he warned, binding me to him ever closely, while my mother warned me that men preferred women as “cows” and who listened to them intently. When he left my mother at my age 19, I was literally hysterical with grief, and used my fellowship at Harvard to find a father-substitute, i.e., a husband. Those were great hunting grounds for a girl who could cook. And I was a good listener.]
As I have related here before (https://clarespark.com/2012/01/07/feminism-and-its-publicists/), I was appalled by the second wave of feminism. I was still married and had yet to antagonize my husband by following his suggestion that I follow up an invitation to produce and write radio documentaries on the art world for the local Pacifica radio station. I mention this, because he probably wanted both a traditional wife and my development as a creative person (I had been painting and practicing the piano assiduously during the marriage), little dreaming that public activity would turn my head and render me less submissive to his authority.
During that period (1969-71), I supposed that indeed, I could “have it all” as such feminists as Betty Friedan were claiming. She was mistaken. I was not of that generation of women whose husbands shared in child care and housework and who delighted in the extra-family accomplishments of their wives. Very few such men existed, and if they were so enlightened, were already “taken.”
My husband declared, three years into my life as a radio producer and personality, that he was leaving me for another woman. Thus, this man, a Harvard Law School graduate and good liberal, emancipated me for a second time. And yet, to this day, I would have sacrificed my life in the wide, wide world, for my children (ages 10, 8, and 3 in 1971), had such a gesture saved their lives from the indelible trauma of a broken family.
So, I have great sympathy for those “traditional” women who are suspicious of “secular” feminists, and who put their children’s welfare above their own “fulfillment” as professionals or artists. I also understand those working class women who must work outside the home to support their children or to supplement the family income. I also sympathize with “conservative” women who are alarmed by the hyper-sexualization of popular culture, and the general dumbing down, acting out, and licentiousness that afflicts our period.
I am not sympathetic to those women who, in a stunning but predictable role-reversal, use the feminist revolution to dominate and guilt-trip their mates, using the generally subordinate position of women (still!) as if their significant others had single-handedly opposed the Enlightenment and those revolutions and advances in medicine that suddenly or incrementally adjusted the status and aspirations of women. The Battle of the Sexes rages on, and I feel empathy for both sides in a struggle that will probably never end, for the genders are put together differently.
Feminism is about female solidarity, equality of opportunity and real choices for young persons of both genders. The women artists and designers whose careers I had helped promote on the radio in the 1970s have allied themselves, with few exceptions, to the “anti-imperialist” Left from which they had originally emanated. Talented as they are and were, as cultural relativists they betray all the social revolutions that endowed them with public voices.