Women are being ripped off, but not by feminism

Don’t blame the movement, blame the system.

SIAN Prior (on this page last month) gave us an insight into the stresses successful young women experience in attempting to fit motherhood into their high-powered lives. Prior protested against repeated attempts by Cathy Sherry on this page to blame feminism and feminists, rather than Australian workplace attitudes and practices, for women’s inability to ``have it all’’ before their biological clocks strike midnight.

Sherry is not alone in her desire to sheet home responsibility to ``feminism’’ for women’s distress about the work/relationship/motherhood conflict. American feminists Sylvia Hewlett and Rene Denfield are just two of the women who contend that feminism has failed to set priorities for the needs of the vast majority of its constituency: educated middle-class women who assume they’ll work and plan to mother. The critics contend that feminism taught young women they’d have it all, but then got derailed into male-hating, goddess worship and anti-porn crusades. These distractions have led to young women’s disaffection from the movement, and the movement’s failure to procure the social policies necessary for women to pursue their feminist-inspired dreams.

While Beatrice Faust contends that such problems, and the related disaffection of young women, are exclusive to the United States, young Australian women beg to differ. Deakin University’s Fiona Stewart found gen-X women exhausted by the clash between their expectations for their lives, and antagonistic social forces. They speak of glass ceilings and a pervasive sense of feeling ``ripped off’’ by a feminism that falsely suggested the world was their oyster. Such feelings contrast sharply with the high approval ratings that baby boomers give the women’s movement. These women express gratitude to feminism for having increased their self-regard, their independence and their opportunities for work and education.

Who is right? Is it ridiculous, as some movement defenders claim, to blame a protest movement like feminism for the conditions it seeks to change? To claim that women’s resentment of, or lack of interest in, the feminist movement is simply the result (to quote Denfield) of tuning in to ``Channel Backlash‘’? Or is the feminist claim that it should be exempt from such criticism because of its outsider status disingenuous? Is it unjustified, as media commentator Catharine Lumby suggests, for feminists to claim they are outside ``the power loop’’, given the inroads the movement has made into government institutions, public policy and popular debate?

Certainly it is misguided for the old order to reply to younger women’s feelings of being ripped off by feminism with backlash-type arguments. Feelings are feelings, resistant by nature to logical counters. If younger women feel angry or indifferent about feminism’s past promises or current direction, then that is a problem for the long-term viability of the movement. Consequently, those feelings must be taken seriously and addressed, pronto.

While taking younger women’s views seriously does not mean treating everything we say as gospel, it does mean an end to explaining away our concerns by using ideas such as ``false consciousness‘’ and ``patriarchal brainwashing’’. Such explanations imply we lack maturity, media savvy and moral agency, and thoroughly piss us off. In fact, objections to the old order’s assumptions about women’s lack of moral agency – not its social, rather than individualistic, explanations of female oppression – are behind the derogatory tagging of the old order as ``victim’’ feminists.

When younger women say that the most important goal of the feminist movement is to help women balance work and family, the old order must listen. But who’s to say it isn’t or hasn’t?

However much political, personal and media power and influence the feminist movement has, few believe we live in a feminist world: a world designed around and catering to women’s needs and priorities. In addition to undermining the basic work protections upon which women rely, the Howard Government has had little time for the grass-roots feminist movement or institutional feminist power bases, many of which have been dismantled since the Liberals came to power. This means that even if resolving the work/motherhood conflict had been the number one priority of the old order, working mothers are unlikely to have been much better off than they are today.

While there are legitimate points of difference between older and younger feminists, it is the Government and the workplace that have really betrayed working mothers and those aspiring to motherhood. And while new-order feminists may be right to grouse about the priority grass-roots feminist organisations and femocrats have given to the work/family conflict, perhaps younger women have also let down the women’s movement. Grass-roots feminist organisations struggle to recruit younger members, perhaps because of their failure to set priorities for issues that concern younger women, but also because many are busy with their families, or too busy ``doing it themselves’’.

It is more than understandable that younger women are angry. We want the struggle for our rights, and the things we need to access them, to be over. And we thought it was. But we must ensure that we direct our anger appropriately. Directing it to reshape grass-roots and institutional feminist priorities to suit our goals is appropriate, but pretending that feminist social analysis, or a movement for and about women is no longer relevant to younger women’s realities, is not.

We are right to feel ripped off, but mistaken to continue that long female tradition of turning our anger in on ourselves. We’ve got much bigger fish to fry.