The Death of the American Feminist Movement by Lisa Shaffner, PhD, NCC, LPCMH

When I was a small child in the 70’s, my mother became a feminist. She would gather with her like-minded women friends for long meetings around our kitchen table. These women were fascinating to me; braless, unshaven legs, no makeup, long unprocessed or teased hair, un-manicured nails, loose fitting long dresses and skirts and most of all flat sensible shoes. These women were my foremothers planning to change the lives of all women through a fight for equality and fairness and a refusal to conform to the male dominated cultural norms of barefoot and pregnant, uneducated and homebound, economically enslaved to a husband, a man’s property, a servant to unrewarding domestic work, a sex object, and a breed mare for offspring. Halleluiah, deliverance was upon us.

And so, protests began, banners were waved, bras were burned and Gloria Steinem spoke. Strides were made. The birth control pill liberated women from pregnancy and allowed them to enjoy sex for the sheer pleasure of it. In 1972 the best seller “The Joy of Sex” replaced 1950’s marriage manuals touting wifely duty to give a man sex when he required. In 1973 the Supreme Court passed Roe vs. Wade and a woman had the right to abort an unwanted pregnancy. Thus began the era of women taking charge of their own bodies and claiming their sexual and reproductive powers.

There was an increase in women in the workplace and more importantly women in formerly male dominated professions.

Women began to embrace athletics, in 1972 Title 9 was passed by congress banning the exclusion of females from sports, and in 1973 Billy Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match.

More women sought higher education. According to the US census, ever since 1979 women have represented the majority of college students. Today, the average student body of any given American college or university is 60% female vs. 40% male.

By the late 1970’s the stigma attached to being an “unwed” mother diminished and homes for “wayward girls” closed their doors for lack of clients. “Living together” became accepted as an alternative to marriage and with their new economic power women could leave unfulfilling marriages and support themselves.

But, where is the movement now?

Ask any 20-something American woman about the feminist movement and you are most likely to get the response, “Huh?” Peruse the magazine stands and you will be bombarded by entire periodicals devoted to the body weight of current female celebrities, or how to firm your buttocks in 10 days, or how to improve your sexual skills to “make him want you,” or the latest trend in “must have” lip-gloss colors. Entire reality television shows are devoted to such things as the grueling audition process for Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, or 80-year-old Hugh Hephner’s three buxom blonde playboy bunny girlfriends posing for yet another centerfold. Or better yet, “The Bachelor” a reality show where seemingly intelligent and attractive women scratch each other’s eyes out as they compete for an eligible man then cut to a commercial break for the new “Girls Gone Wild” DVD’s of college girls flashing their breasts or performing faux lesbian acts for male titillation.

Paris Hilton has become an icon. She’s rich, she’s vain and she’s vapid, famous for nothing but being famous. And yet, she is highly emulated. She has the power to turn carrying a foo-foo dog in an oversized purse into a fashion accessory that had pet stores nationwide scrambling to keep the little creatures in stock.

Music videos have come under fire for their misogynistic and demeaning depiction of women and most especially black women. One hour of watching MTV can confirm this. I’m pretty sure every song now has a lyric about “shake your booty” or “smack that ass.” I’m not a prude by any stretch of the imagination, but even I am struck by how often all women are referred to as bitches and “ho’s” (a colloquialism for whores) in many popular songs by male vocalists. And the female vocalists are nearly naked, oiled down and writhing with sexual abandon. Great. Fine. Let’s all conjure the spirit of Sappho and delight in the feminine. While it is wonderful to see that women are allowed to express their natural sensuality and to embrace the freedom to wear provocative clothing and be sexually powerful it dances dangerously on the grave of something we sought to bury- the woman as a sex object. And as long as women seek to accentuate only their powers of beauty and seduction and nothing else then we have regressed.
And it segregates us. If we raise the bar on the beauty standard in our culture and tell women this is your only source of power and the not so pretties have to move to the side, then what happens to the sisterhood? King Phillip II, of Macedon (382-336 BC), has been attributed with coining the phrase “Divide and conquer.” Typical elements of this technique involve:

* creating or at least not preventing petty feuds among smaller players. Such feuds drain resources and prevent alliances.
* aiding and promoting those who are willing to cooperate.
* fostering distrust and enmity.
* encouraging expenditures on personal frivolities that leave little money for political manoeuvering and warfare.

Can we not see ourselves in this? As advertisers lie to us about what we need to buy in order to achieve our beauty and sexiness goals we spend billions on cosmetics, diet pills, exercise gadgets, and plastic surgery. And for what? What is the prize? Men? To have power over men? If we are doing all these things for men, to entice men, or provoke men, then don’t they have the power? And the toxic waste, of this power through sexuality quest, is the subtle ways it teaches women to compete with one another and the damage it does to our self-esteem. It damages our sense of self because only a scant few can meet the criteria. Women in western countries suffer from eating disorders more than any other culture. Our female celebrities from film, television, and music are constantly admitting their own battles with weight and the overwhelming pressure to meet the current cultural demand for beauty and youth. Women make up 90% of all cosmetic surgery patients. American women suffer from depression 3 to 1 over men starting at age 13. The theory for this disparity is the ever-present beauty standard for women in this culture.

It is the youngest among us who seem to suffer most. Adolescent American girls are withering under what Mary Pipher, author of Riving Ophelia: Saving the Lives of Adolescent Girls, refers to as a look obsessed, media saturated, “girl poisoning” culture. Clothing for pre-teen girls is becoming more and more provocative. Younger and younger girls are developing eating disorders. According to a recent study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) girls younger than 15 consider oral sex to be a casual act rather than a sexual act and they engage in it frequently to meet the social demand for girls to be sexy while attempting to stave off full sexual intercourse. What twisted message are young girls getting that makes them drop to their knees to gratify boys in order to be liked and to be popular? As adult women are we doing much better?

If we are using sex as a weapon in the “battle of the sexes” then the joke is on us. It may have worked historically when a woman’s sexuality was her only resource and when the only way a man could secure constant sexual gratification was through marriage, a mistress, or patronizing prostitutes. In those times a woman could parlay her sexuality to acquire what she needed to survive. However, simple economic theory of supply and demand should tell us that the market is now glutted with sex and therefore it’s bargaining power has been greatly reduced. We threw down that weapon in our quest to free ourselves from sexual repression. We wanted to be more than just than the value of our virginity or our abilities as a seductress. We sought to emancipate ourselves from the only two roles previously available to us; whore vs. Madonna. And thankfully we have succeeded to some degree, but only to some degree.

The concept of “good girl” vs. “bad girl” still exists. Fathers still tell sons that there are two types of women; the type you marry and the type you use for sex. Being a “good girl” has shifted slightly from being a virgin to having only a scant few sexual experiences with partners from significant relationships. Among college age adults in America there is a commonly used term that refers to a woman leaving a man’s dorm room or fraternity house in the morning after a night of sex. It is called “The walk of shame.” Picture if you will the young women with her hair tangled, her make-up smeared, wearing night-club attire, carrying her high heels and her purse as she attempts to escape unnoticed, but rarely does. The concept that we have embraced open sexuality for women is an illusion. As long as words like slut and whore still define a sexually active woman while terms like stud and player define a sexually active man then we still have a double standard. We also have a double message, “Look sexy, provocative, seductive, intense, and erotic, but don’t actually engage in very much sexual activity” and so women still struggle with their attempts to garner love and attention while not crossing some ill-defined boundary and exposing themselves to shame. What is enough? What is too much? And where on earth is it getting us?
We are, no doubt, the abused wives of a patriarchal society; however we have begun to contribute to our own victimization. When we buy into the beauty and youth cult of this culture, we victimize ourselves. When we engage in social comparison and find ourselves coveting another woman’s firmer thighs or plumper lips, we victimize ourselves. When we wallow in self-loathing because we aren’t thin enough, or pretty enough, or sexy enough, we victimize ourselves. When we compete for mediocre men and inflate their value while we deflate our own, we victimize ourselves.

We starve.

We are the ones who feel empty and still oppressed despite the efforts of those who went before us. Perhaps we grow weary of bumping our heads on the “glass ceiling” in our endeavors to advance our careers in corporate America. While tоp business schools are churning out an increаsing numbеr оf female M.B.A.’s, only about 16 percent оf corporate оfficers at Fortune 500 companies are women, according tо Catalyst, an organization thаt studies women in thе workplace. Thе numbеrs are even sparer at thе tоp оf thе pyramid: women fill only nine, or less than 2 percent, оf thе chief eхecutive jobs at Fortune 500 companies. Today a woman still earns seventy-three cents for every one dollar earned by a man for the same job. Perhaps, the cold realization that poverty is still a primarily feminine plight, across the globe, diminishes our sense of economic power. And, with our ability to walk away from unsatisfactory marriages we have come to realize that it all too easy for unsatisfied husbands to withhold child support while a patriarchal system still regards this as a trivial offense.

If in fact there has been a war between the sexes then it is now a cold war and there is much distance and mistrust between us. Men and women don’t know each other very well. We have come to rely on self-help books that read like Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. To attempt the precarious act of dating one now needs to have strategy and guile. This way of thinking has trickled down into the language of dating. References to mingling with the opposite sex are often referred to as one’s “game.” The only winners of this game are those who market the strategies.

Evolutionary psychologists tell us that through natural selection men have come to value the trait of freedom and women have come to value the trait of connectedness. Since women are the bigger consumer of self-help the bookshelves are heavy laden with tomes selling the intricate techniques of how to connect with a man while he relishes in his freedom. We chase, he runs…or so they tell us. Again, we buy another lie, as we become the only mammal among our species where the female competes for the male. And back to the market we go to purchase more regalia for our pursuit.

If in fact it is true that women value connection, and we have become superior in our abilities to share intimacy over the millenniums, why then are we not sharing it amongst each other? We are the caregivers, the lovers, and the daughters of Athena so where is our love for ourselves? Let us first make peace within our own tormented gender. Let us abandon social comparison and competition with our sisters and escape the cycle of envy and self-loathing that this produces. May we find more beauty in ourselves that is deeper than our skin and more intriguing than our sexuality. May we stop binging and purging on the soul deadening products of mass media. Let us embrace our own sprit and the spirits of all women and heal. All the love we seek in the hearts of our sisters. Hollywood doesn’t love us, the advertising industry doesn’t love us, the cosmetic industry doesn’t love us, the diet and fitness industry doesn’t love us, and more importantly we don’t love ourselves. And men? Let’s stop chasing them and begging them to love us. Let’s give up lap dancing for their attention. If we loved and valued ourselves more then perhaps men would follow suit. If we have in fact become “hos” then we have pimped ourselves out for the bargain price of some external validation.

It is not sufficient for American women to say that we have more rights than many women in other countries; injustice is not acceptable in any quantity. And since Americans are ethnocentric and pride ourselves in our democracy and equal rights then perhaps we carry an even greater burden to live up to it. And if we should manage to emancipate ourselves then perhaps we might be able to assist other women worldwide. Until all women have a better standing in the world we all do the walk of shame.
“Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world,
indeed that is the only way the world has ever been changed”
Margaret Mead, Anthropologist