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Why they talk that way

Here are some quotations from well-known feminists that would be startling if we weren’t so used to the same sort of thing:

  • Katha Pollitt:

    It is important to remember just how barbarous and cruel the Taliban were. Yet it is also important not to use their example to obscure or deny the common thread of misogyny that connects them with Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition…

    In Bangladesh, Muslim fanatics throw acid in the faces of unveiled women; in Nigeria, newly established shariah courts condemn women to death by stoning for having sex outside of wedlock… In the United States, Protestant evangelicals and fundamentalists have forged a powerful right-wing political movement focused on banning abortion, stigmatizing homosexuality and limiting young people’s access to accurate information about sex.

  • Eve Ensler:

    We all have different forms of enforced burqas. Every culture has it. Whether it’s an idea or a fascist tyranny of what women are supposed to look like—so that women go to the extremes of liposuction, anorexia and bulimia to achieve it—or whether it’s being covered in a burqa, we all have deep, profound, ongoing daily forms of oppression.

    I think that the oppression of women is universal. I think we are bonded in every single place of the world. I think the conditions are exactly the same [her emphasis]. I think the nature of the oppression—whether it’s acid burning in one country, or female genital mutilation in another, or gang rapes in the parking lots in high schools of the suburbs—it’s the same idea… The systematic global oppression of women is completely across the globe.

    I went from Beverly Hills where women were getting vaginal laser rejuvenation surgery—paying four thousand dollars to get their labias trimmed to make them symmetrical because they didn’t like the imbalance. And I flew to Kenya where [women were working to stop] the practice of female genital mutilation. And I said to myself, “What is wrong with this picture?”

    [The last two quotations are from a lecture in 2003 she gave at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard University, then run by the woman recently chosen president of Harvard in part because of her bureaucratic feminist activism.]

Why do they say these things? I suppose one answer is that they’re leftists with unbreakable self-righteousness. Another is that public figures and activists say things they don’t really mean because public figures want to figure publicly and activists want to make a splash and have an effect. Still another is that women are specially inclined to speak expressively, and for feminist activists politics is definitely personal. As Christina Hoff Sommers notes in the article from which the quotations were taken,

NOW has just launched a 2007 “Love Your Body” calendar as part of its ongoing initiative of the same name. The body calendar warns of an increase in eating disorders and includes a photograph celebrating the shape of pears. There is also an image of the Statue of Liberty with the caption, “Give me your curves, your wrinkles, your natural beauty yearning to breathe free.” The calendar bears these inspiring words: “None of us is free until we are all free.”

To breathe free, college women are encouraged to organize “Love Your Body” evenings. NOW suggests they host “Indulgence” parties: “Invite friends over and encourage them to wear whatever makes them feel good—sweat suits, flip flops, pajamas—and serve delicious, decadent foods or silly snacks without the guilt. Urge everyone to come prepared to talk about their feelings and experiences.”

Still, they seem to mean what they say quite literally, and besides, saying “Oh, that’s just them!” doesn’t account for specifics. Pollitt, Ensler and others evidently find any sort of limitation related to women’s bodies or sexuality horrendously oppressive. For them the desire to protect unborn children, social attitudes and practices that give sex a meaning and function and promote restraint, and the obsessions of Hollywood women (supposedly forced on them) are all examples of the same sort of thing as throwing acid in Bangladesh. Even the real or imagined responses of others, for example to women’s beauty, are outrageously oppressive, since they tend to pressure women to do this or be that. Nothing short of absolute physical and expressive freedom, including freedom from negative responses, seems acceptable. The only permissible response to women’s bodies and their use of them, even when (as in the case of sex) that use is intended to have an effect on others or even leads to the creation of new life, is universal acceptance and approbation.

That of course is not the view of a sane grown-up. So why are these honored writers and respected organizations attracted by it? Why does anybody pay any attention to them? In part, it’s simply an expression of the modern tendency to make subjective likes and dislikes the standard for good and evil. The logical conclusion of that tendency is that my will should be law and it’s an outrage if anyone finds fault with it, so these women are perhaps showing themselves, at least in this case, as ruthlessly logical as any man. Still, there’s something specifically feminine about the situation. Women define themselves more than men by feelings and relations to others. That makes their bodies, and feelings and connections that have to do with their bodies, a sensitive point for them. Traditionally the problem has be dealt with by standards of modesty and restraint that told the world that women’s bodies were not up for grabs. Today, of course, such things have been done away with, and the natural result has been that women and their bodies have been put out in the marketplace and become commodities, sometimes in demand and sometimes not. Both situations have their drawbacks.

The need for protection therefore remains. Since the personal has decisively become political, and it is now thought that every solution to everything has to be absolutely clear and universal, the only option is to turn the whole world into the same kind of sanctuary for women’s feelings that the home might once have been, only without offering the world benefits like those women once offered the home. That doesn’t seem likely to work. Still, “not working” only leads to redoubled efforts along the same lines unless something decisively different seems available, and modernity means that nothing else is available. As long as the view prevails that pleasure, power and untrammeled choice are the supreme goods, women will be taught to want those things for themselves while demanding protection from them in the hands of others and treating any assertion of other goods as oppressive. Pollitt, Ensler and the functionaries at NOW will thus remain exemplary women.

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