The other night I was playing around on Amazon (a favorite and time-consuming pastime) and was reading reviews for the book Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy. Originally published in 1987 the setting for the book is World War II in the 1940s.
A review written by Amazon customer Jennifer L. Young in 2005 made me want to scream and cry. Not just because of what she specifically wrote, but because what she wrote so accurately reflects the current attitude about feminism. I’ll admit that I often don’t expect better of men, but it wounds something deep within my soul when I see such sentiments expressed by women.
In her review Ms. Young lambasted Piercy’s “feminist dogma” contained in the book. Here’s an excerpt of the review:
“A case in point: one of Piercy’s women, a writer of popular ladies’ fiction, obtains a post with the OSS in Washington. She finds that the men in her department barely listen to her ideas, and that she has little influence on policy. This, she immediately assumes, is the result of Washington’s “patriarchal” climate and of sexual discrimination. Oh. It never seems to enter her mind that, perhaps, the men don’t listen to her because she doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say, that she is underqualified, that her past experience hasn’t prepared her to make a serious contribution, that she is in over her head. No, because she’s a woman, she must, BY DEFINITION, automatically be a victim of oppression because of her sex, regardless of the objective measure of her talents and skills.”
Now, I have to admit that I haven’t yet read Gone to Soldiers, so I can’t refute the above statements with any detail or facts taken from the book. I suppose it’s possible that she actually has a valid point. It’s just that, based on the nature of her review, I seriously doubt it. I also doubt it because the above sort of statement is frequently made in other contexts having nothing to do with this specific book.
But my real point is: Women were working in a patriarchal environment and the victims of sex discrimination back then. Piercy being a feminist has nothing to do that with being established fact.
And more than that, you don’t have to go back to the 1940s to experience women’s voices being routinely dismissed in the workplace. It happens in college classrooms, offices, and on jobsites all over the country today. Not in all jobs and not by all men certainly. But I’ve experienced more than my share. Haven’t you?
This is why her anti-feminist rant wounded me so. Her comments are not at all unusual these days. There’s a very real prevailing sentiment these days that feminism is antiquated and no longer necessary, if it ever was.* People disdainfully dismiss feminists as whack jobs with a radical agenda. They’re considered a negative, and even dangerous, blight.
Well yes, feminists are dangerous in the sense that they still threaten the status-quo. Society as a whole is apparently quite satisfied with the status quo and doesn’t want to hear anything from man-hating, pushy broads who attempt to point out that we still have a long way to go. The fact that this attitude about feminists is expressed by women as often as men flabbergasts and horrifies me.
I can sort of understand women being resistant to feminism in the first half of the last century. Change is scary and while women were usually quite aware of their lack of power and freedom of self-determination there was some comfort to be had in at least knowing what was expected of them. It’s human nature to cling to the known even when the unknown holds the possibility for a better life.
But I don’t understand it now. The second wave of feminism produced a lot of results. I went from being a young child in the 1960s discussing with friends whether we would grow up to be a nurse or teacher and if it was appropriate to work when married, to labeling myself as a feminist in the 1970s as a teenager. I adamantly resisted the idea that women should be limited in any way men are not limited, and insisted that equality was not only in the best interests of women, but men as well.
In many obvious ways women have made great strides. All you have to do is look around and see women in powerful careers that were once completely closed to them. All you have to do is study the changes in laws regarding marriage, divorce, and property.
And things haven’t only changed for the better for women. It’s not at all unusual to see men working today as nurses and receptionists, jobs once only considered to be “women’s work.” Men having more freedom in choosing the type of work they want to do is a gift from feminists.
But what bothers me at the deepest levels is the blinders society has adopted in regards to the pervasive sexism still rampant in our culture. Especially when women are wearing the blinders. I can better understand when men don’t see it because most of it is not directed at them, or at least, not so perniciously.
It’s been more than thirty years since I was a budding feminist who vowed to eliminate sexist language from my vocabulary. I assumed at that time that everyone else would be following along shortly behind me. But here we are in the second decade of a new century and it’s mind boggling at times the lack of progress that has been made. And the real kicker is not that sexist language still widely exists, it’s that almost no one considers it to be a problem!
Young women today see the blatant, obvious changes in the status of women and have joined the bitter, and sometimes violent, backlash against feminism. They, along with their male counterparts, have stopped looking and refuse to see the underlying causes of the old restrictions. And if one of those crazy feminists points out that there still exists a glass ceiling, or that women still have not achieved parity in pay, they always point to some reason to explain it other than entrenched sexism.
The second part of what prompted this blog post, other than the above quoted review, was some reading I did earlier this evening about Edna St. Vincent Millay. I’m not really into poetry, but her name was referenced more than once recently in things I was reading so when a book of her poetry came up as a recommendation for me on Amazon I downloaded the free copy to my Kindle. I read a couple of the poems and then looked her up online to read more about her life and work.
I started with the obvious, Wikipedia, then looked at other sites which came up in my search. I was appalled by a short biography written by Robert L. Gale with a copyright date of 2000. I’m going to quote from both Wikipedia and the Gale biography to try and illustrate the source of my horror.
The first thing that captured my attention in the Gale biography was this statement about Millay’s time as a student at Vassar:
“Although she frequently rebelled against rules designed to protect female students, Millay graduated with an A.B. in 1917.”
Say what?! Sure, the claim by institutions back then was that the extremely oppressive rules women had to abide by (and men didn’t) were “designed to protect female students”, but give me a break! Why would anyone writing an article in modern times use those specific words to describe them? But, I thought, I’m just being too sensitive and it doesn’t mean anything, it was just a poor choice of wording.
Except that, it got worse. Contrast these two excerpts, the first from Wikipedia and the second from the biography written by Robert L. Gale:
“In 1923 she married 43 year old Eugen Jan Boissevain (1880–1949) …. A self-proclaimed feminist, Boissevain supported her career and took primary care of domestic responsibilities. Both Millay and Boissevain had other lovers throughout their twenty-six-year marriage.” – Wikipedia
“Given her psychological makeup, Millay had found the ideal husband in Boissevain. He attended to all the household chores, traveled widely with his “Vincent”–often to Florida, the Riviera, and Spain–and cooperated with her intellectual and linguistic interests. He catered to her whims and even condoned her having an occasional lover.” – Gale
The same basic biographical information is contained in both those excerpts. But look at the wording used to convey the information. The Wikipedia is factual. The Gale biography uses emotionally laced phrases like “psychological makeup” and “catered to her whims”. The words reveal bias on the part of the writer and serve to slant opinion formed by the reader. In the last sentence, “condoned” is also revealing, especially since he left out the very pertinent fact that they both agreed to an open marriage and Boissevain also had other lovers.
Then we get to the section covering Millay’s death:
“Boissevain died in 1949 of lung cancer, and Millay lived alone for the last year of her life. Millay died at her home on October 19, 1950. She had fallen down stairs and was found approximately eight hours after her death. Her physician reported that she had had a heart attack following a coronary occlusion.” – Wikipedia
“In 1944 Millay suffered a nervous breakdown and was unable to write for two years. During this time and later, her husband catered to her so selflessly that he depleted his own reserves of strength and died in 1949 of lung cancer followed by surgery and a stroke. Millay, who with her husband had drunk to excess since the 1930s, evidently grew more dependent on alcohol during her brief, inconsolable widowhood. She died sitting at the foot of her staircase, alone, at Steepletop.” – Gale
Leaving aside the “catered to her so selflessly that he depleted his own reserves” part, look at Gale’s last sentence. I’m not even going to comment, it speaks for itself. It’s also telling that Gale left out any mention in his biography of the fact that Millay was openly bisexual.
This is a graphic demonstration of why feminism is just as relevant today as it was in the 1920s or 1970s. Sexism is still pervasive within our culture. It’s just not quite as obvious as it once was because women are no longer legally the chattel of their fathers or husbands and are able to pursue the same careers men do. But all you have to do is remove the backlash-imposed blinders and earmuffs and read what is still being written and listen to what is actually being said to see that this is so.
* It’s worth noting that I was heartened by a comment left by another customer under Young’s review. William Brennan wrote: “Boy, what a slimy little Phyllis Schlafly-type of review this is.”