If there is one thing I have learned in my 45 years, it is that I do not understand women very well. So I came to Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once openly, objectively, and with interest in understanding more about a concept (feminism) with which I am barely familiar. I really enjoyed this book even though I realized how much I take for granted. I grew up around strong, independent women, and was taught, mentored, and supervised by them too. In college and law school, women were well-represented, and I have worked with and for women my entire professional career. I even live in one of the few states that offers paid family leave. I never sat in a Women’s Studies class or considered my role in the patriarchy, so I took for granted much of what Zeisler writes about.
Her thesis is that feminism, a concept that centers around actual equality – in wages, treatment, respect, and representation in business, politics, and culture – has largely been appropriated by consumerism. That flashing shiny objects of female empowerment through the lens of marketing, advertising, and celebrity worship has distracted women (and men, but more on us later) from the harder, less sexy work of securing reproductive rights, health care, equal pay and much more. When the battles being waged in popular culture focus on pubic hair, panty lines, and periods the battle has already been lost.
To those who study or came to this book with foreknowledge, I suppose much of what is contained between its covers is axiomatic. Marketing campaigns by brands like Dove and Cover Girl encourage women to love themselves for who they are while selling them products to hide, mask, or minimize the physical imperfections society tells them to. Listicles on the Internet whittle down “feminism” into lowest common denominator chunks while legislatures across the country restrict access to abortion or refuse to close yawning pay gaps. Celebrities are recruited into campaigns that encourage women to know their value, but the conferences and events held to promote this message are typically warmed over networking opportunities whose cost prices out the very people they want to help. And of course, the ever present existence of social media bombards women with ideas about who and what they should be – invariably, an ideal that all but the most accomplished and self-assured fall short of.
It is a damning (and depressing) indictment. While it is not unique for movements to be appropriated for commercial gains (surely, sales of flannel shirts spiked in the early 1990s and the hippie movement in Haight-Ashbury was quickly co-opted to sell Volkswagens), Zeisler’s frustration comes through loud and clear because the stakes are so high. It is not just societal norms that feminism struggles against, it is the backlash from other women that invariably crops up as each wave of feminism crests against that stubborn wall of cultural resistance. In this way, feminism gets muddied up in battles between stay-at-home and working mothers, the back-and-forth on Facebook that defends or attacks choices women make where the most heated debate is among women themselves, and right-wing voices that long for a simpler time when women knew their role (servile, subservient, and silent).
Of course, this does not even take into account the insult to injury suffered by women outside traditional cultural messaging. To be a Latina, African-American, queer, or bisexual woman, is to often suffer a double dose of marginalization. Whether it is being erased out of what society defines as normative or having your race or sexual orientation be treated as a point of derision or hatred, the challenges are even greater for these women.
The one group missing from much of this discussion is men. While we make a few cameo appearances in predictable places like how pornography has warped the male view of intimacy and the disgraceful treatment of Anita Hill, to dismiss the ability of men to be partners and champions for feminism seems like a lost opportunity, particularly if you are interested, as Zeisler appears to be, in making meaningful public policy changes.
Zeisler is remarkably well-read and her book is heavy with references to books, essays, and writers who have shaped feminism for nearly fifty years. She comes to her subject with honesty and a conversational writing style that easily moves the reader along. I would suggest Zeisler have a chat with her fact checker though, because there were two whoppers I noticed (political in nature, naturally). The first identified Bob Dole and not George H.W. Bush as Bill Clinton’s opponent in the 1992 Presidential race (p. 173) and the other lopped off a term of office for Barbara Boxer, who won a fourth term to the U.S. Senate in 2010, not a third (p. 213).
To be sure, it will be interesting to see how Zeisler’s critique holds up. At the same time popular culture is pressing forward with the type of marketed feminism she disdains (the female-led reboot of the iconic Ghostbusters franchise, the ascendency of female characters on Game of Thrones) we also stand on the brink of electing our first female President. Time will tell whether having a President Hillary Clinton will result in some of the changes Zeisler desires, but it is surely more consequential than whether Danaerys takes over the Seven Kingdoms.
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