The authors insist that the sexual revolution must have been error[,] for so many women are still imperfectly happy; witness how they suffer from ‘conflicts,’ from ‘problems.’
-Kate Millet, 1970
On October 12, feminist author and activist Kate Millett will be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY. The town, which hosted the 1848 convention marking the start of the American movement for women’s rights, is the home of the feminist First Wave—from our vantage, a building block to the Second Wave of the 1960s and ’70s. In retrospect, both movements seem historical inevitabilities: Women, being people, were bound to claim their due.
Gaining strength by the turn of the twentieth century, coming to a head at the time of women’s suffrage, and powering at full force from the 1930s to the 1960s, was another movement that now appears inevitable: the backlash to the first sexual revolution. Kate Millett’s work Sexual Politics, published in 1970, is in part a documentation of this counterrevolution, analyzing its impetus and carefully exposing its devices. The efforts of the First Wave had removed substantial legal boundaries to women’s equality—the vote had been won; women no longer underwent “civil death” upon marriage, a process in which women came to hold the same rights as legally determined “lunatics or idiots.” But, as Millett observed, a more “subtle,” still noxious, and perhaps more “stable” force of male supremacy had arisen, seeking to re-establish and preserve the old order.
“So deeply embedded is patriarchy,” Millett wrote, “that the character structure it creates in both sexes is perhaps even more a habit of mind and a way of life than a political system.” Thus she saw the First Wave’s failure to sufficiently challenge social-sexual identity as a main cause of its dissipation. With sexual “temperament” and “role” still in tact, “more insidious ‘soft line’” approaches—the “glorification of ‘femininity’” alongside chivalry, “the family, female submission, and above all, motherhood”—worked to reaffirm the woman’s place. As the rule of religion was waning, the “soft line” found robust support in literary culture and the claims of the new social sciences: psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Even when women were not explicitly deemed inferior, they were still declared “different”: no less damning a sentence of circumscription.
Millett wrote during the rising Second Wave, a time in which feminists and their allies—driven in part by the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, and spurred by the sexism of the New Left—built upon the legal successes of the First Wave, and, critically, sought to dismantle accepted psycho-sexual identities. To this end, Sexual Politics dissected the beliefs, the cultural language, that supported sexual hierarchy. The work—a societal diagnosis—is now over 40 years old, but it remains deeply relevant: Millett’s arguments cut through contemporary culture almost as surely as they did when written. In fact, it seems looking back to this old radicalism would help today’s feminists to move forward.
But ours is a social moment of looking back more vaguely. Though feminist theory has never for an instant been a dominant social paradigm, though it has never pulled the strings of power, it is frequently positioned as a significant force behind social woes. Pop criticism related to women over roughly the last year has become a closed-system combustion engine built upon this old maneuver—fueling response after response to a hazy feminist past and fictionalized feminist promises. Today’s complaint is not that feminism has failed to achieve equality—despite the mass of evidence that women are still treated as secondary people—but rather that reaching for equality may be hurting us. It is the efficacy of feminism—that is, the usefulness of the idea that women are equal—that is being assessed. And this efficacy is measured, according to the loudest voices, by the lives of the best-off American women. This has meant, most often, in relation to professions and children.
From Anne Marie Slaughter’s essay “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in the Atlantic, to Lisa Miller’s report “The Retro Wife” for New York, Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound: Why Women Are Embracing the New Domesticity, and Debora Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, among many others (with each article and book spawning multiple prominent responses), the seemingly endless “work-life balance,” “have it all,” how-should-a-woman-be conversation implicitly questions the value of feminism. Rooted in the assumption that women’s choices since the 1970s have been motivated by feminist ideals, these works ask, What are women to do now?
Many authors first find that feminism “promised” something that was not delivered. The evidence is that the women in question are not perfectly happy: in the repeated idiom, they do not “have it all,” a regurgitation that has led to a subgenre of essays bemoaning “have it all” works (see, for example, Molly Fischer at The Cut. Though “having it all” is used to denote slightly different things by different authors (for Slaughter it is leading two complete lives at once; for Miller’s subjects, contentment; for Spar, being the best at everything, with a confusing emphasis on beauty), and though it is nonsense language (there is no “all,” and no human may have it), at baseline, what it means is “having everything I want.”
Slaughter, in her Atlantic piece—a rabid internet success—writes that she and her generation “clung to the feminist credo”; she “built [her] career” on “feminist beliefs” and displayed “unswerving commitment to the feminist cause,” and still, no “all.” What was this feminism? She equates it with her dedication to rising in professional rank—certainly not an analog to a commitment to sexual equality, but no other definition of feminism is offered. Regardless, she expected the having of the all would await her at the top.
This nebulous “feminism” is all we will find in Spar’s Wonder Women as well, and the subjects of Miller and Matchar’s reports look back upon something similarly indistinct. But in Millett—a leader of the Second Wave—and Sexual Politics—a seminal feminist text—we can thankfully find something to hold on to. Millett is a fair representative of the feminist voice loosely referenced today. In reading her work, we find that the changes she and her peers proposed did not fail women: they have not been achieved, and some have gone almost completely untried.
Though Slaughter and Spar have climbed career ladders (while the women of Matchar and Miller’s reports have stayed home), the choices they describe are not those recommended by the Second Wave. To be clear, their choices were recommended against. In Sexual Politics, Millett wrote: “Patriarchy’s chief institution is the family.” Meanwhile, Slaughter positions herself as family-woman, mom-above-all; Spar considers the roles of wife and mother integral to her identity. Millett wrote of the state of the family in 1970, “Women who are employed have two jobs since the burden of domestic service and child care is unrelieved either by day care or other social agencies, or by the co-operation of husbands.” This is the double-shift ever discussed today. So what, exactly, did “feminism” get wrong?
In “The Retro Wife,” Lisa Miller writes, “Feminism has never fully relieved women from feeling that the domestic domain is theirs to manage, no matter what else they’re juggling.” But feminism was not something that would “relieve” by faith. It was a choice: women would decide that the domestic sphere was not theirs. Many authors stumble here, seeming to confuse Women’s Liberation with a tonic floating on the air—one that would reach individuals regardless of their own decisions.
Spar—whose book is somewhat wild in scope—links the expectation of “having it all” with her own former refusal to accept feminism and a misunderstanding—on a cultural level—of its tenets. “My generation,” she writes, “made a mistake. We took the struggles of feminism and interpreted them somehow as a pathway to personal perfection.” It’s a keen observation. And yet, she too—who previously saw no “common cause” for women, who found feminists “shrill”—says that feminism “promised” goods it did not deliver. For feminism to fail you, it seems you need not be feminist at all.
Nonetheless, Spar calls for women to take up the collective social goals of the Women’s Movement once again, with one critical caveat: We must “acknowledge” that women are “naturally” different from men. Here she strikes a chord—judging from the last year of writing on the subject—with, apparently, everyone.
“Biology is, if not quite destiny, nevertheless one of those details in life that cannot be overlooked,” Spar writes, invoking Freud’s warlock-like curse on women directly. “Only women can bear children. In the state of nature, only women can feed those children through the most critical months of their lives... From these two unavoidable facts—wombs and breasts—come a vast series of perhaps unfortunate events. Rather than demanding that women be treated always as equivalent to men, I assume that women are actually quite different from men and explore the ways—from body image to Barbie dolls, baby-making and sex—in which these differences manifest themselves.” Thus in one swoop, “nature” is equated with “Barbie dolls,” the toys that serve as our culture’s most ubiquitous agreed-upon shorthand for feminine socialization. Spar will continue to leap from the observed to the “natural” throughout her book (“Women carry chromosomes for wombs and breasts and guilt”), and she urges women to recognize the limits drawn by their physiology: “Women need to be realistic about their strengths and weaknesses, about what they bring to the table and what they don’t.” Spar goes as far as to suggest that women be evaluated at work as women, and men as men. (What could possibly go wrong?)
Slaughter present a similar line. She says that while discussing ideas for “Why Women Can’t Have It All” prior to writing, women commonly told her, “I wouldn’t generalize from your experience.” This seems sage. But she was undeterred: for mothers, when pushed to prioritize, she says “There’s really no choice” between family and the outside world. These are the words of Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who confirmed Slaughter’s feeling “exactly”: “She wasn’t referring to social expectations, but to a maternal imperative...”
Slaughter, like Spar, wants “a world in which, in [former EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson’s words, ‘to be a strong woman, you don’t have to give up on the things that define you as a woman.’ ‘Rejecting motherhood, or eliminating the nurturing or feminine aspects of who you are.’” Men are not exempt from the character bounds being drawn: “If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal.” That the phrase “male choices” means nothing beyond “choices made by men” is apparently unimportant.
How “acknowledging” “natural” differences will help the position of women is unclear: it is a fact of the world that gender distinctions are loudly established. And today’s adherents to the idea of essential female difference seem unconcerned that “natural,” “biological,” and “evolutionary,” sexual distinctions were potent weapons in the hands of the ruling class during the backlash to the First Wave. Neither do they seem uneasy that it was only in the 1980s, during the backlash to the Second, that ideas of “positive” difference—such as those put forth by Carol Gilligan in A Different Voice—were easily turned by sexual conservatives to justify the pre-Women’s Lib status quo.
But, even if “positive” difference was broadly accepted and “different but equal” was logically coherent, “feminine” identity would remain toxic. Millett illustrated this clearly in her discussion of Freud: descriptive sexual character easily becomes prescriptive, and at high velocity. I would argue that it does so necessarily: we cannot tell women what they are without simultaneously telling them what they should be.
Under Freud’s theory, Millett reminds, “a woman who resists ‘femininity,’ e.g., feminine temperament, status, and role, is thought to court neurosis, for femininity is her fate as ‘anatomy is destiny.’” Today this idea is translated to suit current preoccupations: Women who resist the destiny of their anatomy, and their true temperament, will be less happy; they will be less fulfilled. (Kindly, these male researchers show us where we might “reap rewards.”)
Women who attempt to maintain femininity and partake in the world outside the home as much as men will be unbearably tired, uncommonly stressed. A coded specter looming in “work-life balance” writing is that “over-worked” women will be less appealing to men: Consider a woman “exhausted” and “ragged,” or “rested” and “calm” without picturing her face. Likewise, the “snapping” and “impatience” brought on by the stress of the outside world imply a precious recipient. Perhaps, when living as equals, women are not so fresh-faced, so endlessly accommodating. Perhaps, indeed.
Throughout these works on how to improve women’s lives, the socialization of gender is hardly considered. Millett wrote, “Because of our social circumstances, male and female are really two cultures and their life experiences are utterly different... this crucial.” This is still true. “Whatever the ‘real’ differences between the sexes may be,” said Millett, “we are not likely to know them until the sexes are treated differently, that is alike.”
In the meantime, the current trend in pop criticism allows for “natural difference” providing sexism with a “natural” cause. Both Slaughter and Spar acknowledge the privilege of their positions, specifically their wealth. (Spar, strangely, says she wishes she could examine the lives of women “who every day face struggles that dwarf [her] own,” but, she writes, she doesn’t “have the means.” I believe the irony is unintentional.) Such acknowledgements are fine and well, but the authors’ arguments must still be judged by their greater implications. Inherent female difference is far less limiting, and far more physically comfortable, for these writers than for most women in the world, including in the United States. Spar and Slaughter fail to understand that any gendered disadvantages or abuses they experience, and the structural violence they do not—that reserved for poor women, minority women, for women of the third world—are equally rationalized by female “nature.”
Millett wrote: “To actually change the quality of life is to transform personality, and this cannot be done without freeing humanity from the tyranny of sexual-social category and conformity to sexual stereotype...” This is no small task. Deeply embedded identity—what Millett calls “the psychic structure of several millennia of patriarchal society” cannot be undone in less than two generations. She tells us, “Changes as drastic and fundamental as those of a sexual revolution are not easily arrived at. Nor should it be surprising that such change might take place by stages that are capable of interruption and temporary regression.”
But we cannot expect that feminist ends will arrive without truly feminist means. That is: today’s authors present discontentment and move backward from there to test the value of equality. But feminism traditionally moved in—and necessarily moves in—exactly the opposite logical direction: it begins with the idea that women are equal to men, and it imagines a society that fully reflects this truth.
My generation was raised with greater gender fluidity and sexual parity than Spar and Slaughter’s, and those younger than me, still more so. How we will fare, ultimately, in marriage, parenting, and professions remains to be seen. But if marriage or two-person parenting cannot sustain sexual equality, then it is marriage and two-person parenting that fail. Not feminism.
Sexual Politics, was, crucially, about the power of what is written and said—about the strength of language that is accepted, language that is repeated. With that in mind: That women are equal to men is a fact as well as a conviction. Feminists are people who believe it cannot be refuted, not merely people who want women to be happy.