June/July/Aug 2010

Liberation Impasse

Taking ambivalent measure of the legacy of modern feminism

Kerry Howley


In his new book, Paco Underhill, a longtime student of consumer behavior, evinces a particular aversion to the word woman. He prefers instead "the female of the species" or "the female of the household" or "the female of the house." The female of the species, we learn, behaves in a specific, predictable way in hotel lobbies. The female of the species feels about her kitchen the way the male feels about his car. The female of the species prefers certain species of things; for instance, she does not like cookie-cutter mansions, which, "as a species," convey "aesthetic bankruptcy."

These repeated references to taxonomy suggest Underhill believes himself a man of science, or at least an observer of human experience with some interest in the scientific method. They suggest he is a man of data. And this we would expect, because the subject of What Women Want—the extent to which consumer products reflect the preferences of the second sex—is a subject that has presumably generated much research worthy of exposition. There are regularities in what men and women purchase; some of them are probably counterintuitive. It might be interesting to read about them, and it might be interesting to hear about them from a marketing consultant like Underhill, the author of Why We Buy (1999) and the subject of an adulatory 1996 New Yorker profile by Malcolm Gladwell.

About that profile. "What Paco likes," Gladwell explains, "are facts." It's a surprising characterization, because What Women Want contains so few of them, tending instead toward a kind of shadowy market mysticism. Underhill either does not have or does not wish to share research supporting the vast majority of his pronouncements about the consumption choices of half the population. Instead of telling us what women actually buy, Underhill considers a product and deigns to divine its male or female origins. Often, the thing he doesn't like is the "male" thing. The product he does like he attributes to the growing and glorious power of the woman consumer. McMansions, which Underhill considers vulgar and atomizing, he deems male. For New Urbanist communities, we are told without benefit of explanation, you can thank women. And because women are in charge now, McMansions are going out of style. ("Good-bye, McMansions. And hello to a new species of home that accommodates the female of the species.") In a typical passage, Underhill notices that pillow quality in American hotels is improving. He attributes this, on a hunch, to pillow-demanding women travelers, which sounds plausible. But might good pillows merely be a response to the taste preferences of an increasingly wealthy society? Would a world without women necessarily be a world with a smaller proportion of soft pillows?

I bring up these questions not because I wish to attack Underhill, who sounds too much like someone's grandpa to be offensive, and who in any case offers a prophylactic apology for his generalizations in the author's note. I bring them up because it's useful to consider what a respected marketing consultant, left to rely on intuition and stereotype, thinks to be the true nature of a supposedly woman-dominated economy, driven by women's immutable, "hard-wired" preferences. The woman in this world wants "a safe form of escape." When she walks into a hotel room she looks for "safety, cleanliness, serenity, and comfort." She prefers integrated rooms because, at home, it is her job to "make sure everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing." She frets about hormones in her milk. More than anything, she is enthusiastic about her kitchen, which is very, very large:

For the female of the species, the contemporary kitchen is a place where a woman can wander euphorically among a showroom of gadgets, fixtures, and appliances. Just as a man collects his toys—the all-terrain vehicle, the Harley, or the vintage, seldom-used Porsche he keeps sheeted in one side of the garage—the kitchen has been transformed into the arena where the female can compensate for all the male gadgets under the roof. It's as if she's saying, "Hey, if you have the power saw and the new MacBook Pro, I want an incredible refrigerator!"

Whether or not they exist because women in particular demand them, capacious kitchens do seem to have become a staple of the American middle-class home. Cooks' rooms contracted after the Civil War, when household servants left to find better-paid work in factories, but between 1880 and the postwar era—what Underhill calls "the Golden Age of the kitchen appliance"—women began buying all sorts of mechanical devices and required a place to put them. Machines invaded the household and demanded more and more territory, until a room once hidden away in the back of the house became its gleaming, granite-countered center.

Confronted with new and large labor-saving devices, women at the turn of the century did not necessarily envision a future of "wandering euphorically" among them. Some optimists supposed, not unreasonably, that the whole point of a fully mechanized kitchen was the freedom not to be there. Perhaps with time you wouldn't even need a kitchen; the miracle of mass production could churn out meal after prepackaged meal. In her revelatory new history, Dreamers of a New Day, Sheila Rowbotham quotes women who muse about the modern kitchen and the possibility of liberation therein. Charlotte Perkins Gilman dreamed up a series of kitchenless apartments and homes to which food would be delivered "in insulated containers by gasoline-powered motor van." In suffragist Henrietta Rodman's ideal twelve-story feminist apartment house, "meals were to be produced by staff in the mechanized basement and sent up in lifts to the residents." As IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn put it, "There is no great credit to making a pie like mother used to make when a machine tended by five unskilled workers turns out 42,000 perfect pies a day!"

Rowbotham argues that the period from 1880 until World War I was especially fertile for this kind of "optimistic imagining." The world of forty-two thousand perfect pies was the world that produced Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899) and Frederick Winslow Taylor's forward-looking ideas about workplace efficiency. It was not a nostalgic period for intellectuals; the past could seem a rather benighted place, wasteful and irrational, enamored of senseless conventions. And if the families filling the tenements of the time spoke no English, their very presence suggested that one could climb aboard a steamship and float away from tradition.

Encouraged by the conflation of the past with backwardness, radicals were free to imagine a utopian future: revolutions not just of kitchens but of cities, of human reproduction, of the economic order. "We were restive and impetuous and almost savage in our arguments," one woman recalls of her reaction to an 1889 performance of A Doll's House. While middle-class women began wearing pants, working-class women rebelled by donning the elaborately constraining dress once reserved for their wealthy counterparts. Slipping from one identity to another could lend an element of surprise to rebellion—"suffragettes could infiltrate a venue in a ladylike mode, only to smash windows and hurl axes at politicians."

"Feminism doesn't mean anything anymore" is a sentiment I've heard quite a bit over the past few years, and reading Rowbotham, one wonders what long-lost past of feminist cohesion is being invoked. You can be fairly sure that a thirty-year-old American self-identified feminist today is a fan of birth control, Medicare, and democracy. In 1890 one could make no such assumptions about a pro-woman radical. She might well support free love but think condoms a tool of the sex-mad patriarchy; she might want to socialize housework or smash the state. One is struck, paging through this idiosyncratic survey of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers, by the enthusiasm for a kind of fluid, shape-shifting self-conception. "It is such a confounded bore to have to act one part endlessly," American anthropologist Elsie Clews Parsons wrote in her 1914 Journal of a Feminist.

This prized ability to be more than one kind of person is both a font of conceptual freedom and a source of some great internal difficulty, as it isn't easy to rally unstable personae. You couldn't count on rebellious women to agree with one another, and you couldn't count on them to agree with their past selves. Economic disagreements were especially intense. Labor reformers argued that women needed a shorter workday on account of their role as reproductive vessels; individualist anarchists looked on in horror. In Britain, Labour Party activists demanded state payments for mothers; in 1914, writing in Margaret Sanger's anarchist journal Woman Rebel, Benita Locke responded with an article titled "Mothers' Pensions: The Latest Capitalist Plot." The anarchist Ada Nield Chew worried that the payments would be used to "command obedience," as indeed they were in some US states, where smoking or a lack of church attendance could get your mother's allowance pulled.

It may sound like a small thing to acknowledge that women at the turn of the century differed in their visions of utopia, but the fierce individualism of the women Rowbotham profiles here is something most chroniclers would push aside for the sake of narrative simplicity. It's this resistance to conventional storytelling that makes Dreamers so moving, the willingness to present a pastiche of quotations from pamphlets and letters and novels, to reveal the messy process of reinvention rather than merely reporting its conclusion. Instead of stern teleology, we get sporting play. When "new woman" Helena Born died in 1901, a friend wrote, "Hers was certainly the experimental life; there were no rut marks on her."

• • • • •

If the period Rowbotham surveys was indeed characterized by wide-eyed "optimistic imagining," our own time is striking for the narrowness of its political and economic questions. The successes of feminism and market capitalism (the latter trend evidenced by the desperate use of words like socialist and fascist to describe various shades of market-friendly moderates in American political discourse) have bequeathed to today's feminists a straitened range of internecine dispute. Movement types are less likely to question the gender assumptions of liberal democracy than to argue about the importance of a female president, less likely to discuss the machinery of production than to discuss the role of woman as consumer. This comparatively fixed framework, this shift from sprawling questions to well-defined goals, is a symptom of progress. And yet after reading Rowbotham it's hard not to notice the comparative tininess of today's tent.

In 2000, when Jennifer Baumgardner and Amy Richards first published their defense of feminism, they described themselves as third wave. The terminology of "waves" suggested a certain cartoonish characterization, a schema in which the ways to be a living feminist had been reduced to two. In one corner, the sensibly dressed second-waver, defiantly overweight, highly suspicious of the fairy-princess aisle at Toys "R" Us. In another, the young third-waver in a miniskirt and heels, busy either painting her nails or knitting something, tattooed, carrying her keys in a Hello Kitty lunch box. "A feminist, not the fun kind," is how Andrea Dworkin chose to define herself. Feminism can be "relevant and fun and in the moment," counter Baumgardner and Richards, who, curiously, don't seem to be having much fun at all.

At the time they published Manifesta, Baumgardner and Richards were young feminists who had worked for Ms. Magazine, where they evidently realized that second-wave staffers knew nothing about their generation of feminists. (They also complain about the pay, under the odd assumption that the revolution ought to be remunerative.) Dubbing themselves "intergenerational mediators," the two decided to write a book defending their ideals to those older feminists who would disparage them. Manifesta has since become a canonical text of third-wave feminism, called on at great length, for instance, in the unfortunate "third-wave feminism" entry in Wikipedia and just rereleased their tract in a tenth-anniversary edition.

It remains an eminently reasonable book, perhaps best understood as a statement of the ethics of a particular educated subculture from the northeastern United States. Indeed, as a white northeastern female, I'm certain half the women with whom I went to college could have written it. Baumgardner and Richards give the impression of being women who sat attentively through the date-rape assembly during the first week at college and followed up by listening respectfully to those women—like Katie Roiphe—who wanted to scratch out their eyeballs during the whole production. They never once deviate from the safe zone of the sensitive center-left, though they're also too intelligent to conflate idiosyncratic personalities, like Camille Paglia, with those actually hostile to their cause.

Third-wave feminism was at its most compelling in its gamesome, confident presentation of the young female body—SLUT scrawled across the stomach; the combination of combat boots and baby-doll dresses. Baumgardner and Richards made the now-familiar case that women and girls can participate in consumer culture without becoming its victims. Barbie can be a figure on whom you practice giving abortions rather than a demon unleashed on the marketplace to sprinkle anorexia dust on infant girls. The market culture that envelops girls is theirs to manipulate and reclaim; it is, in the end, their culture, and it's wrong to pretend they'll be more whole without it.

This is beyond dispute, but it's also not enough for Baumgardner and Richards, who are most interested in something they call "political consciousness," by which they seem to mean earnest engagement with extant institutions. The authors of Manifesta are upset that older feminists don't invite younger feminists to panel discussions; they're also upset that younger feminists don't much seem to care. A woman who runs a popular webzine declares that she believes running the zine is "more effective than getting behind a politician or going to a march." "Indeed it could be," respond Baumgardner and Richards, "if she were proposing a Day of Pay Equity, sort of like Take Our Daughters to Work Day." Women are thus called on to signal that they are on board, to mark on their calendars a series of well-plotted "days" for civic engagement. The idea that a life might be well lived outside the purview of a firmly established movement seems not to have occurred to the authors.

Or perhaps the fear is that such a life would be misunderstood by the second-wavers Baumgardner and Richards are petitioning for acceptance. As it turns out, the job of being an "intergenerational mediator" is incompatible with that of writing a manifesto. In making third-wave feminism safe for their mothers, the authors stifle every bit of savagery that would enliven what they seek to defend. One would have expected such a book to dig deep into the underground-punk subculture known as Riot Grrrl—the torn tights and smeared lipstick, the confrontational song titles ("Resist Psychic Death") and Kathleen Hanna's wonderfully disordered "Riot Grrrl Manifesto" ("We must take over the means of production in order to create our own moanings"). It's typical of the placid, consensualist drift of the book that Baumgardner and Richards barely mention the social deviance, aggression, and essentialism that characterized the movement, preferring instead to draw our attention to "a grassroots feminist meeting called the Riot Grrrl Convention in Washington, D.C."

• • • • •

Baumgardner and Richards express great faith in conventions and also in "revolution." You're almost certainly a revolutionary if you went to liberal-arts school and don't actively campaign for the subjugation of women. Men are instructed that "doing the dishes can be a revolutionary act, as can picking up one's own socks." The second appendix, titled "A Young Woman's Guide to Revolution," is a list of contact information for institutions like the Guttmacher Institute and the Women's Sports Foundation. Revolutionaries Baumgardner and Richards are now both mothers, small-business owners, and media consultants. Valerie Solanas they are not.

It's never all that clear why Baumgardner and Richards are so set on apologizing to their mothers or so upset about that one time Betty Friedan was mean to their friend. To the question "How can Third-Wave women negotiate their independence and still remain part of the family?" one can only ask why it is so important that there be a family. The Manifesta authors offer a more confident vision of feminism than that of their immediate predecessors—less brittle, more welcoming of dissent and secure in its ability to integrate popular culture. But for all that, it's a remarkably cloistered, orderly vision, totally lacking in imaginative scope. There is no anarchy here; each cry of rebellion is quickly quieted by the need for consensus. We keep hearing that feminists don't hate men. Shouldn't some of them hate men? Doesn't the world have room for a man-hating feminist faction?

Manifesta is eager to please. It is too fearful of discord, too quick to soften the edges of its subjects, too insistent that if we all search deep inside our womanly souls we will find that we are all sensible moderates. It is the print equivalent of a sitcom wife condemned to play the straight sidekick—competent; dull; charged, as Underhill would have it, with making "sure everybody is doing what they are supposed to be doing." One can imagine Manifesta slipping into a hotel room, going straight for the pillows, and checking the locks twice. Ten years after the book's publication, there are still those who think they can waltz into any environment and divine which aspects of the decor are male and which female. I hope they are wrong, which is another way of saying that I hope women have claimed more mettle, imagination, and savagery for themselves than Manifesta ever grants them.

Kerry Howley is a senior editor of the literary magazine Defunct and an MFA candidate at the University of Iowa.

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