My mother’s mother went to UC Berkeley and majored in Math. She’s 79, still works, lives alone and walks two miles every morning. She was widowed young and raised seven kids as a single mom. My grandmother is extremely active in her community, politically as well as socially, yet she would never consider herself to be a feminist.
I think of her now because I attended a Big Fancy Benefit dinner the other night, sponsored by a non-profit who’s mission statement is all about empowering women and promoting ethical leadership. In the truest sense of the word, the organization strives to be a feminist one. So I went to this Big Fancy Benefit, and on account of some family connections, I was seated at a Important Table with a Famous Feminist Writer. Trust me, you know who she is.
And as I sat at this Table with this Writer I caught myself thinking, She doesn’t look like a feminist. She has a sparkly purse and lots of jewelry. She doesn’t look smart. Or powerful. Or jaded or biting or controversial or inflammatory or anything. She is just a regular woman – a regular person who happens to have written 19 books and be taught in university settings. So then I caught myself and thought, who the fuck am I to say what a feminist looks like? (or a lesbian or a republican or a wife-beater or a thief or a gun-owner or a rapist or a rape survivor or doctor or janitor or mother or artist or activist or liar). What do I know?
Also at my table was another Famous Feminist Writer, this one younger and more glamorous and more media-savvy. (Or, at least, more camera-ready). These two very impressive women have each written pages and pages about being a woman in America. But they are separated by a generation, and the movements to which each belongs are different sides of the same coin, I think. In the 1970’s, according to the first Famous Writer, there was so much hate and animosity that the feminist movement cannibalized itself. Women were so eager and determined to prove that they belonged in the workplace, the universities, the museums with men that they beat each other up with words in order to be the first, the loudest, the strongest. It seems to me that the feminist movement of the 1990’s and today (and is it still a “movement”? Can all the things for which women strive be lumped together like that?) is more about owning your choices and finding the resources to live one’s chosen life, whether it be as a corporate executive, a stay-at-home mom, an artist, a small business owner, a yoga teacher, whatever. No longer are we as concerned with the glass ceiling, but with making sure we get ourselves into the right damn building. Economics seems more important now, dollars are power and money drives the whole economic, political beast that is our world, and women need to be confident in their own economic and political powers – and also realize the political value of economics. Money makes the world go ‘round, and you don’t have to have a trust fund to be heard. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, You vote with your dollars. (And as an aside, I know that women make roughly 75 cents to the dollar earned by men, but it is my understanding that no consideration is given for stay-at-home mothers – or fathers – who are working without pay. Were the at-home parents all to re-enter the workforce and childcare be paid for, then the child-rearing would be counted in economic indicators, but parents are just that in the eyes of the economists – parents. If at-home parents were figured into statistics as unpaid labor, that 75 cents would drop considerably. If we’re gonna talk about the unfair wages that women face, let’s REALLY talk about it.)
So there I was, an intelligent, well-read young woman with enough knowledge to discuss most any topic at a cocktail party but none of the expertise needed to get down and dirty over any one subject (seriously, I am famous for this. When I was single it was great because I could have a great first date with any type of man: Wanna talk about Broadway and the derivative nature of blah blah blah’s choreography? Great! Think Ellsworth Kelly’s sketches are just the best? Hey, I like them too! Restaurants and wine? NCAA basketball? Corporate fraud? Wall Street or literature or movies or architecture? I can talk about any of those things for 20 minutes. But what I crave is to have one singular passion, one subject that just Gets Me Going. It might make me a less desirable party guest, but Hey, I have been well-rounded for a long-ass time.) I listened to the Famous Feminist Writer talk about how her feminist movement destroyed itself with hate, and I watched the Other Famous Feminist Writer squee and giggle and cheer, and I thought to myself, This is all kind of bullshit.
But there was no way I felt comfortable speaking up…and it’s not that I think feminism is bullshit. I ABSOLUTELY do not think that. I think it is essential, I think it is important and permeating and necessary and exciting and obvious and complex. But if thirty years ago feminists got caught up in the negativity in their battles, today seems to be touchy-feeling to the point of caricature. I don’t need a cheerleader in my endeavors, I need information, knowledge, guidance. How much are we talking about change, and how much is changing?
I don’t know, and my twenty minutes of cocktail party chat on feminism is long over. I came home from the Fancy Benefit confused, excited and frustrated. Confused because I felt like I was getting mixed messages. Excited because I had just spent the evening with a roomful of passionate, intelligent, diverse women who want to change the world. And frustrated because despite all the optimism and passion in the room, no one was making sure that attendees addresses were collected, that names on nametags were spelled right, that publicity was being handled. Everyone wanted to change the world but no one seemed willing to handle the details. And administration is just as essential as leadership, if we ever want to get beyond talk, right?
I began this entry a few days ago, with the intention of writing about women who have influenced me, true feminists, regardless of how they label themselves. But Friday and Saturday passed and I sat back down this morning, my thesis lost. I know this, however: my grandmother got up at 6:00 a.m. this morning to go walking and is probably gardening today and preparing to go into work tomorrow. My mother received her M.B.A. four years ago. And I still feel lost. Passionate, curious, excited and eager. But lost nonetheless.