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FRUITLESS FEMINISTS

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By PIA CATTON
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STIRRED BY THE DISCOVERY of soccer moms, feminists are now on the lookout for minivan madonnas. "Family feminism," a new twist in America's most malleable social movement, seeks to enlist women who want to listen to their maternal urges rather than ignore them. Yes, with a PTA card in one hand and a NOW card in the other, mothers need no longer feel neglected by the feminist movement. Now, motherhood and feminism can "dialogue"!


The publication of novelist and columnist Anne Roiphe's manifesto for " family feminism," Fruitful, was the occasion for a panel discussion called "Motherhood and Feminism: A Dialogue" in Washington last week. Alas, there wasn't a lot of dialoguing going on, just a lot of rambling familial anecdotes offered by both panelists and audience. There was precious little debate about either motherhood or feminism; both were unambiguously accepted by everyone in the room as unambiguously good for women. And yet the source text for the panel was a book by a feminist dissatisfied with feminism's view of motherhood. "The irritation between mothers and non-mothers was swept under the rug of sisterhood," Roiphe writes in Fruitful. "The intellectual and emotional misfit between child care and feminism was observed but not solved."


But when fellow panelist Heidi Hartmann, director of the Institute for Women's Policy Research, asked Roiphe to clarify her criticism of the feminist movement in Fruitful, the author backpedaled and sidestepped at the same time. "Feminism did not move in a wrong direction," Roiphe said. "But somehow we lost focus."


Was it a problem that feminism "lost focus" -- i.e., did not pay attention to the concern she describes in Fruitful as the most important thing in her life, being a mother? No, it was just that, in the movement, "some voices became more dominant over others." I asked her afterward if she thought those voices were still dominant. "I wouldn't have written the book if they weren't, " she said. "The voices of family feminism have been overwhelmed." But this was not a sentence she spoke, or even came close to speaking, during the panel discussion (though she did turn sociobiologist when she informed the room that "we turned our attention away from the fact that we are a species").


And no wonder; many in the audience and on the panel would have eaten her alive for criticizing feminism. But simply adding another element to the feminist mix? Go right ahead! It makes no difference if Roiphe's "family feminism" contradicts other elements of feminism, because feminism is no longer an ideology requiring philosophical consistency. It's more like a lobbying group for anything women want at any time women want it.


Being "pro-women" has meant different things in different times. In the '70s, independence and autonomy were pro-women. In the '80s, "pro-women" meant opposing pornography and demanding speech codes at universities. In the early 1990s, "pro-women" meant "power feminism," which preached the idea that women aren't victims but are natural aggressors. Now, four years before the new millennium, "pro-women" means, in Betty Friedan's words, "chosen, affirmed motherhood."


As the decades of relativism roll by, the "pro-women" list grows longer, more complex, and contradictory. Pro-women stay-at-home mothers are every bit as feminist as pro-women lesbians. Pro-women advocates of a shortened work week and their small-business-owning sisters can hold hands and sing numbers from "Free to Be You and Me."


Given all this comradeship, the movement just cannot understand one thing. The panel's moderator, Susan Bianchi-Sand of the National Committee on Pay Equity, said that the biggest problem facing feminism is lack of youth involvement. "Young women seem to think the job is done," she said. Since they have the opportunity to achieve economic security, they no longer need feminism (the ingrates).


What Bianchi-Sand does not understand is that the inconsistencies of feminism are what drive young women away from it. They seek a voice that offers clarity and understanding in a very confusing culture. What they do not need is a feminism that creates chaos. Feminism fails to attract young women not because the "job is done," but because there is no common job to accomplish. What was established wisdom in the '70s -- the axiom that " biology is not destiny" -- sounds nonsensical in the 1990s, when Anne Roiphe is able to say fiat out that "some parts of the anatomy are destiny."