I grew up in a household full of males – no sisters, just my mother. But she was six feet tall, and had been pretty much been raised as the “boy” her father (a serious outdoorsman) so desperately wanted. My mother learned to hunt, fish, climb trees, drive a tractor, smoke, drink and cuss right along with my grandfather’s Spanish and Portuguese farm hands. Much to the dismay of my rather proper grandmother who wore corsets, powder, perfume and rouge, and who never in her life wore a pair of trousers. My mother occasionally used makeup and liked to have her hair “done”, but she never let anyone forget her full persona. After leaving her father’s farm, she became a college professor and also wrote dense, sad poetry. The happiest I ever saw her, when I was a child, was when she was fly-fishing: bouncing in her rubber boots over slick oval rocks, flicking her line, with a Black Gnat attached, like a matador teasing a bull. She always caught her limit of gigantic Rainbow trout.
I came into womanhood about the time that the Women’s Liberation Movement was gathering momentum. The term “male chauvinism” was on almost every girl’s lips. For me, as early as the eighth grade in school (as I wrote in a previous Post), chauvinism was the ‘thing’ that prevented me from wearing pants to school. (Try riding a bicycle, climbing a tree or Jungle Gym in a skirt and petticoat. No boy would do that, exposing his bloomers, am I right?). Social conventions created exclusively for females were being targeted and obliterated by the Feminists of my day. But, and I can recall this very clearly – the goal of our ‘liberation’ at that time was equity. If I chose to wear pants, I could. If I wanted to become a welder or enlist in military service, I could. And, if I did the very same work that a man did, I wanted and expected equal pay. Anything that a man was allowed to do in our society, women of my time wanted the option (which was always the only point of the Movement) to do the same. Of course, that created a Big Scare among men.
Outcries about crazed women trying to emasculate men on a global scale proliferated; coming from both men and more conservative (as in Biblical- framework) women. As with any Movement, things can go out of control. You begin your crusade with ideas that seem reasonable; but as others get involved and exert their own visions and influence, you lose control of the original mission. As a Liberated Woman (which I always felt was my birthright, by the way – despite rampant sexism in my workplace), I’m utterly dismayed by the left-turn in feminist attitudes (I’m inclined to call it a “one-eighty”) that has given traction to the phrase “Toxic Masculinity”.
Kudos to Christina Hoff Sommers – almost exactly four years my senior – who opened a dialogue out about the feminist “detour” (my word) we started to take in the early 1990’s, in her book “Who Stole Feminism?”. Simply stated, Sommers speaks to what the Women’s Liberation Movement was originally about: Equity. She makes a really important distinction between “gender feminists” versus “equity feminists”. On the most recent HBO series “Real Time With Bill Maher”, Sommers was the lead-off guest on the show.
Sommers declares that Toxic Masculinity is suspiciously similar to the divisive extremism we’re seeing in our entire current political and social atmosphere. I wholeheartedly agree with her: unity through equity was always the primary mission of the original Women’s Movement. I know, because I was there. I listened to Steinem, Friedan, Wolf and others. I read their books and even had discussions with men who generally agreed with our goals.
Women have come a long way in fighting for equal rights, but there’s still a long way to go – especially for women of color and for those wanting to experience Female and Femininity in their own ways. Wherever the struggle takes us next, I’m not willing to draw-lines-in-the-sand, adding to the bellicose atmosphere with negatively-charged epithets. I may not know who “Stole” Feminism; but the “Why” of the theft seems the more important question, and one that’s part of a much bigger disaster-in-progress.
[All images courtesy of gettyimages.com]