If one reads the New York Times and other popular journals, they will find the occasional feature discussing the end of feminism. Depending on the editorial stance and intended audience of the journal, this article will either decry or celebrate the “return” of feminine sexuality and sexiness. No matter what the slant, this faux return, along with other indicators pulled out of the empty air that denotes much of popular culture, will be portrayed as proof that feminism is dead and may have even failed. The truth of the matter, however, is that there was no return because feminine sexuality and sexiness never left. Neither did sexism.
It is this last point that the authors of Reclaiming the F Word use as a beginning point for their recently published book. Furthermore, write authors Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune, neither has feminism. Indeed, as long as the issues denigrating women and forcing them to accept less than what they are capable of exist, then feminism will exist. Today’s feminism does not look like the mass movement of the 1970s, but is arguably more integrated into women’s daily lives. It also does not always call itself feminism.
It was that movement of the 1970s–a movement known historically as second-wave feminism–that made the phrase “the personal is the political” popular. The essence of this statement is that what we do in our private daily lives is as political as the overtly political actions we take on the public stage. One effects the other and to pretend otherwise is not only hypocrisy but dishonest. Overall, the entrance of this concept into the leftist and countercultural movements of the time did create a greater consciousness regarding the relationship between the private and the public personas we all have. Simultaneously, it also created a dynamic where a personal mistake could often become a greater issue than one’s positive political acts, consequently destroying whatever potential those political acts may have had. Perhaps the most obvious example of this for many liberals in the United States was the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. Those liberals who truly appreciated Clinton’s political acts and policies were forced to watch the man’s personal mistakes being used as a justification by those who hated the man and his policies to discredit both. The irony is that Clinton’s destroyers had absolutely no use for feminism, but were able to manipulate “the personal is political” dictum into one more element of a hypocritical puritanical attack on everything he stood for.
Second wave feminism–or women’s liberation as it was called back then–assumed that the liberation of women would occur within the wave of universal liberation that many believed was near in the late 1960s and early 1970s. As we know, that struggle for universal liberation ultimately slipped into the particularities and occasional pettiness of identity politics. Identity politics is a politics that, among other things, removes the question of class struggle from the equation and replaces it with a combination of victimhood and special privilege designed to “make up” for previous wrongs. Of course, many of these wrongs cannot be compensated for because they are based on one’s economic relationship to the masters of capital, not to the relationships between different elements of those subordinate to the masters. Reclaiming the F Word walks a fine line between these two opposing understandings. While generally understanding that women’s rights can only be obtained through the struggle for universal human rights, the authors tend to work within the framework of identity politics when it comes to specifics. This approach is no more evident than it is in their failure to discuss the world’s greatest violator of human rights–imperial war. The omission of this discussion clearly weakens the book, especially at a time when both Washington and London have used women’s rights to justify their wars against Muslim nations.
Redfern and Aune are British and therefore write mostly about Britain. They discuss current efforts to end violence against women, for equal pay and for sexual and reproductive freedom and choice. While doing this, they comment on the nature of British society in the 2000s. It is a society that is considerably more ethnically and religiously diverse, with a large population of Muslim and other non-Christian women. This fact creates a new way of looking at conventional women’s issues. The need for cultural sensitivity is a challenge to conventional western feminists who may not understand the reasons a woman might wear a burqa or chador or accept the roles proscribed by non-Western cultures. Yet, oftentimes women working with these women find that the common bond of womanhood is enough and it is from that point that they begin their work.
A discussion in the book that I found particularly intriguing revolved around the relationship between feminism and religion. No religion is held out for special scorn or praise and all of the monotheistic ones (which form the bulk of believers in the West) are looked at honestly. Attempts by feminists who consider themselves believers to transform their churches are discussed as are those women who want nothing to do with religion, considering such attempts to be pointless in the face of those religions’ fundamental patriarchal belief systems.
The overriding theme of Reclaiming the F Word is that women’s rights are human rights. From the right to control one’s own body to the right to an education and healthcare, Redfern and Aune do a good job of elucidating the current approach modern-day feminists are taking in the struggles for these things. If one wants to read an honest discussion of where modern day western feminism stands, this book is a good place to begin. Accessible and informative, it is a brief survey of many of the issues faced by women in the early part of the 21st century and the attempts by many to address them.