Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Breaking down what we broadly refer to as feminism

One of the greatest triumphs for a historian is to convincingly argue that a conventionally accepted account of a time period or event is incorrect or at the very least, simplistic. To realize that a common conception of the past is flawed or shallow is jolting and transformational. It revises how we analyze current problems and what we identify as their root causes.

Over the course of the last several years, I came to understand that my view of the 1960s and 1970s was formed by an overbroad paradigm: that during that short period of time, society and culture as a whole progressed. While I think certain events during the time period represented progress--women gaining admittance to college and pre-professional programs at greater rates, the end of state-enforced segregation--I realize that, as in so many eras, these are specific achievements that do not necessarily endorse other accomplishments of the time even if they lie within the same realm of "women's issues," achievements like the so-called sexual revolution. Nonetheless, people often conflate every achievement in the realm of women's issues into one great big movement towards Progress and Enlightenment. Others wholly vilify the entire era as the end of institutions' moral authority. I think that this recent era, like so many others, brought changes that should be examined free of these two opposing dialectics that so often hijack our conversation about them.

Take the women's movement and its legacies today. There is good and bad. The bad, in my opinion, is embodied by the "hook-up culture." I recently got into a pretty intense argument with some co-workers about whether such a culture exists and whether it is problematic. I think there have been some recent developments, the confluence of which make a hook-up culture more practicable than it would have been in the past. Here are a few: (relatively) easy and legal availability of birth control, a view that dating and going steady are the chaste activities of a bygone era, the equating of men's needs and women's needs, the trend of disassociating sex from emotion (and the idea that emotions are burdensome), to name a few. I'm not saying I find all of these developments problematic, but I think they are valid explanations for today's hook-up culture, a term which, when searched in google, yields a plethora of interesting articles and conversation; world like "perils" and "misery" immediately catch one's attention.

Of course, the bad always comes with the good, which means the sexual revolution should not be treated as a bogeyman, but it should not be treated as a natural outgrowth of feminism either. On the contrary, it can be vigorously debated without jeopardizing the achievements of women in other areas.


Chris said...

Here's a quote from 1968: "It is also to be feared that the man, growing used to the employment of anti-conceptive practices, may finally lose respect for the woman and, no longer caring for her physical and psychological equilibrium, may come to the point of considering her as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer his respected and beloved companion."

I won't say the source of the quote just yet. But I think the main problem is that our minds, especially since the 1960s, are geared towards the idea that progress for progress' sake is good. Such a trajectory allows for the conflation of the issues based on the idea of progress alone without any real evaluation of whether what has been deemed "progress" is actually progress or just a change - which can be good or bad.

The quote above is from Paul VI's Humanae Vitae. Now, whatever one thinks of the Vatican, I'd be hard pressed to find a more straightforward of modern 'hook-up culture' than that written almost 40 years ago when all of this progress was going on.

Anonymous said...

Actually, it was a devout Catholic, Dr. John Rock, who invented the Pill, because he thought that it would be acceptable, as a natural (hormonal) contraceptive method, to the Catholic Church. A papal commission agreed but was overruled.

One-night stands (the old name for hook-ups) predated oral contraception. Other forms, of course, have existed since ancient times.

Married couples were using contraception to limit family size at the time of, and well before, that encyclical, with no erosion of companionship.

Thanks to feminism, opportunities for girls and women are vastly improved over what I grew up with, as real biases were challenged. Feminism has been a force for good, as was women's suffrage so little time before it. I deplore the hook-up culture, but it's older than you think, and feminism did not cause it. ~ hm

Elaine said...

Thanks for the perspective from both of you. I have to yield to you, HM, and I think you're right that feminism did not cause the hook up culture (or, as you say, one-night stands, which you are right to point out is the same thing). It seems like many changes seem to get lumped together as feminism, and that's where I get worried, but I hope I haven't gone too overboard in a couple of my recent entries and made it seem like I don't appreciate feminism, because that would be entirely ungrateful and naive of me.
Thanks for reading, guys :-)

Chris said...

Of course feminism didn't create the hook-up culture - I don't think anyone was implying that. Indeed, married couples were using contraceptive practices to limit family size before the 1968 document - key term being "married couples" - because it's also deemed wrong to have more children than you can adequately provide for. You cannot deny that the legalization of contraception helped lead to other forms of so-called sexual freedom (see SCOTUS) and that's the whole point. We're too short-sighted to see or even think about the consequences of what happens. We choose to be blinded by the good so as to ignore the bad.

Feminism is neither good nor bad in itself. It's how people use it. So far, it's been used to good and bad effects. To take one aspect, it seems to me that one of its main objectives has been to cease (or limit) the objectification of women - if anything, that has gotten a lot worse since the 1960s. Men are now objectified as well (more or less, depending on where you are). Now if the objection to objectification was inequality in objectification, then one should satisfied with the "advances" of feminism; but if the problem is the objectification, which it should be, then we haven't gotten very far.

Elaine said...

I don't know whether objectification of women has gotten worse over the long haul of history, though I doubt that it has. I do agree that it is pretty bad today, at least as far as media images are concerned. The way in which almost unattainable body types are exacted of female actresses and then put forth as ideal by the Hollywood image-peddlers is pretty sickening, but again, I wouldn't link that to feminism. As with any "ism," it's important to separate the intended consequences from the unintended consequences and to separate the unrelated occurrences from both of those. I don't think feminists intended for women to be objectified as sexual objects EVEN IF they wanted women not to be held to a double standard regarding sexual relations.

As for whether contraceptives enabled "free love," I don't see exactly how it would have IF we accept that contraception was used before '68 by married couples which means that it would have been perfectly within reach of singles. My guess is that contraception became more widely available in the last 40-years, which I believe is fine.

My main objection is the general attitude today wherein emotions are derided as the marrow of the
weak, because sex is supposed as easily detached from emotions. I think that's what in part enables today's hook-up culture.