I recently went to hear a conversation between feminist icons Gloria Steinem and Letty Cotten Pogrebin and felt lucky that they were still around to reflect on from whence we’ve come. Both in their seventies, have survived cancer and were discussing how to care for loved ones who are ill without becoming a pain in the butt.
It was comforting that more than half of the audience the audience had gray hair like me and maybe a quarter were men and maybe a quarter were younger, from those feebly named generations: X Y or Zee.
Two things were interesting outside of the discussion itself (which I hope City Arts & Lectures recorded and is podcasting). Because Steinem and Pogrebin are so deeply inside of feminism, or it is so deeply inside of them they didn’t place their discussion within the context of the feminist movement. When one young woman in the audience asked them, to reflect on politics it was too general question. I understood what she meant though: she’d come to hear two of the women who changed the world talk about how they’d done it and what to do next.
Fair hope, but truth is feminism tackled a lot of issues one at a time–racism, sexual abuse, child welfare, voting, economics, jobs, health–and they were continuing to do it in that way. The discussion they were having would not have been possible without feminism. Obamacare (a name he’s embraced, happily) wouldn’t have been possible with out the raised consciousness brought about by feminism. The idea that people who are ill should not be infantalized or exploited by insurance companies has made it into the general consciousness of society came about because of feminism.
The personal is political so the conversation of these two friends was a glimpse into how our lives and those of our loved ones can be changed by thinking about illness differently. I hate when I read and the person meant to introduce me says I “need no introduction!” And I think that’s what happened here. No one really introduced them and set up the context for those in the audience who were just coming to the conversation.
The other thing that was interesting for me was after I posted on Facebook how exciting it was to see these two icons still going strong two or three people posted their complaints about how feminists had hurt them. One still chafed under the idea of wearing flannel and another felt oppressed because she was told that lipstick was poison. Now I will concede that these women may have been joking so my response isn’t to them specifically. And I too have made my own plaid flannel jokes; I never want to be known as a humorless feminist. But I have heard those comments before and not in jest. Consciousness raising groups and potluck suppers have become code for flakey feminists. So I guess I’m amazed at how angry women can be with other women who informed them about about how they’re being oppressed; more angry than they are with the oppressor.
My friend Elana Dykewomon likes to remind folks: we were all young as we were developing the radical philosophy and strategies to counter millennia of oppression of women. That we had some radical reactions to mainstream culture shouldn’t be a surprise or offensive. I’m more offended by the fashion industry that propagates the idea that any woman wearing above a size 1 is fat. Or horrified by the animal testing that most cosmetic companies routinely use to bring us those luscious lips.
I wish we could have a conversation about how some of the changes in women’s lives were accomplished, how they grew out of individual, personal issues and ideas and then what we all should do next to insure the continued improvement of the lives of women and girls. Not so long ago women earned 59 cents for every dollar men earned. Now it’s up to 72 cents. Good. Not good enough.