Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Four Men Who Will Save the World--Part Five

In that line [“Was she told when she was young that pain would lead to pleasure?”] I was trying to say something about Christianity. The idea that you have to be tortured to attain heaven—I didn’t believe that. –John Lennon, on the song “Girl”
The most obvious candidate for transforming the young women of the 60s is feminism. We’ve all heard of The Feminine Mystique and The Second Sex, and of the profound impact these and similar works have had on modern society. Who hasn’t heard of Gloria Steinem, or Betty Friedan, or Simone de Beauvoir? You can bet Hillary Clinton and Michele Obama have. And neither Hillary Clinton nor Michele Obama would be where they are today—nor would Chelsea Clinton or Malia and Sasha Obama go where they’re going to go tomorrow—were it not for the feminist revolution.
            But femin­ism has been around for a very long time. The current “feminism” is the latest of a half-dozen or more “waves” that have swept across North Atlantic society over the past two hundred years. Just think Mary Wollstonecraft, or Seneca Falls, or Susan B. Anthony, or the suffragettes, or Rosie the Riveter to see what I mean. And that’s just “modern” feminism. If you’re a Muslim you’ll go back 1300 years, and think Hazrat A’isha. Or, if you’re a Hindu, you’ll go back a thousand and think the Bhagavata Purana. Or, if you’re a Buddh­ist, you’ll think Tara/Kannon/Guanyin. Or if you’re Native, you’ll think Pretty Shield, Sarah Winnemucca, Wilma Mankiller, or your own clan mothers. If you’re a Black African you’ll be thinking of the Fanti, the all-women bodyguard of the Asantehene, and the most feared warriors of the Ashanti Empire. And all human beings of whatever background should be thinking (often) of the Bush­men, probably history’s most gender-equal society, and who had no history of rape. Feminism has been around for millenia, and in a myriad of forms, and in many different cul­tures. I sus­pect women have been saying “no” to patriarchy since patriarchy was invented, even if the only ears hearing them were their own.
            But in 1965, the feminist wave that would give rise to Roe v Wade, the National Organiza­tion for Women, no-fault divorce, rape crisis centers, and the end of chattel laws was just getting started. Susan Brownmiller’s Against Ourselves: Men, Women, and Rape was published in 1975; until then, rape was con­sidered a crime of “passion” committed by men who “couldn’t help themselves” instead of  the heinous act of violence it is held now by everyone not a GOP congressman or a gangsta rapper. My own mother did not have her name on a bank account until about 1980; until then she was listed under her husband’s name with a “Mrs.” in front of it. (To her bank’s credit, they did change it after she complained to its president.) Women didn’t start pour­ing into the work force until I was well out of high-school; almost all the kids I went to school with had stay-at-home moms. In 1984 Geraldine Ferraro ran for vice-president and Hillary Clinton was un­known out­side of Arkansas. Much of the gender equality we now take for granted was beyond the horizon in 1965.
            And, for some, it’s still beyond it. For it seems that every time someone tries to valorize women’s contributions to the world’s history, someone else—inevitably a man, and in America, inevitably a Re­publican—can’t handle it. Remember Susan B. Anthony dollars, or those beau­tiful gold-plated coins depicting Sakakawea (“Sakajawea”) and her baby, Baptiste? Where are those coins now? Why don’t you ever see them in the cashier’s drawer at the supermarket, or get them from the teller at the credit union? In each case the coin was introduced during a Democratic presidency (Car­ter and Clinton, respectively) and discontinued by the following GOP regime (Reagan and GW). As far as I know (numismatics experts will have to help me out on this one), the US was the first country in the world to have a baby on its coin­age. In real life that little baby helped keep his mom safe from hostilities on Lewis and Clarke’s journey across the Great America Desert. But alas, Baptiste couldn’t keep his mother’s image safe from the spitefulness of the Republican Party, and now Sakajawea coins, and Anthonys as well, are mostly memories.
            The history of femin­ism is long, fascinating, and extremely complex, and I’m certainly not competent to sum it up in the space of a blog devoted to (among other things) man-eating lions and the Lord of the Rings. Here I’ll simply suggest that, as far as the young women we are analyzing were con­cerned, femin­ism was not a cause but an effect. Feminism did not make them as much as they made it.
            Feminism is an ideology, and like the 3 Cs it is based not only on intellectual analysis but on gut reaction. Most people are dissatisfied with their lives on a deep, emotional level but can’t quite put their fingers on how or why. The power of the Masters lies in their ability to provide a lan­guage in which the dissatisfaction can be expressed and a program offered for how to get rid of it. The program might be illusory to the point of madness, but the need it claims to satisfy is very real. The Masters can’t get their grip on anyone without that dissatisfaction. A soul to be seized must be weakened by weeping.
            Like the Masters, feminist scholars have found a language in which women can both get in touch with and express some of their deepest feelings. Feminists have also offered a (partial) program for dealing with those feelings on a personal and social level. Unlike the Masters, feminists have no intention of anesthetizing that dissatisfaction—if anything, they’re trying to magnify it. Whether this is a truly useful thing to do or not is a question I must leave to others better qualified.
            I’ve yet to meet a feminist who isn’t personally, passionately angry at patriarchy. Would they be feminists if they weren’t? But I know of no one who first sat down, calmly contemplated the many and horrible patriarchal evils and then concluded that they should be angry at it. Emotion drives ideology, not the reverse. I’m simplifying quite a bit here, but it seems to me that the young women of the 60s would not have turned to feminism unless they were already frustrated by those elements of society that feminism eventually taught them to label “patriarchy.” Feminism is the most revolutionary movement to march across the world since the invention of agriculture, but like agriculture it did not spring out of nowhere—its seed had to fall on fertile ground. That fertile ground was the young women of the 1960s.
            But how did they know to be frustrated in the first place? Who taught them they’d been living in a cage? What force knocked them out of their well-trained complacency? What woke them up? Could it have been the four mere males who will save the world?