My mom and I talk often about feminism and feminist issues, as these are questions close to both of our hearts. However the two of us come from very different eras of feminism: my mother came of age in the time of free love and (supposed) bra burning. She fought to let women keep their own names when they marry, for contraception rights, against painful and oppressive clothing, against sexual harassment in the workplace, against unequal pay and unequal hiring practices. She did some damn amazing things and her generation set the groundwork for the conversations my generation is having now.
But my mom and I disagree on a lot of things. An example: one of the conversations in feminism right now is about presenting as femme and how that presentation is often devalued. Many people have come to accept that wearing make up and dressing femme are personal choices and there’s nothing wrong at all with presenting as feminine (thinking there is may actually be the problem). A lot of people are embracing fashions from Mad Men, vintage clothes, high stilettos and reimagining them in ways that they find empowering.
My mother is appalled by this. She fought so that women didn’t have to balance on spikey little heels that destroyed their backs and made it impossible for them to move or do much of anything physical. She thinks we’re losing ground. She thinks women have forgotten what it used to be like.
So who’s right? It seems to me there are valid arguments on both sides: choosing to wear clothes that hurt you and render you physically helpless seems like a pretty bad idea and fairly oppressive. At the same time, telling anyone else what they need to wear and implying that things coded as feminine are bad is really not ok. Are we losing ground or are we coming to a more complex understanding of what clothes signify and how “femme” coded things are often viewed distastefully?
Well both. Here’s the thing: feminism is always a balance of the practical and the idealistic. When we tell young women that they shouldn’t have to protect themselves against rape, that they should be able to wear the clothes they want to wear, we are imagining an ideal world and we are trying to force that ideal world to exist with our actions. When our mothers tell us “please be safe, please think about how you can protect yourself” they are desperately trying to be practical and keep us safe because they know that the world that exists now is not ideal.
We need both. I would never shame someone for their clothing choice but I also sure as hell would never leave my drink unattended at a party. Even if we try to . We live in a world that is not ideal and yet we are hoping against hope that we can make it closer to the ideal. This is a difficult place to be, because when we fall on the wrong side of the balance either we get hurt or someone else gets hurt.
When I look at the differences between earlier waves of feminism and today’s feminism, that question is often what I see: should we aim for the practical or the radically idealistic? Those of us who are working on feminist issues today are in the incredibly privileged position that we even get to look at the ideal. For my mom, that was not always an option: asking men to respect you whatever your clothing choices took second fiddle to actively protecting yourself from rape, assault, and abuse, and if that meant wearing a different set of clothes then so be it.
There are all kinds of issues that this crops up in: we only get to debate the ideals of consent because our forebears put in place protections against rape that have given us the space to breathe. We need both the practical and the idealistic, but we always need to be keenly aware of who might be hurt and who might be helped by any of our rhetoric.
It also seems that if we reimagine the differences between the various waves of feminism in terms of where they draw the boundary of radical and practical, we may come to a better understanding of why people did what they did and how we can build off of their successes. Perhaps this can also lead current feminists to be less defensive about their choice feminism and recognize some of the practical aspects to their choices: while it’s great to imagine a world in which femme-coded clothing is on par with masculine clothing, in the here and now that clothing was designed to be limiting to your body and your abilities, and that is a reality that needs to be taken into account.
I’m not sure where the balance is on a lot of these questions. I do take steps to protect myself from rape, even as I try to explain to the men in my life how they can keep from putting women in uncomfortable and bad situations. I have no idea how possible it is to act consistently while being both radical and practical. I’m sure that there will always be swings back and forth between them.
One thing the feminists of today do need to keep in mind is that the space we have now to imagine the ideal was not always there and is not a guarantee. We do need to remember what things have been like and why, and remind ourselves that whatever steps we take in moving forward, we must be careful to protect ourselves from the potential of moving backwards. Perhaps instead of reclaiming heels and tight skirts we could work to create a new sexy, a new femme, because we remember the oppressive nature of those items in the past.
What does seem clear to me is that many of the debates that are happening in the feminist world right now are about how safe we feel and about whether we want to take clear, practical steps in the world as it is to protect ourselves or whether we want to begin to act as if the world is the ideal one we aim for. If we were all perfect, brave, impossible feminists, we would make this world our ideal. We would not flinch when we act radically outside of the norm and put ourselves in potential danger. But I can never fault someone for trying to keep themselves safe and healthy in the world that they live in here and now.