TRENTON, N.J., November 26, 2013 — Michelle Obama is a huge let-down to feminists. So argues Michelle Cottle in her Politico article, “Leaning Out: How Michele Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare.” The title is a riff on Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller, “Lean In.”
Sandberg is Forbes’s sixth most powerful woman in the world; Obama is fourth. But a phalanx of feminists quoted by Cottle think Number Four has a lot to learn from Number Six.
Cottle’s piece has sparked aggressive takedowns, with commentators at Slate, Huffington Post, The New Republic, and MSNBC rallying to the first lady’s defense. However, Cottle’s piece is mostly a rehash of a January 18 Washington Post article by Lonnae O’Neal Parker, making the same points, using identical quotes, from the exact same feminists.
This debate between Obama’s feminist defenders and her detractors elucidates several themes about feminism. It is — and has always been — more appropriate to speak of “feminisms,” not “feminism.” Political movements like to present a unified front to the public, but public fronts often conceal internal fissures. To concede that there are things about which the movement disagrees exposes it to forces which pick off defectors and thin its ranks.
This is the case with feminism, only for the American feminist movement, attrition has looked more like a bloodletting.
A Huffington Post poll this year found only about a quarter of American women identify as “feminist.” That’s down from a third of women calling themselves feminist in 1992, and still more a generation before that. A U-Penn study found that “men and women born between 1935 and 1955 were the most likely to self-identify as feminists,” and feminist self-identification falls off with each subsequent generation.
Many feminists are quick to point out that this isn’t a case of lower membership rolls, but rather a damaged brand. This argument — that waning feminist self-identification is a byproduct of a successful campaign by conservatives to turn it into a four-letter word — is buttressed by the fact that overwhelming majorities of Americans are feminist by the Merriam-Webster definition of the word: Over 80 percent of men and women, Democrats and Republicans, tell pollsters they agree that “men and women should be social, political and economic equals.”
After giving people this definition of feminism, the number who say they are feminist triples from one-in-four to three-in-four. That’s proof positive, Ms. Magazine contends, that feminism is just like Obamacare: People loathe the package, but love what’s in it. Feminists should not be so sure that explains all, or even most, of why most women and men fit the definition of feminist, yet reject the label.
A competing reason is much more compelling, and has the advantage of forcing feminism to contend with its internal contradictions.
It would be a therapeutic and cathartic psychological exercise if the nation took a deep breath, exhaled, and said in unison what it should have said long ago: Feminism isn’t sure what feminism is. That, much more than conservatives maligning the term, is the root of the issue.
It is disingenuous of forums like Ms. Magazine to use the Merriam-Webster definition of feminism, when in other contexts — when feminists want to police the boundaries of feminism — the Merriam-Webster definition is treated as woefully inadequate. Nora Ephron, for example, insists, “You can’t call yourself a feminist if you don’t believe in the right to abortion.” Ditto Rebecca Traister, Anna Holmes, Emily’s List, and the National Organization for Women (NOW) which also hold support for abortion as a necessary condition of feminism.
And anyone with even passing familiarity with feminism’s journey from First, Second, and Third Waves knows what it means to be feminist has been stuffed with many more requirements than mere equality between women and men. Distilling feminism to that alone seems quaint, because we all know it is.
Even small differences in terminology matter. The Feminist Majority Foundation defines feminism as, “the policy, practice or advocacy of political, economic, and social equality for women.”
According to Webster’s, mere “belief in” the proposition is enough. Not so, for FMF. Action is required.
Professional feminism has come to be heavily dominated by post-modernism, which has made an academic enterprise of rejecting “truth” and definitions in all things, coupled with the post-modernist term de rigueur, “intersectionality.” This has so ballooned the definition of feminism that to be a feminist — properly so called, these days — is also to be an anti-racist, anti-colonialist, anti-homophobia, anti-heteronormativity, anti-classicist — pretty much anti all the bad isms.
Professional feminism should, therefore, sense that a strong driver of declining feminist self-identification in America emanates from a sense among American women that feminists have moved the goal post on them. Feminism so engorged suffers from the same problem of the progressivism it increasingly pines to be a mere subset of — merely an “amalgam of appetites,” as George Will put it.
Progressives can insist on the “intersectionality” of their many causes, but that cannot overcome the central insight of Harvard’s Randall Kennedy, that any group which thinks of itself as a group has necessarily by that act drawn lines such that some things place you inside the group and other things, outside.
Accordingly, many defenders of Michelle Obama’s feminist credentials distill down to a kind of “Do You! Feminism” in which nearly anything and anyone is feminist. That won’t do. To “defend everything is to defend nothing,” as Frederick the Great presciently observed.
Yet the first lady’s feminist critics have equally poor arguments to stand on; it’s meaningless to ask whether Michelle Obama is a feminist until agreement is reached on what a feminist is.