The Conning of the Feminists issue of On The Issue Magazine
Is the ‘F’ word co-opted by conservatives & consumerist media? Where are real icons & core values? On The Issues Magazine, Winter 2011, considers feminist icons, feminist values and feminist cons.
   

Looking Back at the Debate Over Feminism

False feminism and true, what – and who -- defines each? Are the boundaries of feminism fluid or fixed? While these questions are furiously debated today-- as this issue demonstrates-- our archives provide perspective. Here are some highlights from past editions of On the Issues Magazine:

The editorials of Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Merle Hoffman have cut through the fog, whether in the print edition (1983 to 1999) or online (2008 through the present). In Sarah Palin and the Apocalypse, Fall 2008, she called out faux feminism in a single sentence: “How can you be a politician who claims to support women and the shattering of glass ceilings when your policies would put iron bars around their wombs and the concept of reproductive freedom in the garbage bin of history?”

Demonstrating her principled bipartisanship, 10 years earlier, in the Summer 1998 edition, she admonished those who gave then-President Bill Clinton a pass when his relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky hit the news. In What's a Feminist to Do?, she wrote:

I am not asking Bill to resign to marry the woman he loves. It appears he loves nothing but power and no one but himself. The constitution doesn't consider unregulated erections an impeachable crime. But feminists should call it as it is. If feminism is to count for anything beyond a mere interest group, we must vigilantly guard its vision. We cannot bend it to compromise, or change direction in response to popularity polls. Our standards should be raised even higher for those in public life who would carry our banner or espouse our principles. Acknowledging that some of Bill Clinton's policies have been good for some women does not require feminists to close their eyes, to become apologists, to find excuses for, or redefine, outrageous behavior.

Right-wing women today have their equivalents in the past, with some chilling implications. Mothers in the Fatherland, a fascinating interview with author Claudia Koonz on Women in Nazi Germany by Fred Pelka, in Fall 1990, included this exchange:

FP: I was struck by your description of how the Nazis, at least in some instances, offered women opportunities to build communities that more progressive groups did not. You say, for example, that "Nazi men's overt hostility unintentionally encouraged women toward autonomy." And then Elsbeth Zandler, an early leader of the Nazi Women's Movement, says, "We know that for decades German women have longed to call one another sister." Is there a parallel here with the sort of solidarity we see in this country on the right?

CK: I see that clearly with the very powerful mobilization against abortion. It comes back to the question of how a same-sex community feels comforting when values are up for question, and maybe your standard of living is sinking as well, so that you feel that you're doing something wrong. Joining together with other people revives your sense of community. When I look around today I'm very frightened, because it seems to me that the right wing produces very powerful same-sex peergroup associations: Of men, in the National Rifle Association, or of women in the antiabortion movement.

One of the sharpest and most provocative issues to call into question the definition of feminist values continues to be prostitution/sex work. In Spring 1996, Shiela Jeffreys wrote in How Orgasm Politics Has Hijacked the Women's Movement:

Women calling themselves feminists now argue that prostitution can be good for women, to express their "sexuality" and make empowering life choices. Others promote the practices and products of the sex industry to women to make a profit, in the form of lesbian striptease and the paraphernalia of sadomasochism. There are now whole areas of the women's, lesbian, and gay communities where any critical analysis of sexual practice is treated as sacrilege, stigmatized as "political correctness." Freedom is represented as the achievement of bigger and better orgasms by any means possible, including slave auctions, use of prostituted women and men, and forms of permanent physical damage such as branding. Traditional forms of male-supremacist sexuality based on dominance and submission and the exploitation and objectification of a slave class of women are being celebrated for their arousing and "transgressive" possibilities...And in the name of women's liberation, many feminists today are promoting sexual practices that--far from revolutionizing and transforming the world--are deeply implicated in the practices of the brothel and of pornography.

On The Issues Magazine online devoted an entire edition to Feminists and Prostitutes in July 2009. In Of Victims And Vixens – The Feminist Clash Over Prostitution, Angela Bonavoglia summed up the debate – and pointed to the possibility of a resolution:

Through all this, the question looms: Can prostitution be a freely made choice? The issue has divided feminists for three decades. Resolving it is not an academic exercise. The rift between so-called "radical" or "cultural" feminists who see prostitutes as victims and "liberal" feminists who see prostitutes as sex workers with rights to self-determination is obscuring what agreement there is and delaying desperately needed reforms.

Leaping from the comic book pages and, later, from the TV screens, new images of female strength and power challenged old conceptions of what it means to be a woman. But how far did they really go? Brave New Girls - These TV Heroines Know What Girl Power Really Means by Debbie Stoller discussed an upsurge of new TV heroes:

Move over Spice Girls-- there's a new breed of girl in town, and when she says "power," she means business. In the last few seasons, television shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Xena: Warrior Princess," "Sabrina the Teenage Witch," and "The Secret World of Alex Mack" have brought us heroines who give real meaning to the words "girl power." Whether they're chucking spears faster than a speeding bullet, kung-fu kicking unruly vampires into kingdom come, or simply breaking the laws of physics, these characters all share a common strength: the ability to leap over sexist stereotypes in a single bound.

The foremother of them all who also has outlasted them all, Wonder Woman continues to inspire. In Winter 2010, Art Editor Linda Stein wrote Wonder Woman: A Comic Book Character Shows the Way.

At her best, Wonder Woman was fabulous -- but not perfect. The original comics reflected a good deal of the jingoism, sexism, racism and homophobia of the 1940s. There was much about her that I had to dismiss and ignore, and felt, even as a kid, was very wrong. Unfortunately, these phobic tendencies worsened after Marston died in 1947, and Wonder Woman became much more of a bullet-breasted sex object, especially in the TV version with Lynda Carter.

And yet, as far as being a superhero role model for women’s freedom, I still believe she’s the best. All the others I know of, from past to present -- including Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Laura Croft, Xena and Lady Death -- are more violent and more objectified sexually.

The scrambling expectations of gender and power that Wonder Woman expresses lead me to mull over how the concepts of freedom, justice, courage, honor and non-violence are represented in art and in the world.

Also see 1983-99, Complete Print Archives of On The Issues Magazine.

See Online Archives, 2008-present of On The Issues Magazine.

See Editorial Archives, by Publisher Merle Hoffman, On The Issues Magazine, 1983-99 (print) and 2008-present (online.)

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