A dedicated reader commented on my recent post about the flap caused by Natalie Portman thanking her fiance at the Oscars ceremony for giving her “the most important role in her life.” His view of what he calls “modern” feminism in the US appears to be a composite of stereotypes of women who, the story goes, value wealth and career success above family, masculine appearance above femininity, and arrogance above God-fearing modesty. The stereotypical modern feminist, in the picture painted by my reader, is a short-haired, artificially flat-chested, pro-abortion, plain-faced woman averse to commitment. I have known and seen many radical feminists in my time, and have never seen one who embodies all of these characteristics. Andrea Dworkin’s radical feminist credentials are unparalleled, but her hair has never been short. The only women I know who make their bustlines smaller are those who undergo surgical reductions, which reduce their chance of breast cancer and chronic back problems. Abortion is seen as a difficult choice for women, but a choice nonetheless, and one which is permissible in certain circumstances by halacha. Make-up, too, is a choice. And nearly every feminist I’ve known or known of has been in a committed relationship (granted, sometimes it’s been with another woman, but that didn’t make the short list of the stereotypical feminist.) These stereotypes may have sprung from small grains of truth, but they are far from reflecting my experience of feminism in the US. (I was a full-time American before I made aliyah, went to a women’s college, and took my share of women’s studies classes there.) I understand that the impression this reader and probably many others have of this brand of feminism is negative, but since one of my little dreams in this blog is to get people to think and question, rather than just say, “Right on, Shimshonit!”, I’d like to spend a little time on this topic.
The way women are supposed to look in the modern world is worth examining in a historical and sociological context. Anyone who pays any attention to the history of art knows that the image of the ideal woman has changed over time. In the ancient world, fertility goddesses were full-figured. Egyptians created goddess images of lean, long-legged, small-breasted women, but the Greeks filled this image out a little more. Once Western art caught up to the Greek (we’re skipping the Medieval era here), women filled out again, reaching the Rococo period when beautiful women were positively zaftig. At the turn of the 20th century, Aubrey Beardsley starved his women back down to pencil-thin, and by the 1920s, the image of the short-haired, flat-chested, boyish-looking woman in low-cut, sleeveless, high-hemmed dresses was shocking at first, but nonetheless became an ideal, if not a norm. Mae West and later, to a smaller degree, Marilyn Monroe (who was not as plump as some would claim, since sizing standards changed, making numbers smaller for the same size) gave women a slight reprieve, but then Twiggy came on the scene, and that was the end of the normally-proportioned supermodel. Whether slender and athletic, like Elle MacPherson or Brooke Shields, or half-starved and sleep-deprived, like Kate Moss, thin became the rule, and has been rigidly enforced by photo-altering software (which was once used to slim down magazine photos of a plump, peachy Kate Winslet, to her outrage).
Shape has undergone changes over the ages, as have other features. In my college days, women with impeccable feminist cred would often refrain from shaving their legs. When I traveled to Germany after college on a six-month world tour, this was how I looked, and with my reasonably well-accented German, I passed for native with more than one unsuspecting person. (I was even told in a youth hostel that I couldn’t possibly be American, since I didn’t have smooth legs, lots of make-up, and big hair. It turned out the extent of this person’s knowledge of America was from “Dynasty.”) I heard once that in France at least, the only women who shaved their legs until recent decades were prostitutes. Now, of course, smooth skin is expected of a well-groomed woman, regardless of profession. If the women chosen as supermodels are anything to judge the ideal female by, even skin, large eyes, and full, colored lips are the marks of beauty. So let’s tally it up for a moment; what sort of creature sports soft, smooth, perfect skin, wide eyes, and bright red lips? A baby. (Isn’t that what they call women in rock ‘n’ roll and blues songs? And ask her, “Who’s your daddy?”) Take away the fat and add lots of long hair, and you have the ideal woman. Don’t have those features? Then Botox, collagen, make-up, plastic surgery, laser hair removal, diets, drugs, and pricey hair treatments await. Personally, I like to keep people’s expectations of my daily appearance low, so I avoid that stuff and only take out the make-up (some of which is left over from my wedding 11 years ago) for weddings and bar mitzvahs. I think people should look at a woman with eyes more interested in seeing what’s in her soul than what’s on the surface.
The point of my post, which I hope didn’t get lost in the bit of ranting I did, is that feminism is a good thing, but only when it’s channeled toward healthy choices for each individual. It’s decidedly NOT good if it’s used to make women feel guilty (either for staying home or for going back to work after having a child) or to condemn their choices. It’s not a stick to beat women with who either try to make the most of their appearance, or don’t spend excessive amounts of money on cosmetics and time in front of a mirror. It’s not the sole address of who’s responsible for unwanted pregnancy. (There was someone else involved, remember, but he doesn’t have to face society’s scorn because it doesn’t show on him and he isn’t the one who has to choose the path his life will take, with or without a baby.) It’s what’s responsible for relieving women’s honorifics of their tie to marital status (something that has never affected men). If women hadn’t fought hard for the right to vote, it would never have been offered them willingly by men. Without feminism, women would still be considered chattel in society.
I was grateful for Rav Averick’s support of women who choose motherhood. I’ve been viewed as a wastrel and a shiftless layabout by dozens of people since choosing to be the primary caregiver in my children’s lives. (Apparently, unless one is being paid to care for children, it doesn’t carry the same merit.) But I also thought his criticism of Wildman’s piece was harsh in its condemnation of the inevitable questions that come up when women see other women hold up motherhood as the ideal state. That hearkens back painfully to the 1950s (and later) when motherhood was considered by society to be the fulfillment of womanhood, and the only desired result of a woman’s higher education, marriage, and (temporary) career. It’s inevitable that comments like Portman’s will provoke a response from feminists. But I found the substance of the feminist buzz and reactions to Portman’s comments to be full of willful misunderstandings and overreactions to her words. The whole thing, on both sides, was in bad taste, as is so much of what passes for news and commentary.
Feminism took women out of the private sphere and gave them the opportunity to become actors in the public sphere. It gave them the vote, the chance to hold office, to influence policy, to own property and enjoy full rights as citizens. One of the things women have attempted to do is to secure the right to keep others out of their personal decision-making. When a public furor erupts over a woman’s stated preference for a public, professional life (as happened to Sarah Palin) or for motherhood, the public reaction seems to be the same, to excoriate the woman for doing what she’s doing, and not doing what she’s not. When people finally look at a woman — as they would look at any man — and judge her based on the quality of what she’s doing rather than on what they think she supposed to be doing, then feminism will finally have succeeded.