The Rebel Girl: “Victim” Vs. “Power” Feminism?

Against the Current, No. 49, March/April 1994

Catherine Sameh

HAVING CONSCIOUSLY defined myself as a feminist for nearly half my life now, I can identity different stages of my feminist evolution. Feminism at sixteen meant discovering women writers, sex and standing up to harassment by men, while at twenty it meant studying women’s history and rejecting makeup. In my last two years of college, socialism, anti-racism and lesbian studies began to shape my feminist politics, challenging me to examine difference among women according to class, race and sexuality. (I also rediscovered lipstick.)

Now pushing thirty, an activist and women’s book purveyor, I continue to be informed by the abundant contributions of diverse feminist activists and thinkers, who push me into new territory full of rich and complex debates, and shed light on the varied and shifting dilemmas women face today.

How dismayed I am, therefore, to see this new wave of mostly young, white and relatively privileged women writers “take on” feminism with an ignorance of its fertile history as big as their passion to attack it. While there are subtle nuances to each individual work, their common message, ma nutshell, is this: the feminist movement has stripped women of their agency by stressing vicimizatjon and stifling dissent, particularly around sexual politics. As a result, young women are turned off by feminism.

While Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae was the first of this genre to be splashed on the pages of every popular newspaper and magazine, it is Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism on Campus that has generated the most interest from the mass media, who have eagerly delivered her parlance to a popular audience.

Roiphe argues that feminists are hyper-focused on date rape, the incident of which they inflate, and that dissent from the party line around this question and others is universally untolerated. Naomi Wolf’s Fight With Fire: The New Female Power and How It Will Change the 21st Century, while not exclusively in this genre, coins the terms “victim feminism” and “power feminism,” placing women into one or the other of these camps.

Two forthcoming works, Rene Denfeld’s The New Victorians: Why Young Women Are Abandoning the Women’s Movement and Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism? will take on “establishment feminism” and sound the trumpet fora new day.

The problem with all of this is twofold. One, the new day is here and has been for some time, thanks not to Roiphe, Wolfe et al., but rather to the myriad of mostly non-white, non-straight, or non-elite feminist thinkers who’ve been breathing dissent and diversity into feminism from the beginning.

As bell hooks says, in her excellent article in the January issue of Z Magazine, “Roiphe’s image of herself as ‘maverick’ standing alone in a feminist jungle where no one will listen deflects from the diverse critiques that exist. She does not stand alone. She stands in the shadows of feminist thinkers who have worked passionately to bring to the public a deeper awareness of the political significance of feminist movement, who have sought to deflect popular attention away from simplistic equation of feminism with anti- male and anti-sex sentiments.”

Secondly, these thinkers that hooks refers to—writers like working-class, S/M dyke Dorothy Allison, Native American lesbian poet Chiystos, hooks herself, and so many others—instead of simplifying the debate so as to make it palatable for the popular press—have thoughtfully wrestled with the real dilemmas women face in today’s world. Unlike Roiphe and her colleagues, these activists and thinkers, in their commitment to advancing the women’s movement, have provided women with diverse backgrounds and experiences the framework to operate with agency and dignity, while at the same time resisting the daily subtle and overt forms of oppression.

Had Roiphe & Co. done their homework and resisted the temptation to cash in on the anti-feminist sentiment that does exist in the powerful publishing world and on the ground, they would have discovered that daily life for most women isn’t black and white, but full of the rich grayness of struggle, informed by dilemmas and fought on contested terrain.

March/April 1994, ATC 49

1 comment

  1. A good article about power feminism and the need to embrace diversity including working-class, minority, and lesbian experience.

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