Rebel Girl: What’s Behind the Applause?

Catherine Sameh

REMEMBER THE YEAR of the Woman? Female forays into electoral politics had media coining the phrase so often it left most women feeling we’d received that token lapel pin for a lifetime of hard work. Still, it was an historic year with palpable accomplishments by women. This year is strangely similar, the last one in a decade marked by both advances and setbacks for women in this country.

Popular media have, once again, harvested a kernel of truth into a field of illusion, leading more than one popular magazine to ask, “Will women rule the 21st century?” Everyone (boys and men, too!) seems crazy for anything remotely girl powerish, chicks rulish, women rockish. Huh?

It’s true, it has been a remarkable year for women. Even the hardest cultural critic cannot downplay the enormous impact of the Women’s World Cup on popular consciousness. Contradictory things happened during this wildly exciting competition, but the net result was an irreversibly altered public perception of the elite athlete. Commercial or no commercial, Mia Hamm will forever rank in the annals of sports history not as one of the greatest women athletes of all time, but as one of the greatest athletes of all time.

While the revolution in sports took hold, the revolution in music continued. If the Lilith Fair, in its third and final year, had failed to live up to its feminist promise and became too mainstream for some of us, Jerry Falwell’s protest of Lilith as a pagan (read lesbian or feminist) festival, in honor of an early feminist who refused to be ruled by a man, reminded us of its radical implications, however muted they were by commercialization.

And if sports and music are, for some, inadequate barometers of women’s advancement, along came NASA astronaut Eileen Collins, who made history by becoming the first woman to command a Space Shuttle mission.

Then again, there are few things women aren’t doing or haven’t done any longer, making it impossible for anyone to ignore or even trivialize our collective contributions. Of course, ignoring us the world is not. Au contraire, we’re being taken up as the latest and greatest fad!

Worse things than women being recognized and celebrated by the larger culture have happened. But what’s unsettling is how scant the context is for understanding and locating these achievements, and how easily missed is the more complex reality behind all the applause.

The context for understanding the contemporary feats of women is feminism, that scary “f” word that few journalists dare to utter. What Eileen Collins, and the women who participated in the Women’s World Cup and Lilith Fair share is a society radically and forever transformed by decades of feminist struggle. Women have fought long and hard for full participation in society, and these celebrated accomplishments are a testament to the work we’ve done.

But let us not forget that this was also a decade and a year marked by increased brutality towards women, especially women of color and poor women, in the form of welfare reform, greater incarceration of women, attacks on abortion and sexual freedom, greater barriers to health and child care, environmental racism, and the list goes on. This is the side of women’s lives rarely exposed in popular culture and mass media.

As with African Americans, and queers to a lesser degree, women are caught in a racist and sexist capitalist culture that both accommodates and rejects our complex needs and desires. A culture that simultaneously worships and yes, hates us.

The recent cultural infatuation with women’s triumphs (and with the notion of us leading and ruling) is cause for both well-deserved pleasure and studied skepticism. As usual, we’ll respond by moving in the world as watchdogs and activists who’ve so much yet to do.