(Article changed on December 4, 2013 at 10:48)
(Article changed on December 3, 2013 at 18:15)
Fanny Imlay leaving Skinner Street on October 7, 1816. The lightening represents by By Lee Moyer (Lee Moyer commissioned to design cover for book.) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
What is a feminist? Is it someone who has a paying job outside of the home? Is it someone who keeps their maiden name? Is it someone who shuns common female cosmetic rituals, such as wearing make-up and shaving one's legs? Do any of these litmus tests actually hold up to reality? Personally, I know plenty of women who took their husbands' names when they got married, who consider themselves to be feminists; I also know women who work because they have to, who would stay home with their kids if they could. And I know plenty of women who feel responsible for all the traditional "women's work" tasks, regardless of how many hours they work outside of the home. Are they feminists?
A new controversy within the feminist world has opened up over a recent article by Michelle Cottle which condescendingly criticizes First Lady Michelle Obama for her public and private choices. Cottle faults Obama for everything from her "Mom-in-Chief" title, to her fashion sense, to her toned arms, to the causes she has championed as FLOTUS. The apparent assumption underlying the piece, is that there is only one way to be a "good" feminist, and Michelle Cottle and her ilk are the gatekeepers for that designation. It's as if the title "feminist" were something one earned after completing a certification process.
Many of the critics of Cottle's article point to the history of black mothers in the U.S., as being far different from those of white mothers. They point out that Michelle Obama's choice is not the path of least resistance for many black women, but is in essence, a subversive act.. Melissa-Harris Perry has made that point several times on her television show, as have several writers in Salon , who also spoke to MSNBC recently on the subject. And yes, they are right. In fact, the entire Second Wave feminist movement has been criticized for being oblivious to the experience of black women, and those faults continue today. But of course, all women should be free to make whatever personal choices makes sense to them, and still call themselves a "feminist."
This struggle over whether feminism should be conflated with careerism, obscures a bigger picture. In a sense, the emphasis on careers of choice (as opposed to jobs of necessity) as the hallmark of feminism, is an effort to fit women's rights into an unquestioned capitalist framework. That is, if we accept the idea that people's worth is equal to what kinds of salaries they can command in the marketplace, then it's a no-brainer that moving more women into the workforce is the key to the empowerment of women. This very simple assumption has been voiced by the likes of Hillary Clinton and Nicholas Kristof - two figures that are almost synonymous with modern feminism. But, in this age of a new war on women, has this focus on value in the marketplace really helped us in the battle for female personhood? I would say that, to the contrary: while we feminists privileged enough to even have choices to make are quibbling about the label "feminist," the very health and lives of all women is threatened by the closing of clinics, and the denial of vital medications. Our lives are being put at risk by forced pregnancy and childbirth , and our human rights are denied by the idea that the actions of a rapist can somehow be divinely determined.
The counterargument might be that the very rise of women such as Hillary Clinton has created a backlash against women, the way the rise of the first African-American president has created a backlash against people of color. That may be true. But why define empowerment in such narrow terms that only the most highly educated and privileged need apply? Instead, feminists of all stripes need to unite to fight for the idea that women are human beings, with unique contributions to society, regardless of whether we earn money outside of the home or not. Doing that requires that we abandon the market-driven definition of worth.