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Posted in: Feminism

Published on Jun 25, 1998 by

Written for Time

Is Feminism Dead?


Timehost: Welcome everyone. Many of you may have read or seen this week's TIME magazine cover story. It's about feminism, and its author, Ginia Bellafante, makes the argument that feminism has "gone Hollywood." We're going to be talking about feminism, where it is now, and where it's going, and to do that, we're now joined by Ginia Bellafante and feminist author Phyllis Chesler, author of the groundbreaking study "Women and Madness", and more recently, "Letters to a Young Feminist." Welcome to you both.

Phyllis Chesler: Thank you.

Ginia Bellafante: Thanks, glad to be here.

Timehost: Let me begin by asking the first question. It's straight from the cover of the magazine...and a number of people are asking it online: Is feminism dead?

Phyllis Chesler: The answer is absolutely not. In fact what the article does is attack non-feminists and anti-feminists, whose work is quite minor, instead of talking about the media culture, publishing culture, church culture -- the patriarchy itself which buys and promotes such books and treats them as if they're representative of feminism. While I agree that many of the very minor works that TIME referred to are beside the point, these are not feminist works. There are, however, many feminist works , serious works, that the article does not refer to. You would not have a lawsuit won against Mitsubishi, a win of $35 million, over sex harassment if you didn't have serious feminism. Those ideas are fighting very hard to win some justice for women. In the bibliography to Letters to A Young Feminist, there is a serious bibliography, 1992-1997, where very important works are cited, works such as Joanna Russ' "What Are We Fighting For?" And from my point of view, there's a long history, long before Susan B. Anthony, and those ideas are not discussed in this article. Neither are Betty Friedan's or Gloria Steinem's. What the article focuses on is the silliness , the superficiality of some women, which has always existed. If women could get ahead by flirting, they would rule the world. All of these fantasies, Ally McBeal and worse, are not feminist role models. Just because they say they're bad, that doesn't make them revolutionaries or feminists.

Ginia Bellafante: I really don't think there have been any truly important feminist books -- books inspired by the spirit of second wave feminism since Susan Faludi's groundbreaking "Backlash" seven years ago.

Phyllis Chesler: I totally disagree. And I would recommend that listeners read some of the books in my bibliography. I wouldn't call Faludi's book as groundbreaking. I think the writer shares Faludi's views on the media. In this article, instead of calling TIME to task, calling to task the boys who shoot girls for not going out with them, they didn't do a feminist analysis. And TIME doesn't do that. They don't take the media on at that level. Even though Faludi's book was well researched and was a good piece of investigative journalism, it's not on the same level as Judith Lewis Herman's "Trauma and Recovery", published in 1992. In terms of the work in the world that books are privileged to do, Dr. Herman's book is doing that work. So when rape victims or incest victims or battered women bring charges, try to change laws, try to get humane counseling, this work by Herman is being put to use. There are young feminist works which are more political. For example, by Meg Daly, an anthology of younger feminists. I don't understand ... I think that Bellafante is right that a lot of publishers have bought cheap goods and the media has helped promote these cheap works, but that doesn't mean that major works aren't being written.

Timehost: Okay, we've got lots of questions to get to...

Janellebrown asks: Ok. Define "feminism" in 1998. Who is a feminist, and who isn't? Why is one type of "feminism" more viable than another?

Phyllis Chesler: There are many definitions, but equal rights...spiritually, economically, etc... is a good working definition. Another good definition is that a woman's body is her own, and she should not be invaded against her will by a rapist , nor should she be prevented from having an abortion. Some feminists are interested in the body violation issues and some are interested in the political, economic equality issues. It's a very big area to define.

Ginia Bellafante: I think a certain type of feminism has, with the help of the media and popular culture, captured the public imagination at the moment.

Phyllis Chesler: It's not feminism , though. It's whore power.

PrincessEmmaRose asks: Would you consider the Spice Girls philosophy of "Girl Power" true feminism or just a fad that will soon go away?

Ginia Bellafante: Well, we can only hope that it will be a fad that will soon go away

Phyllis Chesler: I agree. Which doesn't mean that feminists don't love music.

KilgoreTrout2br02b asks: Ms. Bellafante: Haven't read your story, but the title is typical of the either/or "debate" that oversimplifies too much of today's public discourse...To what degree do you think journalism has misrepresented feminism?

Ginia Bellafante: The title is a provocative one, indeed, but I don't think my piece oversimplifies the issues. Read it.

Phyllis Chesler: I would say that if you want to understand feminism, you will not, in reading this article, understand anything about the trafficking in women and girls that is going on internationally, and you will not understand about the battle that is going on to keep abortion legal, and the enormous exhaustion that feminist forces have been dealing with since abortion was made legal. These are battles at the Supreme Court level, outside clinics in each state, and I think they are important for stories about feminism. The same for clinics for battered women..we need a lot more of them and you won't learn anything about that by reading this article.

Archimedean asks: Miss Chesler, with all due respect, are you dismissing "media-driven" movements such as the Riot Grrl movement, similar movements that have sprung up related to the web, and Girl Power, which all in one way or another do promote independence, strength,...

Phyllis Chesler: I say read "Feminista," which is a feminist online journal. And read "On the Issues" which has a web page. And I would say that there are many, there are zines that are feminist. And I must here agree with Ginia Bellafante that the books and singing groups that she singled out for scorn, indeed deserve that scorn. However, they are not feminists.

WF10 asks: Why is Ally McBeal representative of anything? Why put her on the cover with live heroines?

Smearley asks: Why did Time put 3 real women and one fictional woman on the cover this week to prove their point?

Ginia Bellafante: The point, of course, is that there are no obvious leaders of the women's movement anymore, and the most popular woman on TV--hardly an uninfluential medium by the way--is Ally McBeal

Phyllis Chesler: As for there not being a leader of the women's movement anymore, I'm not dead yet! However, remember who controls the media -- it is a sexist man, who likes his women young and stupid, and adoring him, and women, token numbers, who have gone along with this game, are seeing Ally McBeal like Ozzy and Harriet from the 50s. And these people are not real! Ally McBeal is about breaking people's hearts and misinforming them, that's all. I would like to know why Ginia didn't then take on the media.

Ginia Bellafante: My next job won't be at TIME WARNER, and then I'll rip the media to shreds.

Phyllis Chesler: Beware that you don't get a publishing offer based on the spin going on about this cover, which will then derail you from that task for two years, as you go on against Ally McBeal. You should do a serious power analysis of culture, because it's a great gate keeper, Ginia.

Timehost: And here's another question connected to Ally McBeal...

Sckanaday asks: What is the big threat Ally McBeal poses to old school feminists? I'm amazed at the backlash against a young, well-educated woman with choices who opts to live by her own agenda, not someone else's! Isn't that part of what feminism has stood for?

Ginia Bellafante: I think feminism worked long and hard to erase stereotypes of women as neurotic incompetents unconcerned with matters of public life. Ally McBeal, in my humble opinion, is helping undue that work.

Phyllis Chesler: I agree with her. And I would say that if Monica Lewinsky goes to law school and continues to behave in the same fashion, she will turn into Ally McBeal -- obsessed with men and sex and love and short skirts, and not with children being beaten to death in their own homes and not with women losing child support. These are not Ally McBeal's fantasy concerns. So I agree with Bellafante on this.

PrincessEmmaRose asks: Who would you consider a modern day society example of positive feminism?

Phyllis Chesler: Her name is legion. It is every woman who leaves a dead marriage or a violent boyfriend. It is every woman who speaks out about incest, it is every woman, and man, who fights for women's equal rights and right to abortion. It is every battered woman who fights back, tragically then being punished for saving her own life, by being put away in jail for life. It is every man and woman who dares to be kind to a woman in need or in crisis, despite the bad names they may be called for caring about others.

HugoBoss_1969 asks: Why do women have to work harder than men just to get adequate respect and to get maybe the same pay?

Phyllis Chesler: Because patriarchy and ownership of children by fathers both fears and depends upon women as servants or slaves. And that is the system that feminism envisions transforming.

Timehost: Here's a follow-up comment to a question we discussed earlier...

Luvtool8 asks: That comment about TV being controlled by a sexist man is ridiculous, it's controlled by the viewer -- most of whom are women watching Ally McBeal.

Phyllis Chesler: That's like saying that women watch beauty pageants and enter them. I don't see many choices for women out there. Girls are not told, "Well, you have choices. You can be the president, you can command the space shuttle, or you can be the beauty queen and enter a marriage which won't earn you a living wage." That's what choice is about. And women don't have that yet.

Ginia Bellafante: Girls are not told they have choices? Are you serious?

Phyllis Chesler: Absolutely serious. Because girls understand that if they're too pushy, too uppity, or too physically powerful, they will be called lesbian, man-hating feminists and will lose all popularity. And teenagers are very dependent on external approval. So that although some girls have more choices than others do, they still get a real clear message that if you're too smart or pushy, you will not get a husband or boyfriend and the other girls won't like you. They won't behave in sisterly fashion towards you. They'll kill you. Now, go ahead, choose! We don't all live in upper income levels in Manhattan.

Angel_777_16 asks: Do you ever think there will be a woman President soon?

Phyllis Chesler: Yes. But I fear she won't be a feminist. Any more than all the senators and congresswomen, who sold all poor women out in terms of welfare legislation. Being a woman does not mean you'll be a feminist woman. So the good news is that men as well as women can be feminists.

Timehost: And here are two related questions...

Trimalchio98 asks: Why is it that most women do not consider themselves feminists?

LeniXYZ asks: I rarely meet young women who call themselves feminists, they expect all, yet still face the same problems of women 20 years ago

Phyllis Chesler: Good point. I address the point in my book, Letters to a Young Feminist. I recommend that you take a look at it.

Ginia Bellafante: Because people have bought into the media-generated myth that feminists are unkempt man-haters. Wee, I can fault the media.

Phyllis Chesler: Good! We have to teach young girls how to be unpopular, how to live with criticism without being in terror of it. How to go their own way. This kind of education, which is sometimes called "give them role models".... but I don't think that's enough. You may discover people don't really respect you. If you need a lot of approval, you need to wear lipstick and have a husband very young. Girls need to have training in how to take criticism without taking it personally.

PrincessEmmaRose asks: What is the true definition of a feminist in both your own opinions?

Ginia Bellafante: Anyone who believes in absolute equal opportunities--at home and at work--for both sexes

Phyllis Chesler: Let me read something from "Letters": "Do not try to win approval from your opponents. Merely fight to win. Keep your eyes on the prize. Do not let a little verbal shaming slow you down. Aim for greatness , not 'goodness.'"

SkynniJu asks: Isn't it all humanism anyway?

Phyllis Chesler: No. Because if it were, we wouldn't have needed feminism. Women were never included in the concept of brotherhood and, until recently, were not seen as human enough to be entitled to human rights. And one of the most important of feminist victories is the understanding that women's rights are violated when they are genitally mutilated, or forced into brothels or marriages against their wills, or forced into war. So humanism has not traditionally included women.

Genoel asks: How do you think we should deal with the fact being called a "feminist" is a DIS?

Phyllis Chesler: Pay no mind. Keep your eye on the prize. Go for broke. Don't let it bother you. Think of some male revolutionaries -- Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gandhi. You think they were never called bad names, that they forgot about the freedom for their people that they were fighting for?

Timehost: And we're going to have to wrap up, so this is our last question...

Katbulue asks: Where is feminism going next?

Ginia Bellafante: Well, hopefully, no one will give big money book contracts to people with nothing to say and things will move in a more positive, substantial politicized direction.

Phyllis Chesler: Bless you! My final thought: history has pendulum swings, and psychologically, when you have a radical, activist mother, you might have a more artistic, or dreamy or conservative daughter in reaction. So feminism, the legacy, has disappeared many times and that wheel has been reinvented many times . And I think we will have a pendulum swing. That's why I wrote "Letters" so we won't have to reinvent the wheel again when the pendulum next swings.

Timehost: Thank you both for joining us this evening. We've enjoyed having you with us.

Phyllis Chesler: Thank you for having me.

Ginia Bellafante: Ditto


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