None of your beeswax

Certainly we have better things to do than judge each other's feminist credentials.

Published August 15, 2001 7:30PM (EDT)

Mamas, don't let your babies grow up to be feminists. They've got excess baggage, overactive egos, underground pretensions, multiple personalities and an inexplicable sense of remorse.

Which would be OK. Especially when you compare that stuff to the hardwired weirdness of boys -- or the irritating psychic accessories of "enlightened" men. No, the problem here is not primal or deep. But it is irritating -- deeply and primally irritating.

You see, feminists have forgotten their manners.

Certain among us -- you know who you are -- have been chiseling away with righteous determination at a set of commandments, ranking the personal sins of feminists with paternalistic fervor and demanding contrition from transgressors. Marriage is heresy. (See "Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique" by Jaclyn Geller). Modesty is a commodity. (Demure contrarian femmes, led by Wendy Shalit, give this lecture). Eye shadow is good. (Bitch, Bust.) Abortion is better. (Call it a human right and pretty much everybody signs on.) Wrong choices, bad choices -- it is easy to fall afoul of the new feminist law. What happened to the simple old feminist embrace of choice itself, and the belief that for women, as well as other "living things," it should be free?

Take my mom. She was a feminist when there weren't feminists, just "women's libbers." She wasn't so much a First Wave gal as a Permanent Wave doyenne, someone who shaved her legs and kept a War Resister's League datebook. She played basketball with the men in the neighborhood until my dad got in a fight with the guy who had the hoop because he -- the guy with the hoop -- built a bomb shelter under his side yard.

Maybe my mom did some weird stuff. I think there probably was some informal consciousness-raising. Maybe she even looked at her cervix with a hand mirror. But here's the thing: She didn't look at anybody else's cervix with a hand mirror. She didn't demand to know about anybody else's cervix or judge them on the basis of what she was able to find our about their cervix. With apologies to "I do," "Do me," "I'd never," and "You'd better not" feminists, my mom was pro-choice and anti-invasive, personally free and publicly dignified. She understood the meaning of respect and the petty malevolence of snippy criticism based on personal choices. For my mom and her cronies, liberation wasn't just freedom to choose, it was freedom from having to justify one's choices.

Call me a postmodern Emily Post, but I cling to the genteel idea that one does not grill one's sisters about their private lives in order to evaluate their commitment to the sisterhood. It has never been polite to ask someone about their salary or the color of their pubic hair. Certainly it is not polite to ask a person why they got married or if they've had an abortion. And it is even more egregious if one is asking these questions to make sure that the victim's feminist papers are in order.

"What's it to you?" is my answer, by the way.

I've got a record as long as your arm -- marriage, divorce, pregnancies -- but there isn't a choice in my fat file that would epitomize my gender politics. And if there is, I'm the only one who gets to epitomize my gender politics. Besides, who wants one of those cutesy, derivative labels that one must now have to indicate which feminist team one plays for? "I do" and "Do me" -- they're all about boys. And the First, Second and Third Wave thing is reductive and vague, and conjures up a heave-making image -- wave upon wave of viscous rhetoric coursing into the gender trough.

Don't we have better things to do than evaluate each other's feminist pedigrees? It isn't as if we've dealt with all the important stuff and can now retire to a life of neurotic rationalizing and self-conscious crowing. There are issues enough to go around: Drug conspiracy law and mandatory sentencing rules are mired in sexism; welfare law stubbornly rejects the needs of women and the vulnerability of children. The absence of high-quality subsidized child care, inequities in the workplace, the specter of harassment in school: Where is a feminist when you need one? On a beach somewhere, apparently, dedicated to the rather eccentric task of separating Star-Belly Sneetches from Plain-Belly Sneetches.

It would be naive to suggest that we should all just get along or that the eggheads among us should ignore the delicious aspect of a nitpicking political debate about wedding rings and surnames. But I'm finding the volume on discussions of modesty, mascara and the implications of marriage to be up a little high, beyond ear-splitting to hair-splitting. One envisions, as these debates rage in page after page of earnest manifesti, a culmination of "Are you now or have you ever been?" hearings headed by Wendy Shalit and Jaclyn Geller. Pink-baiting, we'll call it. Guilty parties will not be blackballed, but declawed.

I vote for cafeteria-style feminism with a hint of mystery and romance. We can cruise the smorgy (graciously thanking the elderly chefs) and pick out the philosophical morsels we crave, leaving the hard-to-swallow for other palates. And then, and this is important, we dab the corners of our sweet lips with a serviette and leave. Sated. Together. We are smug and kind, superior and understanding. We agree on the important stuff, like human rights, and the rest is left to be divulged during good-humored drinking bouts or while holding hands across the Lazi-Boys during chemo.

The paternalistic sanctimony of defying women to marry for feminist reasons suggests that we poor lasses must be protected from our helpless selves. The pathetic weaseling of feminists who feel they must offer excuses for marriage suggests that the paternalist feminists might be right. The rest of us can wave lace hankies from the windows of the old school, abandoning goofy judgmentalism for power, choice and politesse.

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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