Last week my father forwarded me this story, "Squandering our Emancipation" by Heike Feller, translated from the German newspaper Die Zeit. When I finally read it today, I found 35-year-old Feller's rambling, thoughtful and thoroughly fascinating ruminations on the state of post-post-feminism in Germany. Part of what's so arresting about the piece is how grimly familiar it is. Apparently, it's not just American-style backlash that has been reheating the gender wars. In describing German politicians, German advertising campaigns, German gossip columns and German mommy wars, Feller evokes a nation that spookily mirrors our own -- like Jerry Seinfeld's bizarro world, except substantially less funny.
"When did I start thinking about feminism again?" Feller muses. At about the time a boyfriend told her he was disappointed that she wanted a family, since he had considered her a "career woman." (For more on German attitudes about work and family, see the recent Times piece about "Rabenmutter.")
As a young woman, Feller writes, she got comfortable listening to the lilting choruses of post-feminism: that the battles had been won, that being sexy meant being empowered, that it was safe not to be angry anymore. Her generation wasn't aggressive. "On the contrary," she writes, "we actually enjoyed not being aggressive. If someone held the door open for us, offered to pay the bill or said after three glasses of wine that he found us attractive, we were somehow proud that our mood did not immediately blacken, as the previous generation's presumably did, feeling that they had -- how did they put it? -- been reduced to their bodies."
But then one day, not long after having been told that her familial and professional aspirations were incompatible, she began to notice things: that she'd had six male bosses (and one female, who promptly went on maternity leave, returning to work half days, "like pretty much all German mothers"). She noticed when an investment banker friend came to her in tears because one of her male colleagues had announced his desire to "humiliate" her and their boss had refused to reprimand him. She noticed that some of the "refreshing" ways women had begun to discuss physical beauty and sexuality again were quickly becoming less refreshing and more hideously recidivistic. She noticed an ad for vacuum cleaners in which "two women meet at a party. One is a career woman who chatters about her management tasks. Of course she's alone. And what do you do? she asks the other (whose husband is standing next to her). The snappy answer: I manage a very successful small business with three children, a husband and five pets." Why, Feller wonders, does this ad always put her in a bad mood? Well, probably because, as she writes, "it gets us right back to the old apartheid system, as if you had to make a choice. Housewife (but fighting for recognition) or tough-nut careerist (but alone)."
She also quotes German television host Harald Schmidt telling Die Zeit that "most of the childless women" in media "with luck ... can have a one-night-stand with a lighting technician, so to speak the last-ditch effort as far as kids go. The 25-year-olds are waiting in the wings and things are going to get bitter." "Ouch," writes Feller, "that's enough to wake even post-feminists out of their 15-year waking coma. The question is, which is worse, the situation or the way it's described?" The other question is, who is going to send Feller the Newsweek retraction and new statistics about how likely it is for women in their late 30s to get married if they want to?
The world that Feller describes does sound dark, but I remain (perhaps relentlessly and unrealistically) hopeful about it. The fact is that she has girlfriends who are investment bankers. Germany just elected a female chancellor, and while Feller writes that that doesn't cheer her enormously, it's a big deal. Feller herself is writing columns about this. And they're getting translated and picked up around the world, as in a blog dedicated to keeping readers informed about exactly this kind of discourse. We talk and write so much here about the very real, very serious threats to women's health and reproductive rights, about twisted media representation, about a lack of female political heft, about some of the ugly ways that women treat each other. But I don't believe that feminism has been left by the wayside in favor of feeling cheerful about stilettos. I think it's alive and well and that people like Feller are actually helping to reenergize it.