Whither feminism?

Ana Marie Cox, Barbara Ehrenreich and blogger Echidne of the Snakes throw down over stiletto heels, abortion access and the fate of the movement.

Published July 8, 2006 12:36AM (EDT)

An unofficial "state of feminism" debate arose this week, with much fulminating in the feminist blogosphere. It all started last weekend, when former Wonkette Ana Marie Cox slammed feminist hero and Nation columnist Katha Pollitt's new essay collection in the New York Times book review. Cox opined that "Strident feminism can seem out of place -- even tacky -- in a world where women have come so demonstrably far." (I mean, seriously, what is with feminists? Never satisfied with anything less than real equality.)

Cox paints Pollitt as a humorless anachronism who's too "stubbornly unapologetic in championing access to abortion and fixated on the depressingly slow evolution of women's rights in the Middle East." She also knocks Pollitt for criticizing "pink-ectomy" patients (also known as women who have their pinky toes removed so their stiletto heels will fit better), writing, "The first thing I thought when I read Pollitt deride the false consciousness of pink-ectomy patients (O.K., maybe not the first) was 'Does it really work?'"

Echidne of the Snakes offered a wonderfully snarky rebuttal: "Let's unpack this post-feminist pink little purse. Strident feminism is 'tacky' because we have token women in high places? Would it be ever so tacky and depressing of me to remind all of us that the number of women in politics and in the leadership positions in the media is indeed very tiny, small enough to fit into the most expensive Jimmy Choos? It's so boring and unfashionable to 'stubbornly' try to defend the vanishing abortion rights? Sure. Why not go with the flow and start a firm designing really fab maternity clothes for all the pregnant mothers who didn't really want to become pregnant."

Barbara Ehrenreich posted her own rejoinder at HuffingtonPost on Thursday, acknowledging that it's understandable if the current crop of do-me feminists scorns the previous generation's efforts: "Something similar happened in the 1920s, when newly enfranchised young women blew off those frumpy old suffragists and declared their right to smoke cigarettes, wear short skirts, and dance the Charleston all night."

But, Ehrenreich argues, the current circumstances are more dire. "In the 1920s, women were seeing their collective fortunes advance. The Western nations were granting them suffrage; contraceptives were moving beyond the status of contraband. Contrast those happy developments to today's steadily advancing war against women's reproductive choice: the banning of abortion in South Dakota, fundamentalist pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control. Worldwide, the situation is far grimmer, as fundamentalist Islam swallows one nation after another."

Echidne has since posted a response to Ehrenreich's response, raging against feminism's fair weather friends, who don't connect the personal and the political: "Feminists are somehow the unpaid cleaning crew ... supposed to turn up after dark and fix the world so that the attractive nonfeminists can live in it comfortably ... Like it would be ok to live in a Talibanized world if you get fucked enough and have pretty toenails and laugh at every single silly joke. Or manage to squeeze your feet into very tiny shoes. Yeah, then it would be perfectly fine not to be able to go out alone or not to be allowed birth control."

The central question seems to be whether women's rights really are under attack -- or, if we accept that they are, whether that attack will have a meaningful impact on the stiletto set. Cox isn't wrong about feminism's image problem, and it's true that a movement must win more followers than it alienates in order to succeed. But her suggestion that feminists rehabilitate the movement's image by shifting focus away from abortion access and women's status in the Middle East -- the very issues that remind us why we still need feminism -- seems muddled at best. Maybe institutionalized sexism and fundamentalist religion will never be directly impact Cox, but if they don't, it will be because she's unusually lucky, not because the fight is over.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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