Learning from the "accidental feminist"

Looking for lessons in Arianna Huffington's trajectory from feminism-basher to avowed feminist.

Published September 22, 2006 6:00PM (EDT)

Slate's canny copywriters grabbed my attention today with the headline "Arianna Huffington, the accidental feminist." What is accidental feminism, I wondered, and how can I visit this happy accident on more of my friends and neighbors? I zipped through Megan O'Rourke's article, eager for answers.

Of course, the piece isn't really a primer; it's a profile, more informative about Huffington than about feminism generally. Still, Huffington's history is worthy of examination: Back in 1973, she famously wrote that feminism's "frenetic extremism" sought "not to emancipate women, but to destroy society." Today, her political affiliations have changed dramatically, and she identifies as a feminist. She has recently written the gooily titled self-help treatise "On Becoming Fearless ... in Love, Work, and Life," in which, O'Rourke notes, "she makes it clear that she thinks what keeps women out of top positions isn't evolutionary aversion to risk-taking, but rather internalized fears and a culture that is conflicted about female leadership." Huffington's prescription, O'Rourke writes, is "a breezily Whitmanic vision in which women across America throw aside timidity so that they might run for governor (just like Arianna), refuse to have plastic surgery (just like Arianna), or remain happily unmarried (just like Arianna)." Huffington makes examples of her famous friends Nora Ephron, Diane Keaton, Diane von Furstenberg and former Paramount chief Sherry Lansing, to demonstrate that such fearlessness is both possible and beneficial for women.

Unfortunately, Huffington overlooks the role of privilege in making fearless choices. "It is one thing to offer inspiring examples of bootstrapping," O'Rourke writes. But, she adds, "it is another to point to Diane von Furstenberg, a Belgian émigré who was once married to a prince, and tell middle-class American women that their fears are much like hers. Some differences merit being treated as real." O'Rourke further suggests that Huffington's attention to women's needs may be more self-interested than sisterly: "Tellingly, what moved Huffington to action wasn't merely perceived inequality but also the immediate lack of female readership at her own site." And Huffington's ideological transformation, O'Rourke writes, suggests she is merely "an intellectual chameleon, someone who acutely wants to be in the game and will do what it takes to get there."

So as it turns out, Huffington's "accidental feminism" doesn't provide much in the way of tips for expanding the movement. If there is a broader message in O'Rourke's profile, it's more like a warning: Shrugging off the limitations of patriarchy isn't always as simple as being fearless. If some women are afraid to take risks because of low income, fear of violence, lack of childcare or unequal access to job opportunities, well, those are real and scary factors that activists must work to dismantle. Huffington's message may galvanize, and that's great, but an accidental feminist is seldom as useful as an intentional one.

This post has been corrected since it was originally published.

By Page Rockwell

Page Rockwell is Salon's editorial project manager.

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