The "new" feminism?

Funny how the "new" feminism of 2008 looks exactly like the early-'90s version -- Katie Roiphe, Courtney Love and all.

By Kate Harding
December 22, 2008 10:00PM (UTC)
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You could be forgiven, reading this article by Gemma Soames about "the new feminists," for thinking you'd woken up in 1994. Hey, you guys, did you know there are self-identified feminists who admit to liking lipstick and high heels and retro dresses? It's true! And also, there's this woman named Katie Roiphe, who doesn't relate to those hairy, stinky old feminists from the '70s. And oh my god, have you seen that new show, "Friends"? I totally want that Rachel chick's hair!


Seriously, my first thought when I read this article was "I choose my choice!" -- and even that's a woefully outdated reference. On the upside, when I Googled that phrase to find the article I just linked to, I also ran across a relevant blog post by Lisa Jervis (hey, did you know there's this new magazine about feminism and pop culture that reclaims the word "bitch"?), in which she discusses the tension between respecting women's individual choices and trying to preserve a definition of feminism that goes beyond, say, Soames' cutesy explanation of the "new feminist" agenda: "The right to do what the hell you like, however you like, in heels -- if you like." (Oh, ha, it's so true! Female empowerment in the 21st century = selfish behavior with zero reflection! It's like you read my diary, Gemma!) Writes Jervis, "How can we deal with this? Can we find the right place on the continuum between uncritical acceptance of every woman's 'I'm doing it for me' boob job... and actually writing those Feminist Clubhouse Rules that some people think we have?"

Great question. Except, even asking it is capitulating to a false binary similar to the one created by journalists like Soames nearly two decades ago, not that Soames noticed it. As a "young" feminist (at least by the standards of an article that invokes Courtney Love as a current style icon) who does indeed love lipstick and retro dresses, I can't tell you how sick I am of reading articles that feature a bunch of self-proclaimed feminists somewhat closer to my age than Gloria Steinem's going on about how ridiculous second-wavers were for acting as if women were, you know, oppressed or something.

Every younger feminist I know is well aware that if we view wearing makeup and cooking and sewing as fun, performative, optional activities, it's because landing a husband who likes that crap is no longer the single best path to financial security for the average middle-class woman; the stakes are a whole lot lower. And we know that's because those clubby, oh-so-serious '70s feminists worked their asses off so we could join the professional workforce, have our own credit cards, buy our own cars and houses, leave abusive relationships, have access to reliable birth control, etc., etc. Too often, sure, we take all that for granted -- but when the younger feminists I know think about the wave that preceded us, we're grateful and awed, not discomfited by the thought of their palpable anger and allegedly hairy legs.


Reporters will always be able to get quotes from a few young women who haven't thought all that through (and Katie Roiphe), but that doesn't mean squat about feminism today, any more than it did in the early '90s. It just means some people really love 1) a good fake catfight and 2) depictions of younger women as flighty and selfish, older women as unattractive and irrelevant. Hey, wouldn't it be great if there were some sort of thriving movement of young women who think critically about stuff like that? Oh, wait!


Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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