"Feminism Goes to Seed" by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis
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Modern feminism, which has always left a great deal to be desired, had at least one legitimate concept at its inception in the 1960s and 1970s, namely, the notion that women, as well as men, should have the opportunity to aspire to be all that they can be; it should not be assumed that the fixed essence of femaleness is being in the service of a man. But note that at the root of this eminently reasonable claim is the quintessentially feminist beef that women have always ended up with a mere sliver of the pie of cultural power. Aha! says the antifeminist, all this talk of women using their talents to the full for the general good is a mere rhetorical cover for their real agenda of gaining the upper hand over men—upsetting the balance of power in society at large and in personal relationships. This prospect, of course, terrifies the average man.
Behind the scenes here, manipulating many of these views and concerns like puppets on strings, is the primitive power of the female body over the male. Women and men have always been aware of this sometimes unsavory fact of life. What changes across cultures and history is the use to which this fact of life is put. In times past, when men felt obligated to restrain themselves for the sake of moral virtue and/or social order, those men who found this to be a formidable project (that is to say, most men) fell back on the venerable solution of culturally subjugating women; men evidently figured that if they had power over women, women would not have power over them.
But no matter. Women have always adapted to this arrangement by wielding their sexual power over men in covert, manipulative ways in order to get men to do what they want men to do for them. Women’s submission is often marketed in conservative religious circles as useful for just this purpose: make him feel like he’s the big, strong man in charge and he’ll do anything for you. Feminine wiles in Christian guise.
The essence of feminism is a rejection of this age-old arrangement and an affirmation of women’s right to exercise power directly. One feminism differs from another in terms of what sort of power women exercise in what way, and to what purpose. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, feminist women wanted to exercise political power by voting, as men do. In the 1960s and 1970s, they wanted to exercise personal power by pursuing the vocation of their choice, as men do. Much of feminism today—in apparent capitulation to the pornographic American culture of the last decade—has devolved into the simple, sordid matter of women freely flaunting their sexual power over men. In our sexually careless society, little impetus remains—on the part of either men or women—to control or contain the power of female sexuality.
This is feminism at its worst: the power of “the second sex” reduced to the power of sex. It is as antifeminist as it can get and still be reckoned feminist. It is antifeminist in that—as in all traditional cultures—women are being defined as sexual beings, and men as human beings. It is feminist in that women are ostensibly doing what they want to do (overtly exercising their sexual power), not what they must do in order to accommodate and negotiate the constraints of a male power structure (standard procedure for women in prefeminist or antifeminist cultures). Such a “feminism,” however, easily boils down to women using their sexual power in order to gain some secondary access to the cultural power society normally reserves for men. It is a “feminism” that serves well the fundamental agenda of that unconquerable deity, the male ego.
Until recently in modern American society, there have been two categories of women outside that of the full-time homemaker: the professional career woman and the bimbo, the sex siren. Those two categories, previously assumed to be mutually exclusive, have now merged to form the new feminist ideal: the bimbo career woman, with emphasis on the bimbo. The significance of the career is seen primarily in terms of the opportunities it provides for a woman to have a high-powered sex life, without being financially dependent on her sex partner(s). The popular media are replete with such preposterous heroines, from Ally McBeal (unreal TV character) to Monica Lewinsky (surreal real-life character).
This is feminism gone to seed—along with the rest of our culturally exhausted postmodern society. Nothing means anything anymore. All that remains is recycled silliness. So just enjoy asserting your power—sexual power, that is, the only power women get to have. And don’t hesitate to use it as a weapon if that’s what makes you feel personally empowered.
But the power of postfeminism is fallacious. Women who seek to exercise power by flaunting their sexual power—whether in actual promiscuity or merely in clothing themselves immodestly—end up losing power, the power that comes from possessing personal integrity and winning the respect of both women and men.
(This essay was previously published in The Denver Post, May 13, 1999.)