The Sexy Feminist

April 22, 2009

Dwight Garner’s review of Jennifer’s Scanlon’s new biography of Helen Gurley Brown got me thinking about the tensions that have always been so prevalent in the feminist movement.  He describes the animosity between Brown and major feminist figures, such as Steinam and Friedan, who saw publications, like Cosmo where Brown was the editor for 32 years, as vehicles for sexist messaging.

While I agree that Cosmo is very often problematic and does represent a great deal of the social norms and expectations that feminists seek to undo, it also strikes me that this woman from a working class background, a woman who had built a successful career with her wits and intellectual ability (and with only a high school diploma!), in many ways represents what feminists are working towards.  Brown was, in fact, working for feminist causes (maybe not all of them, I grant you) in the belly of the beast.  She was making change from within.  

Over the weekend I was talking with my mom about the expectations that women now have about family and career, but also the expectations that society has of women.  She was saying that in her generation, there was no question about whether or not you had kids- you just did- and if someone was going to sacrifice their career for the family, it was always going to be the woman.  As we all know, now it seems that the expectation is that you will have kids and a career and sacrifice nothing, while successfully accomplishing everything.  Obviously, neither of these sets of expectations is fair or right.  So feminist mothers in our generation have responded in three different ways: some opt-in and work full-time while missing time with their kids, other opt-out and decide to stay home, and then others try to play both sides.  In the end, though, very few are completely happy with the decision they made, despite the “choice” they made and often there is tension among the different camps.

But maybe we need to look at it differently.  Maybe the success of the feminist movement thus far is that there have been women like Brown as well as women like Steinam and Friedan.  That we need feminists in all of the different roles, pushing the feminist agenda in different ways.  We may not always agree on our approaches and choices, but in the end we are all pushing the cause forward.

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