The Fifty-Year Ridicule (from The Dialectic of Sex, by Shulamith Firestone)
I find this part of the text to be particularly poignant as it encapsulates the contradictory nature of the present period in which feminism is only tentatively emerging amidst a two-decade-long backlash, but within the confines of mass media institutions and neoliberal social relations and social media sequestered away from any major organs of collective organising and genuine community. It is not a movement at present, inasmuch as it is currently a set of behavioural exhortations and taboos on critical and systemic thought, as the very question of women’s liberation is unfortunately mediated via an accepted rendition of radical-liberalism and the neoliberal notion of choice.
More on that from me some other time. Here’s Firestone’s brilliance:
How did the Myth of Emancipation operate culturally over a fifty-year period to anaesthetise women’s political consciousness?
In the twenties eroticism came in big. The gradual blurring together of romance with the institution of marriage began … serving to repopularise and reinforce the falling institution, weakened by the late feminist attack. But the convalescence didn’t last long: women were soon reprivatised, their new class solidarity diffused. The conservative feminists, who at least had viewed their problems as social, had been co-opted, while the radical feminists were openly and effectively ridiculed; eventually even the innocuous committee-women of other movements came to appear ridiculous. The cultural campaign had begun: emancipation was one’s private responsibility; salvation was personal not political. Women took off on a long search for “fulfilment”.
Here, in the twenties, is the beginning of that obsessive modern cultivation of “style”, the search for glamour (You too can be Theda Bara), a cultural disease still dissipating women today — fanned by women’s magazines of the Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle, Cosmopolitan variety. The search for a “different”, personal, style with which to “express” oneself replaced the old feminist emphasis on character development through responsibility and learning experience.
In the thirties, after the Depression, women sobered. Flapperism was obviously noot the answer: tey felt more hung up and neurotic than ever before. But with the myth of emancipation going full blast, women dared not complain. If they had gotten what they wanted, and were still dissatisfied, then something must be wrong with them. Secretly they suspected that maybe they really were inferior after all. Or maybe it was just the social order. They joined the Communist party, where once again they empathised mightily with the underdog, unable to acknowledge that the strong identification they felt with the exploited working class came directly from their own experience of oppression.
In the forties there was another world war to think about. Personal hangups were temporarily overshadowed by the spirit of the War Effort — patriotism and self-righteousness, intensified by a uniquitous military propaganda, were their own kind of high. Besides, the cats were away. Better yet, their thrones of power were vacant. Women had substantial jobs for the first time in several decades. Genuinely needed by society to their fullest capacity, they were temporarily granted human, as opposed to female, status. (In fact, feminists are forced to welcome wars as their only chance.)
The first long stretch of peace and aflluence in some time occurred in the late forties and the fifties. But instead of the predictable resurgence of feminism, after so many blind alleys, there was only “The Feminine Mystique”, which Betty Friedan has documented so well. This sophisticated cultural apparatus was hauled out for a specific purpose: women had been hired during the war, and now had to be made to quit. Their new employment gains had come only because they had been found to make a convenient surplus labour force, for use in just such time of crisis — and yet, one couldn’t now just openly fire them. That would give the lie to the whole carefully cultivated myth of emancipation. A better idea was to have them quit of their own volition. The Feminine Mystique suited the purpose admirably. Women, still frantic, still searching (after all, a factory job is no man’s idea of heaven either, even if it is preferable to women’s caged hell), took yet another false road.
This one was perhaps worse than any of the others. It offered neither the (shallow) sensuality of the twenties, the commitment to a (false) idea of the thirties, nor the collective spirit (propaganda) of the forties. What it did offer women was respectability and upward mobility — along with Disillusioned Romance, plenty of diapers and PTA meetings (Margaret Mead’s Mother Nurture), family arguments, endless and ineffective diets, TV soap operas and commercials to kill the boredom, and, if the pain still persisted, psychotherapy. Good Housekeeping and Parents’ Magazine spoke for every woman of the middle class, just as True Confessions did for the working class. The fifties was the bleakest decade of all, perhaps the bleakest in some centuries for women. According to the 1950 version of the Myth, women’s emancipation had already been tried and found wanting (by women themselves, no doubt). The first attempt to break away from a stifling Creative Motherhood seemed to have failed utterly. All authentic knowledge of the old feminist movement by this time had been buried, and with it the knowledge that woman’s present misery was the product of a still-virulent backlash.