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One Mom, One Vote

Revisiting the roots of American feminism

The F-Word:
Feminism in Jeopardy – Women, Politics and the Future

By Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner
Seal Press, September 2004

As November 2nd bears down on us with alarming speed, the presidential contenders and their phalanx of handlers are straining to capture the hearts and ballots of a crucial group of swing voters: mothers. The super-busy “soccer moms” of yore have morphed into post-9/11 “security moms”— white, middle-class suburban mothers who are, by all reports, desperately seeking a strong, steady commander-in-chief to shield the nation's children from the murderous intentions of fanatical terrorist bogeymen. The actual existence of this particular subgroup of the voting public is hotly contested, but it’s interesting to note that this alleged group of mother-voters is thought to prefer style over substance. (I strongly suspect that most mothers, like most citizens, vote with their hearts and their heads, not to mention their pocketbooks. But what do I know?)

This campaign season, the entire nation has been put on notice that women’s votes count, now more than ever. In the past 18 months, dozens of new female-flavored web sites promoting voter participation have launched, and because women are somewhat more likely to favor Democratic candidates, every feminist and progressive organization worth its salt— including this one— is making a pitch to get out the vote.

There’s a very good reason for this manic flurry of interest. According to Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, author of The F-Word: Feminism in Jeopardy – Women, Politics and the Future, around 20 million smart young women are utterly indifferent to electoral politics— in fact, a recent study found that only 22 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 30 are regular voters. Rowe-Finkbeiner warns that unless more of these gals get their act together in the voting department, a.s.a.p., the rights and liberties women gained through legislative activism in the 1960s and 1970s may dry up and blow away like so many dead leaves in the neo-conservative wind. Worried about the environment, safe food and drugs, education funding, women and poverty, gun control? Get informed and get out the vote. And if you’re not willing to belly-up to the ballot box, you can just forget about seeing anything resembling family-friendly social policy in your lifetime, sister.

To get a clearer picture of why so many young women don’t vote, Rowe-Finkbeiner conducted a survey of college-educated women between the ages of 18 and 34. She hoped to to get a reading on which social issues matter most to this group of women, and where the ideals of feminism fit into their personal lives and political outlook. And while the individuals who responded to Rowe-Finkbeiner's survey were overwhelmingly concerned about issues that fall within the feminist agenda— gender equality, reproductive rights, body image, work/family balance and violence against women— she discovered many young women don’t want to be “labeled” as feminists (and/or boxed into any other ideological or identity group), are fed up with two-party politics, and feel that participating in the political process through voting or direct action is a major waste of time.

To be fair, it’s not just younger women who fear being tarred with the brush of feminism. Other in-depth opinion surveys, including those Rowe-Finkbeiner cites, indicate that most women in all age groups believe the long fight for women’s equality is not yet over, and a majority feel it’s high time for a strong new women’s movement to get the ball rolling again. But many— particularly white, middle-income women— are reluctant to self-identify as feminists. Rowe-Finkbeiner observes that even young women who do align with feminist values— those she defines as members of the “third wave”— seem so absorbed in challenging the culture of sexism, one quasi-liberated lifestyle at a time, that the latest surge of feminism sometimes looks more like a fashion statement than political activism. As one 26-year old woman Rowe-Finkbeiner interviewed remarks, “I… feel that young women are apathetic to the movement of women’s rights in a direction that would indicate growth. The strong women of the 60s and 70s have been replaced by women who search instead for the perfect ‘accessory’.” And as The F-Word drives home again and again, far too few women in this demographic are inclined to exercise their right to vote.

Third wave feminism is often represented as a corrective to the oversights and excesses of the second wave. While the narrow-focus political projects of second wave activists were highly successful in expanding women’s legal rights, they often excluded the perspectives and social realities of low-income women, women of color and those with only moderate levels of education. Second wave strategists have also been roundly criticized for neglecting to factor the complex emotional and experiential value of motherhood into their ambitious plans to secure freedom and justice for women. By contrast, third wavers embrace a formulation of feminism that places diversity and identity at the center of its agenda and views women’s issues through the wide-angle lens of global politics.

According to Rowe-Finkbeiner, third wave women are also determined to cast off the unflattering stereotype of feminists as dour, dogmatic man-haters who resent everything pretty, feminine and fun. They flip the second wave mantra of “the personal is political” on its head and play out a variation of feminism in which outspoken individualism is applauded as a form of radical resistance. Third wave feminists put a fast spin on the second wave tenet of women’s right to empowered and embodied sexuality and blend it with the ironic gender-bending and calculated political detachment of other late 20th century counter-culture movements, particularly the punk and post-punk movements that gave rise to a defiant Grrl culture in the late 1980s. The end result is a style of feminism that’s hip, sexy, unconventional and unfailing in its defense of freedom of self-expression; all that’s missing is a sense of solidarity and a collective vision for social change. In fact, Rowe-Finkbeiner wonders if the third wave really qualifies as a social movement at all, and her frustration is palpable: “The lack of a cohesive movement is the crisis of the third wave.” Or as one of the young women she interviewed remarks, “In a nutshell, my problem with the third wave is that I think we’re a whiny bunch of elitists who think we’re so smart, but we’re not doing anything but power knitting. The lack of a political movement is huge, yet we feel so smug.”

Rowe-Finkbeiner points out that, typically, young women who disdain the electoral process are not apolitical; many do good works in their communities and support causes, including anti-war demonstrations, reproductive rights and environmental issues. They simply have no use for partisan politics as usual, and therein lies the rub.

In her chapter on mothers’ issues (“Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Current State of Motherhood”) Rowe-Finkbeiner notes that motherhood is where the rubber hits the road for the third wave generation. More than three out of four of the campus women she surveyed expressed concerns about balancing motherhood and a career, “though they consider the issues they face personal, not feminist.”

“Modern women,” Rowe-Finkbeiner writes, “are often expected to breath a sigh of relief with the freedom of increased choices, and to feel there is no further need for feminism. But what women really have is the freedom to do several people’s work with the time of one person.” The end result, as we know all too well, is that women’s inequality is exacerbated by motherhood. What Rowe-Finkbeiner does not fully address is that rather than disrupting the dominant ideology of motherhood or questioning its role in the reproduction of male privilege, one of the third wave’s strategies for coping with the motherhood problem has been to transmute traditional family values into a fiercely alternative “mama” culture. (Reporting on the 2004 MamaGathering conference in Minneapolis this past July, Got Kids? blogger Liz Weslander notes, “let’s just say that most of the mamas at this conference were not exactly straight out of the pages of Parenting Magazine. Sure, there were some 30-ish, married mamas there. However, some of mamas there were not even of legal drinking age, and there were plenty of mamas whose definition of family didn’t include a marriage license. Tattoos were in abundance, the babies were in slings, and public breastfeeding was rampant. I don’t think I saw a single piece of meat consumed the entire weekend.”)

Lifestyle as political protest works for me, but I’m doubtful that, in and of itself, it has the power to change the world. (Remember the Flower Children, the generation youth who rocked the nation when they “tuned in, turned on, and dropped out”? Their lasting legacy seems to be the renewed popularity of tie-dyed shirts and low-rise flare-leg pants— not what you’d call a major political coup.) Furthermore, joining the rebellion against mainstream motherhood may be more feasible for those with ample social and material resources at their disposal. Rowe-Finkbeiner records the reflections of one young single mother:

“It’s a position of good fortune that enables me to do this… I know many women in their forties who would do this in a heartbeat if there was universal health care and universal child care, both of which would enable people to have a career and a family.” She continues, saying that it is mostly “urban women with some degree of financial security— either from family money, stock options, or another cushion” who are able to create out-of the-box solutions to balance motherhood and career.

In The F-Word, Rowe-Finkbeiner bravely suggests that the third wave politics of individualism (even when infused by a refurbished spirit of maternal righteousness) may not be enough to carry us through to the next stage of effective activism. Without concerted action to support progressive legislative initiatives and candidates who will fight for their enactment, public policies to address the needs of mothers and working families will remain little more than a pipe dream of idealistic theorists like yours truly. To borrow from the oratory of an early 20th century proponent of progressive social reform, mothers will continue to suffer social, economic and political inequality unless women recognize that a larger feminism is required of them.

To that end, Rowe-Finkbeiner gives a cursory historical overview of the objectives and achievements of the first and second waves of the women’s movement and catalogs the obstacles that continue to limit women’s progress today. After laying out a convincing case on the high cost of young women’s electoral apathy— The F-Word is carefully researched and full of fact-bites culled from a variety of reports and national opinion polls— Rowe-Finkbeiner concludes her book with suggestions about how to work within the system to bring about social change. Still discouraged because you think your vote doesn’t count? Then change the way votes are counted, advises Rowe-Finkbeiner, and she gives examples of groups who are working on voting reform. But she also emphasizes that effective political participation is about more than just voting; in order to get a steady stream of female talent flowing through the leadership pipeline, more young women need to run for public office and win. The no-nonsense message of The F-Word is that women must get over the conceit that systemic social problems— such as sex discrimination in the workplace and the social and economic marginalization of mothers— can be overcome or eliminated by an accumulation of private acts of dissent.

Rowe-Finkbeiner adds that young women can also make a difference by becoming informed and effective organizers, and she relates her own exhilarating experience of working for a politically proactive conservation group in Washington state. She then lays out a plan to get disaffected third wavers back into the political game— for example, there’s the “have-a-party-and-save-the-world” approach (a side-bar provides step-by-step instructions for hosting a pre-election “ballot box bash”). An appendix includes a thought-provoking discussion guide and highlights dozens of useful resources for the would-be voter-activist. Readers can download print-your-own bumper stickers with flirty slogans like Maintain Your Election – Women Vote and Voting Turns Me On from the official F-Word web site (fortunately, the book itself generally avoids this kind of contrived silliness). The F-Word is a well written, timely work that will be accessible to a broad readership. Whether its target audience will appreciate being slammed for their solipsistic idealism remains to be seen, but if it reaches enough readers who are prepared to think and talk about social change to improve the status of women, The F-Word could stimulate a productive cross-generational discussion about the future of feminism— a conversation that’s long overdue.

Even so, Rowe-Finkbeiner’s intensive focus on the potential of women under 35 to transform the social and political landscape tells only part of the story. While it’s true that Elizabeth Cady Stanton was only 33 when she presented the Declaration of Sentiments at the Seneca Falls Convention, both she and Susan B. Anthony campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage until both were well into their seventies. Betty Freidan was in her early forties and had already raised a family when she started writing The Feminine Mystique. And the women responsible for establishing important research and advocacy organizations such as Catalyst, 9to5, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the National Women’s Law Center and the National Partnership for Women and Families all cut their ideological teeth during the prime years of the second wave. Perhaps what’s really called for in a new women’s movement is a broad coalition that taps into the vitality, diversity and creativity of younger feminists as well as the experience and long-range vision of aging ones. With enough open-mindedness to go around, the political impact of this kind of cross-pollination could be unprecedented.

Critiques and reinterpretation of popular culture is not irrelevant to feminism— obviously, culture plays a central role in compromising the status of women— but I wonder if part of the confusion and discontent today’s mothers and others encounter in this half-changed world flows from the possibility that feminism makes more sense when it’s experienced as an active, rather than passive, state; something we do instead of something we are.

Meanwhile, I can’t shake the feeling that the incessant drumbeat of “Women – Vote! Women – Vote!” has an aura of déjà vu. It brings to mind those dim archival photographs of women marching shoulder-to-shoulder through the streets of New York and Washington, DC, demanding “Votes For Women! Votes For Women!” Perhaps after over a century of invigorating but uneven progress, American feminism is circling back to the place where it originally flourished: the quest for women’s full citizenship— nothing more, and nothing less— through the power of the electoral process. History has shown this wasn’t an infallible strategy; after all, women are unlikely to constitute a unified voting bloc— not now and not ever. But urging every woman to vote as if her life and liberty depended on it may be as good a way as any to get the women’s movement moving again.

And by the way— don’t forget to vote on November 2.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
October 2004

More on The F-Word:

An excerpt from the introduction of Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner’s The F-Word

The F-Word web site: www.thef-word.org

Also on the MMO:

What's Next for Women?
A post-election interview with Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner

Abby Arnold in Get Real: A Different Vote
“Neither my gender nor my reproductive organs define who I am, what I believe, or how I will vote.”

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