Slate doesn’t know what “feminism” means

11 June 2010

You’d think they would, considering how much they talk about it.  “Is Nikki Haley a Feminist?” asks one headline.  “Is the Tea Party a Feminist Movement?” asks another.  “Sex Addiction is a Feminist Victory” announces a third.  All of these articles are written by Hanna Rosin, one of the co-founders of Double X (the site’s terrible women’s blog, about which I’ve complained before) and a contributing editor for the Atlantic monthly.  In asking such preposterous questions — and, by the way, failing to answer them — Rosin denudes the word feminism of all meaning and contributes to the erasure of the political need for the equality of the sexes, which itself is anti-feminist behavior.  She’s not alone at Slate; Amanda Marcotte’s essay claims that Sarah Palin’s version of feminism has us all asking “anxious questions”:

Does the word feminism mean anything at all?  Does merely wearing a power suit and smart-girl glasses automatically make you a feminist?

THESE ARE STUPID QUESTIONS that good journalists would not ask.  Feminism means a belief in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes, and it denotes the movement to achieve that equality.  It’s in the dictionary.  But in Rosin’s hands, “feminist” seems to mean “woman,” and possibly a vague kind of “pro-woman” perspective.  Sometimes it means “a woman who has some degree of power.”  Or, “powerful woman who complains that she has received criticism” (this is how Palin and Haley count as feminists).  None of her essays treat a woman or group expressing any interest whatsoever in the equality of the sexes.  None of her essays discuss even the possibility the public rise of such virulent anti-feminists might indirectly result in the equality of the sexes.  Marcotte comes up with the tortured term “feminist anti-feminist” to describe women like Palin:

She’s just the latest incarnation of a long and noble line of feminist anti-feminists:  women who call themselves feminist but also object to the existence of the feminist movement and organize in opposition to it.

I’m sorry, but doesn’t that make them ignorant anti-feminists?

Which begs the question, are Rosin and Marcotte ignorant too?  I believe it’s far worse than that:  I think they’re canny journalists who get paid a lot to cover the gender dynamics of anti-feminist right-wing women.  When they play the provocateur by asking such offensive questions as “Is Sarah Palin a feminist?” they get a lot of responses, which translates to more attention from their publisher, which translates to more advertising revenue.

They’re canny, but they’re also doing anti-feminist work for the devil.  If journalists act as if the  term is so confusing, the vital importance of fighting for equal rights is eaten away.  No one took it seriously when Palin claimed she had foreign policy experience because Alaska is next to Russia; why should we take it seriously when she claims to be a feminist?  It is journalists’ job to be skeptical, not to denude language and politics of meaning.  Rosin likewise enjoys asking the provocative question, “Who owns feminism?” ask if us selfish feminists have encircled it with velvet ropes.  If the KKK announced itself to be an “anti-racist” organization despite all evidence to the contrary, would Rosin ask “Who owns anti-racism?”  By publishing such frequent pieces, Slate contributes to an anti-feminism in American culture more generally.

Of course journalists should think seriously about the gendered implications of so many women in right-wing politics.  Of course they should ask such questions as whether such women might alter our society’s views of powerful women.  Just don’t throw around the word “feminism” as if it has no independent meaning.

P. S.  At first I planned to respond to Rosin’s most recent Atlantic piece, “The End of Men,” in which she visits a community college, notes that there are more female students than male students, and extrapolates that the end of the world is nigh for men.  But then I read the long list of crazy online responses to it and became too demoralized.  Please read it yourselves and email me with intelligent thoughts.

3 Responses to “Slate doesn’t know what “feminism” means”

  1. JE Says:

    Gee, the community college where I teach does have a lot of women. It also has a high percentage of minorities; people who are the first generation in their families to attend college; and people who went directly into the workforce out of high school, but are now returning to get an associate’s degree.

    It’s so confusing.

    • didion Says:

      Clearly women of color are really the ones who are going to take over the world.

      There are lots of problems with Rosin’s “End of Men” article; but one of the worst is to assume that the gender gap in colleges, especially community colleges, translates to anything beyond college at this point.

  2. rjp Says:

    I had exactly the same reaction when reading the comments on the Atlantic website. Really, really demoralizing. I sent my letter-to-the-editor anyway, but my goodness.

    Then yesterday I read Sandra Tsing Loh’s article about how middle-aged women today are really only passionate about their houses, and I became even more depressed. It does seem like some of the most widely read women journalists/op-ed types are consciously trying to exploit gender angst for personal gain. Those stories do get email around….

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