Is there such a thing as modern feminism?
As a composition instructor, the only short-story I routinely keep in my repertoire is “The Story of an Hour” by Kate Chopin. It’s a nifty little tale of an aristocratic young woman with a heart condition in late 19th Century Louisiana who finds out that her indifferent husband has been killed in a train accident. After an explosive weeping jag, she retreats to her room to be alone. Outside the window, signs of spring abound and a delicious storm looms in the distance, metaphorically representing the new birth the woman is about to recognize: “Free, free, free,” she whispers. And so she is, free from the repression of being the wife of someone as opposed to simply being someone. Her new-found independence inspires a reaction that is overwhelming both emotionally and physically. She leaves the room and descends the stairs, carrying herself like a “goddess of Victory”….until her husband, who was nowhere near the train accident, comes through the front door, a vicious plot twist which rings the poor, troubled heart of our protagonist: she dies on the spot.
My students howl and moan at the ending. We talk about this woman’s condition and how much this small moment of freedom must have meant to her. We talk about what it must be like to not be free in any circumstance. And then we talk specifically about women’s rights. Kate Chopin was one of the earliest advocates for gender equality – a first stone-thrower in a battle that didn’t formally begin until more than a half-century after her death. To provide some context into this saga, and some optimism and lightness in a conversation that can be bellied in sorrow (and even anger), I offer up one of my favorite anecdotes: the lamb chop story.
I tell my students about how my wife has a group of girlfriends from college who are still very close. They get together, spouses and all, once or twice a year. A few years back, one summer evening at someone’s house, the women were inside while the respective husbands sat on the deck talking about dinner. I suggested rack of lamb, cut into chops that we singe on the grill and eat with our hands. Oooh…that sounded good, but one husband objected:
“Lamb is too expensive!” he said. “Let’s have hamburgers.”
“Come on,” I pleaded. “We can afford lamb chops. All our wives make great money!”
The reality of the point – that all six of us modern dudes were out-earned by our wives – dawns on my class in the same manner as it did on us guys sitting on that deck, one minute contemplating lamb chops and the next our non-status as primary bread winners. Kate Chopin would be pleased, I suspect (though she would surely know, as many of my students point out, that women overall still earn less than men).
And this, until the other day, was sort of my purview on the state of modern women, at least as it pertained to mainstream American culture (therefore, obviously, excluding the exploitation of women through trafficking, prostitution, and other gender-oriented horrors). I figured that things were kind of cool. That was until I read Tom Matlack’s piece in this magazine on Lady Gaga and Chelsea Handler, and the reaction it evoked from the readers of Jezebel.
Clearly, Tom thinks more about feminism than I do (though I bet I know more about lamb chops than he does – take that, Matlack!). And his article, about pop culture finally getting things right in its broad acceptance of two independent women not known primarily for their looks, seemed insightful and articulate. I envied his brains and his range. Clearly, the intention (which should never be underestimated when considering someone’s work) was positive – a hand across the gender aisle. At minimum, it was a point worthy of discussion, and a decent effort by a decent man. The negative reaction it evoked from many (not all) readers of Jezebel, and Tom’s defensive reaction to that reaction (which really brought out the vitriol), stunned me into thinking hard about modern feminism and how it is explored and discussed in contemporary America.
Despite a worthy effort, I didn’t get very far with my exploration. There are plenty of women I admire from a variety of fields, but I couldn’t think of a contemporary feminist other than Maureen Dowd (and my feelings on her change from week to week). I don’t know of a single feminist media source (before my very recent introduction to Jezebel). Who are the feminist activists and artists and commentators? There’s a lot I don’t know about feminism, but I do know that this important conversation is not going to take place primarily on comment walls in cyberspace; it’s too easy to poison the punch with anonymous anger (keep this in mind, potential responders).
So, where is feminism explored in viable mediums or respectful public discourse?
An interested but uninformed guy has to ask: Where have you gone Kate Chopin?
— Photo Maureen Lunn/Flickr