Feminism (3/3)

SHAME is unknown in nature!

Sex and the animals.

See over 50 species of animals at courtship, mating and birth!

Its boldness will startle you!

Its content will inform you!

Its intimacy will amaze you!

Now showing at the St. James Theatre

“The theatre of distinction”

Advertisement in the Evening Post, March, 1973

WOW!  I can think of only a few movies I would want to go and see less than this one.  50 species of animals mating!  Holy hell.  I wonder what the review cards at the preview screening for this one said:

  • “I never want to have intercourse again”
  • “Black widow spiders – right on, SISTER”
  • “No man is truly hung like a horse.”

The seventies seem sort of awash with sex.  It’s like nobody was allowed to talk about it, and then suddenly it was ok and then you couldn’t shut people up.  It’s sort of been like that ever since, and I think feminists might be partly to blame (if you think it’s a bad thing… which I only do whenever I flick through a celebrity magazine).

Specifically I think we can blame American feminists of the early 1970s who were quite iconoclastic and… uppity.

How about this excerpt from the crackingly good piece The Politics of Housework (Pat Mainardi, 1970):

It is a traumatizing experience for someone who has always thought of himself as being against any oppression or exploitation of one human being by another to realize that in his daily life he has been accepting and implementing (and benefiting from) this exploitation; that his rationalization is little different from that of the racist who says, “Black people don’ t feel pain’ (women don’t mind doing the shitwork); and that the oldest form of oppression in history has been the oppression of 50 percent of the population by the other 50 percent.

Or Why I Want a Wife (1971) by Judy Syfers, a piece which featured in the premier issue of Ms.

I want a wife who is sensitive to my sexual needs, a wife who makes love passionately and eagerly when I feel like it, a wife who makes sure that I am satisfied. And, of course, I want a wife who will not demand sexual attention when I am not in the mood for it. I want a wife who assumes the complete responsibility for birth control, because I do not want more children. I want a wife who will remain sexually faithful to me so that I do not have to clutter up my intellectual life with jealousies. And I want a wife who understands that my sexual needs may entail more than strict adherence to monogamy. I must, after all, be able to relate to people as fully as possible.

It’s quite interesting reading these pieces because one of the things that you often hear is that feminists are humourless.  Both of these articles are hilarious and well worth reading in full.  While the role of the wife depicted to us in Syfers’ piece has changed considerably since 1971, I would suggest that the politics of housework remains very much alive and well.

Of course not all the pieces written by the 1970s feminists were funny.  Some were deadly serious, and had titles that are simply uncomfortable for a bloke to read let alone imagine discussing with the missus.  How about: Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm, by Anne Koedt?  Not feeling uncomfortable yet?  Read a little,

Whenever female orgasm and frigidity are discussed, a false distinction is made between the vaginal and the clitoral orgasm. Frigidity has generally been defined by men as the failure of women to have vaginal orgasms. Actually the vagina is not a highly sensitive area and is not constructed to achieve orgasm. It is the clitoris which is the center of sexual sensitivity and which is the female equivalent of the penis.

Ok, I’ll stop.  But actually what you are reading here is the foundation piece of about 50,000 Cosmopolitan “articles”, and points at a different kind of liberation for women, one to do with their bodies.  Syfers touches on it a little in her piece when she mentions the cause celebre of the early 70s women’s movement: birth control and abortion.  In this sense the bodies of women were very much contested in the court rooms and debating chambers of western democracies, and the Roe v. Wade decision in America is a landmark of that period.  It is easy to take the outcomes of these debates for granted now, but the 1970s were a very different place.

***

On 8 March 1973, the day before my birth, the Evening Post gave some coverage to International Women’s Day.  I don’t think this day is particularly noted anymore by society at large, but in the early 1970s it found support among feminist groups wanting an alternative to the “overly commercialised” Mothers’ Day.  Why March 8?  On that day in 1908 female garment workers in New York spontaneously stopped work and marched on the streets protesting their working conditions and demanding the right to vote. 

On 8 March, 1973 in Wellington a gathering was planned at the Trades Hall on Vivian Street and members of N.O.W. visited a variety of government departments and discussed issues that concerned women.  They met with Mr. Amos (Department of Education) and talked about the sex roles depicted in educational materials, the need for childcare facilities and contraceptive education.  With Mr. Watt (Department of Labour) they discussed equal pay, work place discrimination and male and female job classifications in situations vacant advertisements.  With Dr. Finlay (Department of Justice) they asked that the law making it a criminal offence to give contraceptive advice to people under the age of 18 be hanged.

Read that last one again.  A criminal offence.  And the legal age of marriage?  Geez.  Mind you my mother tells me that on going to see the doctor to ask for the pill he sent her home to think about it, because it was “a very serious decision”.  Unsurprisingly my mother had already thought about it quite a bit before she went to the doctor. 

As for some of the other issues rasised by NOW, a quick scan through the situations vacant page of The Evening Post reveals that advertising jobs by gender was commonplace in 1973:

  • BNZ.  Young Ladies.  We have vacancies in our staff for young ladies with a pleasant personality to be trained for an interesting career in banking.
  • The AMP Society has a vacancy for a young lady who has a bent for mathematics.  We also require a female clerk, 16-20 years of age.
  • We need special men who can work harmoniously in a small staff engaged in producing about 40 different electrical products, men who can stand the challenge of endless variety, and yet maintain the high standards of workmanship required.

And as for the desire of NOW members to have sex talks in school, not everyone was a fan as the letters to the editor page reveals.

The only sex talk I had with my mother was when I became engaged at 20 years of age.  She gave me a booklet on love and marriage.  I say, toss the sex talks out of schools.  Then pupils can be taught cleanliness and respect for their parents, elders, and one another. 

A 60 year old grandmother

Despite this grandmother’s concerns, the shift in attitude towards sex has probably been a good thing, but as with all seismic change there are a thousand unthought of consequences.

For some women the new pressures of the fashion parade were just another form of oppression.  To them, liberation from traditional home and family roles allied to endless talk of sexual freedom had created a new kind of pressure: to be fashionably dressed, sexually active and subject to the male gaze….  This was something that concerned Juliet Mitchell: ‘For women… the sexual revolution has meant a positive increase in the amount of their sexual (and hence social) freedom; it also has meant an increase in their use as sexual objects.

Dave Haslam, Young Hearts Run Free

Which means, I think, that while sexual liberation has had many good flow on effects it has also probably led to other things that are not so good, like the porno industry which has boomed from the 1970s onwards.  Of course some “uses” of women came under a lot of scrutiny in the 1970s.  Feminists protested beauty contests and pushed them out from the centre of the media mainstream to the edge.   A group of feminists protesting a beauty contest in the USA in 1968 began their list of objections with this:

  1. The Degrading Mindless-Boob-Girlie Symbol. The Pageant contestants epitomize the roles we are all forced to play as women. The parade down the runway blares the metaphor of the 4-H Club county fair, where the nervous animals are judged for teeth, fleece, etc., and where the best “Specimen” gets the blue ribbon. So are women in our society forced daily to compete for male approval, enslaved by ludicrous “beauty” standards we ourselves are conditioned to take seriously.

Such protests and concerns over gender images in education led to society becoming highly sensitive to the ways women were portrayed in the media in the late 1970s and into the 1980s.  By the 90s I think this sensitivity had begun to decrease. 

In the positive interpretation of this step back from being sensitive you get women who portray themselves in the media as educated professionals, controlling their relationships, but who like playing into some of the conventional ideas about what a woman likes… when it suits them.  This is the Destiny’s Child, Sex in the City version of being a women, although it was probably pioneered by that troubling figure Madonna. 

The bad version of a loss of sensitivity to how women are portrayed in the media can be found in rap videos where some clown tells us how great he is as twenty women in bikini gyrate in the background.  This seems to be an even worse version of the cliché of women in bikinis selling cars, or appearing in beauty pageants.

From the late 70s and into the 80s we became sensitised to this kind of use of women in the media, and it became less and less acceptable.  Now it seems that it is acceptable, particularly if it is black women.  I can remember a 60 minutes “journalist” interviewing a black producer for numerous rap stars and asking about the dodgy videos that denigrated women.  The producer got quite angry, and then said that these videos were just showing us how it was on the streets for these rap stars when they were growing up.  I don’t know what ghetto these rap stars came out of but we all need to move there because everyone in that “hood” has chauffeur driven limousines, champagne, money, fur coats and scantily clad hotties on tap.  When I see this rubbish I can’t help but feel that the media has deliberately twisted some of the messages of women’s liberation in order to get away with being sexist.

I grew up thinking women could do anything they had the ability, talent and inclination to do, and that that ability, talent and inclination was in no way different to a man’s.  I thought this not because I had been specifically taught it, but because that is what all my role models had shown me.  Now I have a three year old daughter and I would like her to grow up thinking the same thing.  This means I will have to turn channels like C4 off.  As with most of the issues that pull at us from many directions nowadays we get told it’s a matter of individual choice; the choice of the individual to create or not to create, participate or sit it out, watch or turn it off.  In all choice there is a cost.  So I make my choice and turn off C4.  I will gratefully take all the benefits of the changes that these feminists fought for on and hand them on to my daughter.  The unexpected results I will try to guide her past, until she can make her own mind up.

I’ll let you know how my daughter turns out in about twenty years.

Feminism (2/3)

My friends from college they’re all married now;
They have their houses and their lawns.
They have their silent noons,
Tearful nights, angry dawns.
Their children hate them for the things they’re not;
They hate themselves for what they are-
And yet they drink, they laugh,
Close the wound, hide the scar.

That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be (1971)

Carly Simon

This is how The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan begins:

The problem lay buried, unspoken for many years in the minds of American women.  It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States.  Each suburban wife struggled with it alone.  As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night – she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question – “Is this all?”

There is one thing you notice almost straight away when you do any reading about the feminist movement in the 1970s: how America was the fountainhead of almost all of the ideas and momentum in this movement at this time, and how the rest of the western world followed her.  One of those early well springs of ideas, an articulation of female unease, was Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique which was first published in 1963.

The first chapter of Friedan’s very famous (and very readable) book is called The Problem that Has No Name and in it Friedan chronicles the post World War II situation for American women.  For people like myself who are cynical about the ability of society to change it is refreshing reading, because things certainly have changed from this:

  • By the end of the 1950s the average age of women in America getting married dropped to 20, and was still dropping, into the teens.  Fourteen million girls were engaged by seventeen
  • The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47% in 1920 to 35% in 1958
  • By the mid-fifties, 60% (of women) dropped out of college to marry
  • By the end of the fifties, the United States birth rate was overtaking India’s
  • Fewer and fewer women were entering professional work.  The shortages in the nursing, social work and teaching professions caused crises in almost all American cities
  • In the fifteen years after World War II, this mystique of feminine fulfilment became the cherished and self-perpetuating core of contemporary American culture.

Friedan is describing something that was going to be attacked and significantly altered by the feminist movement from the late 1960s onward.  Statistics were going to change, lines on graphs were going to sharply alter direction, but some things, things to do with the heart, were not going to change.

Friedan

The song that first got Carly Simon noticed was That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be.  It’s a startling song, quite melodramatic in its musical setting, and lyrically moving and complex.  The dilemma the song dramatises is clearly explained in the first verse and chorus:

My father sits at night with no lights on
His cigarette glows in the dark.
The living room is still;
I walk by, no remark.
I tiptoe past the master bedroom where
My mother reads her magazines.
I hear her call sweet dreams,
But I forgot how to dream.

But you say it’s time we moved in together
And raised a family of our own, you and me –
Well, that’s the way I’ve always heard it should be:
You want to marry me, we’ll marry.

For Carly Simon the song was personal.

Not only did it draw on her childhood, it described her last few years: she had moved on from three men she might have married… while her sister and best friends had married and were having children…..  All of this was representative.  In a brand new college poll, 10 percent more respondents had called marriage “obsolete” than had described it that way the year before.

Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us, pp.344-5

Even by the 1970s the average age of first marriage was already shifting up from the 1950s mean of 20 described by Friedan.  By 2005 it would 26 in the USA.  The institution of marriage was getting bad press.  In New Zealand in 1972 the Listener printed a cover story about the death of courting.  The tone is matter of fact:

Many people are convinced that the art of courting is extinct.  There is nothing, they say, except sex talk and casual furtive intimacies.  Romantic love has been devalued.  The perfume and chocolate have all but gone.

One young lady reports,

There was a boy who wrote her poems when she was seventeen.  “It was old fashioned and I liked it at first, but after a while it just made me sick.”

Geez.  Tough crowd.

The article progresses along these lines; young ladies tell us that they just hang out with their partner and then move in together and it’s no big deal.  Reading this thoroughly modern piece now I was struck by two things.  Firstly, how young these women are (Jenny, 20, engaged to be married; Sheryl, 18, married and in own home; Fran, 18, getting married some day), and secondly, how depressing it is to have the key relationship of your life stripped of all it’s heat and romance and turned into a transaction between business partners.  But then if you think romance is all blarney or, worse, manufactured garbage designed to ensnare women in marriage and destroy them as individuals, well then you might take the view of Carly Simon’s character in That’s the Way I’ve Always Heard it Should Be in 1971:

You say we can keep our love alive
Babe – all I know is what I see –
The couples cling and claw
And drown in love’s debris.
You say we’ll soar like two birds through the clouds,
But soon you’ll cage me on your shelf –
I’ll never learn to be just me first
By myself.

Carly Simon got married in 1972.  She married the sensitive-woman’s-bit-of-1970s-crumpet, James Taylor, and they had two kids.  The marriage ran ten years, often unhappily, and James “struggled” with heroin addiction for large parts of that marriage.  (I say “struggled” because I always feel that a large part of the struggle for people who are wealthy enough to afford it is actually enjoying the benefits of said addiction.)  Tim White interviewed Carly Simon for Rolling Stone in the early 1980s and found her in a very washed out mood.  At that point in her life, Simon had certainly drowned in love’s debris.

James Taylor 2

Mind you, Carly’s description of her first meeting with James at the end of one of his concerts is certainly not a description of romantic love,

James came up and embraced me… and then we went in the bathroom and f**ked.

But we’re all totally over romantic love anyway, right?

The relationship flew along at quite a rate with only a few bumps along the way:

Early on [James] had told her he didn’t like her songs.

Ouch.

They married shortly before Carly Simon’s career exploded with the release of You’re So Vain and the accompanying album No SecretsYou’re So Vain isn’t about James Taylor, but in a way I think it is, because once you get over the party piece of who it is rumoured to be about, I think you may as well think about it as being a song about a certain kind of man in general in the early 1970s.  Scratch the surface of this kind of new switched-on man, and you get complacency and arrogance.

Friedan may have written the clarion call that led to many legal changes that affected the lives of women immeasurably, but there are some things that are far harder to change.  The social conditioning of a few thousand years for one.  And love.  It can make you do foolish things.  Like marry heroin addicts who don’t respect your music.

In Rolling Stone, January 1973, James and Carly were the stars of a ten page spread.  James Taylor, the newly wed, in full-on romantic role, declared to the world:

She’s a piece of ass; it bothers me – if she looks at another man, I’ll kill her.

Sweet baby James.