“Something has changed. Only a few years ago, we found ourselves collectively able to live with those who would explain the ‘locker room talk’ of the man who would become President of the United States…”
This refreshing observation kicks off Carol Hay’s preface to her timely book, setting the tone and affirming the need to revisit where feminism was headed. That catalytic ‘something’ was the MeToo movement which ‘bared the elephant in the room’ as skeletons sprang from cupboards and dirty laundry flapped in the breeze, shaking off the complacency that had seemed to seep into the women’s movement despite the signals that many remained unfinished. Hay places issues such as sexual harassment and sexual violence in a broader historical and sociopolitical context to highlight the battles that feminists have been waging for hundreds of years. Referring to an op-ed she wrote, she ironically observes that while Freud received no hate mail classifying women as madonnas or whores because his opinions were allegedly an “objective” treatment of the subject, his a well-founded argument about the difficulties encountered by the fact that teachers are often presented as holy mothers or sex toys only made her “immature” and “neurotic”. “I feel sorry for his children,” readers said, “I feel sorry for his students. For her husband.
Hay is candid that men in general are not the enemy here, but rather an interconnected system of sexist norms, habits, expectations and institutions for which women must also take responsibility. These include the qualifier “I am not a feminist, but…” with which many women prefix the most explicitly feminist statements. Describing this claim as the “public relations problem” of feminism, Hay promises to “subvert the stereotype of the humorless feminist bitch”. She ironically refers to feminism as the “F-word” to highlight the undeserved pejorative attributes it has acquired, even though it was coined by utopian philosopher and socialist Charles Fourier in the early 19th century to assert that social progress was linked to social progress. progress of women towards freedom. Fourier had even proposed that children between the ages of one and three should be dressed alike so that their true talents had a chance to emerge above those conventionally imposed, and had criticized marriage (“more or less embellished prostitution” ) because it condemned women to marital servitude. and denied them economic and sexual fulfillment. By the 1890s, “feminism” was commonly used to refer to women’s rights activism and entered the English language in 1894.
While “The Philosophy Behind Revolution” may suggest a blunt approach to a very relevant and ongoing contemporary struggle, Hay’s study is readable, illuminating for the most part, often wry and tongue-in-cheek, and should be understandable even to skeptical legions who believe that feminism is “just a bunch of irrationally angry bra-burning lesbians who want to castrate men and confiscate women’s makeup and high heels”. Hay is at her best to attack the stereotypes she promises to overthrow, focusing on two caricatures most anchored in the popular imagination: the “Angry Feminist” (a “feminazi”, just that) and Girl Power Feminist. While the first of these is really nothing more than a woman who challenges centuries of unchallenged male rights, she has been successfully derided as “deeply unsexy” and “a mean woman who doesn’t can’t take a joke”. Since women are usually conditioned to believe that their main source of power is based on their attraction to men, she is a warning to women who do not want to be identified as “female harpies”. Televangelist Pat Robertson would even have us believe that angry feminism “encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.”
Girl Power Feminism is more about touting individual successes rather than focusing on collective action for social change. According to Hay, Girl Power Feminism means corporate female leadership events or Beyoncé performing without pants in front of a giant screen emblazoned with the word “FEMINIST” (she admits that Beyoncé in other protests is considerably more than that), while Spice Girls practically invented the genre. She notes that while the “Angry Feminist” is depicted as having hairy legs, the “Girl Power Feminist” has legs with marketing power that advertising agencies can exploit to increase sales. Girl Power Feminism is more easily accepted because it is non-threatening. Hay aptly comments on how sexuality can become as much a form of imprisonment as it can denote freedom of choice. Women who claim their right to dress provocatively to enhance their sex appeal or who check their hair and makeup multiple times a day often end up trapped in their own image, subscribing to a set of preconditioned norms that decree what constitutes desirability in a woman.
Hay uses four metaphors (the birdcage, the invisible backpack, the prison, and the intersection of traffic) in her chapter on oppression, expanding them to encapsulate the different but interconnected ways in which women are oppressed. While warning men and women that ignoring these interconnections makes us complicit in such oppression, she is lucid about how patriarchal structures and parables have favored men. She even uses the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden to make her point, sardonically observing that while Adam was “kicked out of his parents’ basement and told that ‘he had to grow up and find a job’, Eve and her descendants were simply ‘thrown under the bus’ en masse, and have remained there ever since.
Hay is less convincing when she groups feminism into three waves, each successive wave building on the experience of the previous one or waves. She stops at any chronology that would definitively mark each phase and seems surprisingly unaware that a broader global historical perspective is sure to create more vagueness and greater complexities than her philosophy dreams of. In discussing the third wave, she mentions racial, class, and black feminists and decolonial feminist philosophers who criticize how white feminists ignore culture-specific concerns and priorities, but do not go far enough in her analysis. . Her references to decolonial feminists seem symbolic and limited to those at the center (in this case the United States), with no mention of the considerable writing done on the fringes, which rather weakens her arguments about racism, classism and privileges. Likewise, while Hay entertains throughout in a thought-provoking, unforced manner, she is unable to maintain the thrust and stamina that give the first part of the book its rigor and appeal.
Hay’s book was first published in 2020. In his afterword to the paperback edition which was published two years later, Hay explains how 2020 has given him new perspectives on his subject. Among other things, the pandemic has highlighted the extent of social inequalities faced by women in particular and Black Lives Matter meant inboxes and social media feeds filled with concerned friends and family members ( “Who protests during a pandemic?”). Hays responds to these concerns with a quote from renowned black feminist, activist and lesbian Audre Lord: “Sometimes we are fortunate to be able to choose the time, the arena and the manner of our revolution, but more often we have to fight where we stand.”
Vrinda Nabar is the author of ‘Caste as Woman’ and ‘Family Fables & Hidden Heresies: A Memoir of Mothers and More’, and a former professor of English at the University of Mumbai.
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