Courting controversy: the second wave on love and romance

Last week, the French newspaper Le Monde published a letter signed by a hundred women (including the actress Catherine Deneuve), which said that men’s freedom to pester (‘importuner’) women was ‘indispensable for sexual freedom’.  ‘How French!’ said the English-speaking pundits—but in fact plenty of English-speakers have expressed the same fear about #metoo. If men can’t try their luck in all the time-honoured ways, how will anyone in future ever have sex?

Faced with this question, a lot of women have answered: ‘don’t be ridiculous! Harassment is unwanted sexual attention, not any sexual attention. Do you think we can’t tell flirting from stalking, or consensual sex from assault?’

As put by opponents of #metoo, the question is indeed ridiculous (or at the very least, disingenuous). But the answer, arguably, isn’t quite as straightforward as the précis above might imply. What passes for ‘normal’ heterosexual courtship does have some features in common with harassment—in particular, the assumption that the male role is active and the female one passive. Both sexes learn that it’s men’s job to take the initiative, while women should not appear too interested initially in case they seem either desperate or slutty. On the assumption that their resistance is token, however—there to be overcome—men are expected to keep trying until eventually the woman gives in. As Jameela Jamil wrote recently:

Our society, the internet, and even our most mainstream media, constantly perpetuate the idea that men do not need to worry about what our needs and boundaries are. They just need technical consent, however that consent is acquired.

And as she points out, all too often it is acquired by way of pestering and badgering—the male prerogative defended in Le Monde as ‘indispensable for sexual freedom’.

Jamil also points out that these sexual scripts have to be learned, and one source from which we learn them is the cultural products we consume. She is particularly scathing about the sexism of popular music, with videos featuring scantily-clad women gyrating for ‘men who are sitting there on their arses, sometimes in outdoor winter layers’, and lyrics

which went from, “Try a little tenderness,” to MURDER THAT PUSSY. BEAT THAT PUSSY UP. PUT THAT PUSSY IN A TOASTER. SHRED THE PUSSY AND PUT IT IN THE BIN.

In the past, Jamil suggests, popular culture idealised romantic love; today it glorifies naked sexual aggression. But reading this reminded me that feminists of the second wave were as critical of the ideology of romantic love as they were of sexual violence. Rather than seeing the two as opposites, feminists often made the argument that they were connected and mutually reinforcing.

In her 1974 book From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies, the film critic Molly Haskell wrote about the way women of her generation were induced (by, among other things, the movies they watched) to find pleasure in the idea of being overcome by the force of a man’s desire, and to see the manipulation of that desire as a source of power:

Those of us who were ambitious would use our femininity as Scarlett O’Hara [the heroine of Gone With The Wind] used hers; would flirt, tease, withhold sex, to get what we wanted. It would rarely occur to us to ask outright for a place on the starting line, to enter the ranks of competitive male activities and thereby lose our place on the pedestal and our ‘preferred’ passive position in the game of love. …We were guilty of conspiring in our own idealization—and our own oppression. For whatever else may have been our goals, we still assumed that the need men and women had for one another, and its satisfaction, was indissolubly linked to their roles as conqueror and conquered, and we accepted all the implications that followed from that first parsing of human nature into active and passive.

More than forty years on, the Le Monde letter–and other contributions to the anti-#metoo backlash–suggest that these attitudes have not withered away. Male ‘gallantry’ and feminine ‘wiles’ still have their defenders–though as feminists pointed out in the 1970s, these concepts presuppose that courtship is not a transaction between equals.

In 1984, Janice Radway published Reading the Romance, a now-classic feminist study of popular romance fiction. Rather than just analysing the books themselves, Radway sought out a community of regular romance readers in a midwestern American town she calls ‘Smithton’, and studied what they read, how they read, and what, by their own account, they got out of it. At the time, one of the most popular subgenres of romance fiction was what the industry called the ‘bodice ripper’, a new take on ‘gothic’ romance which was more sexually explicit—and more violent—than previous iterations. What flame-and-flower-2readers thought of this was among the questions Radway investigated.

She found that the Smithton women objected strongly to what they classified as rape scenes, but felt differently about scenes which involved, as one reader put it, ‘a little forceful persuasion’—even though the acts they put in that category would clearly, in the real world, have met the legal definition of rape. The distinction seemed to rest on their understanding of the man’s feelings for the heroine. If they were convinced that his use of force reflected, in Radway’s words, ‘his passion and her irresistibility’, they didn’t see it as abusive or unforgivable (though they also expected that as the story progressed his lust would give way to love, tenderness and the obligatory happy ending).

Radway discovered that the publishers of romance novels made a similar distinction in their advice for aspiring authors. One set of guidelines explained that a scene in which the hero raped the heroine could only be included on certain conditions, one being that ‘it must never be initiated with the violent motivation that exists in reality’. Women’s fantasy, the guidelines went on, was to ‘lose control’ with someone who really cared about them. If he didn’t care, it would be a ‘true rape’, and as such unacceptable to most readers.

Radway did not suggest—far from it, in fact—that the Smithton women were brainwashed dupes. What she did suggest, though, was that their way of making sense of romance fiction could be linked to their subordinate position. Like the heroines of gothic romance, they knew what it was to feel threatened, exploited or undervalued by men: what they got from their reading, Radway argued, was a way of reinterpreting hurtful or violent behaviour as an expression of men’s need and desire rather than their contempt.5293b8a343b464115800013e-1385412771-700x344

Many second-wave writings about the ideology of romantic love are reminiscent of what Marx said about religion (‘the opium of the people’). Though it gives comfort and pleasure to the oppressed, it is also an obstacle to the radical social change that would be needed to liberate them from oppression. As the #metoo debate continues, perhaps this is something we should think about. Do we just want men to become more sensitive seducers, or do we want to rewrite the traditional sexual script?

 

 

 

 

 

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Them too

This year’s Second Wave class met for the first time this week, and we talked about a set of readings which discuss the origins of the US Women’s Liberation Movement. The women who formed the earliest feminist groups, beginning around 1967, had been (and in some cases remained) active in the radical social movements of the 1960s, like the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee (SNCC, a civil rights organisation) and various ‘New Left’ groups. But as the 1960s wore on, they became increasingly discontented with the way their male comrades treated them.

It wasn’t just that women were excluded from leadership positions and expected to do the menial jobs. There was something else as well–something which, this week, had a very familiar ring. Robin Morgan, writing in 1970, called it out when she asked:

Was it my brother who listed human beings among the objects that would be easily available after the Revolution: Free grass, free food, free women, free acid, free clothes, etc.? Was it my brother who wrote Fuck your women till they can’t stand up and said that groupies were liberated chicks ’cause they dug a tit-shake instead of a handshake?

The term ‘sexual harassment’ did not yet exist–it would be coined by Lin Farley in the mid-1970s when she was teaching a course on women and work at Cornell University–but it was rife on the radical left, and (then as now) it covered a spectrum from objectification to rape. A very common form of it involved pressuring women to have sex with male activists as part of their contribution to the struggle. As Anne Koedt would recall in 1968, female activists were largely used for ‘food-making, typing, mimeographing, general assistance work, and as a sexual supply for their male comrades after hours’.

Robin Morgan’s words, quoted above, come from a bitter polemic entitled ‘Goodbye to all that’, her feminist farewell to the male-dominated counter-culture. But it had been a long time coming. Women on the left had spent several years trying to raise their concerns about sexism, sexual harassment and sexual abuse. And they had not been heard.

In 1964 two white women on the staff of SNCC, Mary King and Casey Hayden, wrote a paper for a staff retreat called ‘Women in the Movement’, laying out what they and other women saw as the problem in the hope of sparking a constructive discussion. This was, after all, a radical, egalitarian political organisation. They believed the men would be willing to take women’s criticism on board. But in the event, they were the ones who were criticised. This was the occasion on which Stokely Carmichael (in)famously declared that ‘the only position for women in SNCC is prone’. (Originally King and Hayden took this as a joke, regarding Carmichael as an ally–but he went on to repeat it at many other SNCC meetings.)

In 1965 SNCC became an all-Black organisation, and many white activists joined Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). King and Hayden made another attempt to have the question of women’s position discussed at an SDS conference at the end of the year. Women present began to share their experiences of sexism, but according to the historian Ashley Eberle, ‘Instead of concern, the discussion elicited “catcalls, storms of ridicule, and verbal abuse from the men.” Men hurled insults like, “She just needs a good screw” or “She’s a castrating female”‘. In the end most of the men walked out, leaving the women to go on talking long into the night.

Incidents like this one were the second wave’s ‘me too’ moments–moments when women spoke openly about their experiences, realised they were not alone in having those experiences, realised that they were understood and supported by other women. Allowed themselves to feel anger, and to think that their anger might become a force for change. In ‘Goodbye to all that’, Robin Morgan wrote:

There is something every woman wears around her neck on a thin chain of fear—an amulet of madness. For each of us, there exists somewhere a moment of insult so intense that she will reach up and rip the amulet off, even if the chain tears the flesh of her neck. And the last protection from seeing the truth will be gone.

I thought of those words when the first women came forward to accuse Harvey Weinstein. And again when all the ‘me too’ stories began to flow–stories which weren’t just about wealthy and powerful men like Weinstein, or ‘unreconstructed’ men of his generation. Some of them were about the contemporary equivalents of the hip radical leftists Morgan took aim at in 1970. This view of women, this treatment of women, goes, as Morgan put it, ‘all the way down’. And women’s resistance goes all the way back in time. When we call men to account today, we are building on the insights and the actions of an earlier generation.

I’ll end with another quote from ‘Goodbye to all that’ which seems pertinent this week:

Let it all hang out. Let it seem bitchy, catty, dykey, Solanisesque, frustrated, crazy, nutty, frigid, ridiculous, bitter, embarrassing, man-hating, libelous, pure, unfair, envious, intuitive, low-down, stupid, petty, liberating. We are the women that men have warned us about.

 

The ‘other’ second wave

When I put together the syllabus for the Second Wave course I decided to focus mainly on the autonomous, radical social movement that emerged from the US New Left around 1968. This is what’s mostly associated with the second wave in public memory, and today’s feminism is indebted to it in many ways.

But there was another side to the feminism of the 1960s and 1970s: campaigning for equal rights using traditional methods like lobbying politicians and taking cases through the law courts. This kind of activism is sometimes labelled ‘liberal’or ‘reformist’ (i.e., not ‘radical’ or ‘revolutionary’), and those labels were sometimes used in disparaging ways by radical activists, who distrusted the institutions of the state, and thought the point of feminist politics was to transform society, not just tinker with its existing structures. One radical slogan of the time was ‘women who want to be equal lack ambition’.

In reality, though, some feminists were involved in both kinds of activism. An example is the African American lawyer and activist Florynce Kennedy, who was a member of NOW, the (‘reformist’) National Organisation for Women, until 1970 (her goal was actually to radicalise it, especially on questions of race and racism), and was also centrally involved in planning the landmark (‘radical’) 1968 protest against the Miss America pageant. flokennedyAs a lawyer she represented radical clients such as the Black Panthers and Valerie Solanas (the author of the SCUM Manifesto, who shot and wounded the artist Andy Warhol), while also participating in ‘reformist’ projects like fighting the ban on abortion in the courts. Though radical by conviction, Kennedy would work within the existing structures where she believed that would advance important political goals.

Sherie Randolph’s recent biography of Kennedy is still on my list of books to read, but one new book I did manage to read during the course was  Gillian Thomas’s Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases and Fifty Years that Changed American Women’s Lives at Work–an informative and readable history of the way women and their lawyers used the courts to fight sex discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace.

because-of-sexThe ‘one law’ of the title is the 1964 Civil Rights Act—more specifically, Title VII of the Act, relating to equal opportunities in employment. This law was not originally intended to cover sex discrimination. As drafted, Title VII prohibited discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, religion and national origin. But then Howard Smith, an 80-year old Congressman from Virginia, proposed an amendment adding sex to the list. Smith was a racist and a die-hard supporter of segregation, who probably hoped to prevent the Act from passing (there’s still some debate on what his exact motivations were). In the event, though, his amendment itself was passed by 168 votes to 133. Later that year, when the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, it contained a provision banning employment discrimination ‘because of sex’. Because of Sex tells the story of ten landmark cases which began with a woman taking action against an employer, and ended up in the US Supreme Court.

In my last post I cited a recent piece which claimed that second-wave feminism was all about ‘careers for mostly white women’. If there’s one thing this book makes clear, it’s that white middle class professionals weren’t the only women who cared about, or benefited from, the struggle for equal rights at work. Most of the cases Thomas includes were fought by working class women, Black and white: factory workers, van and forklift truck drivers, a bank clerk and a woman who wanted to be a prison guard. They weren’t trying to break through the glass ceiling, but taking action on such basic problems as sexual harassment, unequal pension rights, the sacking or demotion of pregnant women, and recruitment practices which kept the best-paid jobs for men.

The first case in the book, Ida Phillips vs. the Martin Marietta Corporation, involved a 32-year old white waitress who in 1966 was refused the opportunity even to apply for a better-paid position at a local factory because she had a pre-school child. A man with a pre-school child would have been eligible, so this appeared to be sex discrimination. The agency charged with enforcing Title VII investigated and decided in Phillips’s favour, but it could not get the company to settle the dispute by hiring her, so it advised her to file a lawsuit.

Phillips went to a young Black lawyer, Reese Marshall, reasoning that ‘[African Americans] knew more about civil rights’. They lost the case: the judge held that Phillips hadn’t been discriminated against simply ‘because of sex’, but because she was also a mother. Marshall and Phillips also lost on appeal, but one dissenting judge pointed out that if this ‘sex plus’ argument were allowed to stand, the entire Civil Rights Act could fall. The judgment against Phillips created a general loophole: all an employer had to do if he wanted to deny someone a job was add some other characteristic to the legally protected one.

This argument drew the attention of Black civil rights organisations, partly because the loophole would permit racial as well as sexual discrimination, but also because the specific point at issue—whether mothers could be barred from employment—particularly affected Black women, who were more likely than their white counterparts to remain in the workforce while their children were young. Though Ida Phillips herself was white, it was a Black organisation, the NAACP, that applied for her case to be heard by the Supreme Court. (She finally won it in 1971.)

Some of the other cases covered in the book are mind-boggling reminders of what was taken for granted in the fairly recent past. One of them made history by overturning previous judgments on sexual harassment, which had held that employers could not be expected to regulate sexual behaviour in the workplace. Why? Because, apparently,

The attraction of males to females and females to males is a natural sex phenomenon and it is probable that this attraction plays at least a subtle part in most personnel decisions.

There’s also the story of one white professional woman, Ann Hopkins, who was denied a partnership at the accounting firm Price-Waterhouse in 1982. Although she had brought in more business than any of the other 87 candidates, her colleagues considered her ‘aggressive’ and ‘unfeminine’. The Supreme Court considered expert evidence on sex-stereotyping, and concluded, in the words of one Justice, that

An employer who objects to women being aggressive but whose positions require this trait places women in an intolerable and impermissible catch-22.

Those words were written in 1989, and nearly 30 years later many employers are still taking no notice—an illustration, perhaps, of the radicals’ point that reforming the law is not the same as changing the world. Nevertheless, I ended up thinking that the reformists deserve more credit than they often get in chronicles of the second wave: a lot of women have a lot to thank them for. And if the new administration in the US does what it’s threatening to do to women’s rights, the current generation of feminists may also have something to learn from them. When your rights are under attack, equality no longer looks like such an unambitious goal.