KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - For many years, I kept this Madeline Albright quote tucked beneath the glass cover on my desk:
"There is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women."
I've always believed that to be female, by definition, is to be feminist; and I don't subscribe to any movement to redefine feminism to include a fight for all social justice issues (human rights activism has that covered), any more than I'd want to redefine gay rights to include a fight for equal pay for women. Feminism, at its core, is advocating for women's social, political, economic and educational equality.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the affinity and responsibility I feel to women both locally and globally, I'm appalled by the minutiae that is consuming our public discourse in the U.S. about what is and isn't offensive to women.
What brought me here? It started with the Oscar ceremony: Comedian Seth McFarlane performs a goofy "I Saw Your Boobs" number, and you'd think he'd come out with a statement condoning gang rape. Next, a New York Times obituary headline reads "Yvonne Brill, a Pioneering Rocket Scientist, Dies at 88" and is followed by an endearing -- albeit odd -- first paragraph about being the world's greatest mom and cooking a mean beef stroganoff; people go mad. And now, President Obama is accused of a misogynistic blunder for mentioning an attorney general's good looks after singing her professional praises.
Did all of those events offend you? If so, I'm offended that you're offended. Let's look at the big picture instead of focusing on foolish, inadvertent, and minor gaffes and slights. What offends me as a woman? A lack of affordable, high-quality child care, paid family leave, and equal pay for equal work; Jersey Shore, The Bachelor and all incarnations of The Real Housewives; "honor" killings, genital mutilation, and a lack of education for girls in developing countries.
Maybe I'm most offended because I'm filming in Afghanistan, where women's lives are narrowed by such extreme injustice that the headlines ripped from the American media and the accompanying comments crowding my Facebook page seem petty and grating. It will be generations before women here can have the luxury of getting their feathers ruffled by a misguided compliment -- they have much bigger challenges before them. But I think there's much more to it than just my current location.
If our individual and collective sense of humor, understanding about the importance of family, and ability to realize that men, too, often feel society squeezing in, are so deficient, then I think we've lost an appreciation for what equality is all about.
Knee-jerk, emotional reactions to news stories are akin to hitting the "Like" button on Facebook; they give one the sense of doing something without actually accomplishing anything. Unless you count the removal of Brill's beef stroganoff skills from her online obituary as a success, or take President Obama's apology to AG Kamala Harris as a victory (even though, as NPR points out, the president is an "equal opportunity flatterer" who on several occasions referred to male colleagues as "the good-looking guy"). I don't.
Feminism needs a PR makeover as much because of the negative stereotypes that are historically associated with it as because of the negative stereotypes women continue to reinforce today. Every perceived slight cannot be a crisis of conscience for the female population. Feminism is a fundamental belief in equality. Fostering it and sharing it and accomplishing its goals are a bit like raising a child: if you want to see that baby mature and flourish, you have to choose your battles wisely. Exercise a little perspective. At the moment, the battles our society is choosing -- and the way they are being waged -- are no way to win a war.
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