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Elizabeth Debold Headshot

The War on Women -- and the War Within Women

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The War on Women has many fronts -- here in the U.S., abroad, and across forums on the Internet. In the U.S., the range of hostilities spans the gamut from lewd (Limbaugh) to degrading (state-sanctioned vaginal penetration) to downright dangerous (making the murder of abortion providers "justifiable homicide"). This year has been quite a wake-up call for any woman who has thought that women's rights and sexual freedom are guaranteed in this country. (It still blows my mind that, although this country was founded on the "self-evident" truth that "all men are created equal," the truth is that it's still only men who are given the right to equal treatment under the law by the Constitution. Suffragists spent more than 70 years to get the right to vote in the U.S., and a Constitutional amendment that would give women equal rights under the law was first introduced in 1923... and we're still waiting.)

The déjà-vu sense -- haven't we been here before?? -- leads me to wonder what it will take to win the war against women once and for all. When you look at culture, there's so much in conflict within women -- for instance, and somewhat arbitrarily, juxtapose the fact that more young women are getting advanced degrees than ever before with a survey showing that one in two young women would rather be hit by a bus than get fat. (Yes, for real -- here's a funny take on another crazy statistic.) Could the Groundhog Day experience in relation to the battle for women's rights have something to do with conflicts between competing desires within women? Perhaps we won't win the war on women until we win the war within women.

Before I'm jumped all over for blaming the victim, let me make clear that I am not saying that women have caused or are responsible for the war on women. And of course we need better social policies and different ways to structure work and family life. But if we climb out of the trenches for a minute and take a look at the larger, 6,000-year historical landscape, jeez, it's been only like yesterday since significant numbers of women have had access to education and the opportunity to reach for higher levels of leadership and culture-making. Our culture is in the throes of a significant transformation that includes, but isn't limited to, changing what it means to be women and men. For women and for our culture, we've got our collective feet in two different worlds -- creating a war on women and a war within women.

Let me explain what I mean. The war on women isn't simply an issue of differences between Republicans and Democrats, right and left, or conservatives and liberals. It's about differences in worldviews, which in many ways transcend and include the differences that we usually speak about. Worldviews are whole, complete windows on reality that are driven by different motivations and capacities. Each worldview first emerged in different historical times -- traditional, modern, and postmodern -- and express entirely different value systems. In addition, individuals who hold different worldviews have differing capacities to engage with the complexity and multidimensionality of human experience. What that means is that what one worldview takes as real, another cannot even see. This is beyond logic. You can't argue with someone if they don't have the capacity to recognize what it is that you perceive.

But the really interesting point is that each worldview creates different men and women. The traditional worldview is motivated by stability and security. Thus, it sees women and men in terms of roles -- that are deemed to be God-given. Belief takes precedence over rational inquiry. Women's biological function of childbearing, and the need for protection while bearing and raising children, define gender roles. To those who see the world through traditional eyes, disruption of gender roles is like an earthquake -- something's shifting that's supposed to be unmovable. From a traditional worldview, women find their deepest fulfillment in the sanctity of their role as mother and helpmate. (Hillary Clinton, seen through these eyes, is a frightening she-devil -- some strange and incomprehensible female creature bent on destroying all that's good about life.) God created Man, and Woman from Man.

In the U.S., the dominant worldview is modernism; the nation was founded on the ideals and ideas of modernism. The modern worldview rose on the wave of inspiration and creativity that burst forth as human beings -- mostly of the male kind -- began to actively figure out how things worked and to engineer new solutions to improve the material conditions of human life. Rationality and scientific inquiry replaced dogma and religious doctrine -- leading to an emphasis on evidence from the material world that can be seen and touched, rather than an invisible supernatural world. Motivated by the desire for achievement, status, and power, meritocracy, rather than aristocracy, was the result. The romance story became the narrative of women's lives at this time. This worldview gave birth to our ideas of masculinity and femininity as opposites -- holding up ideals for each sex that you could achieve through engaging in the new consumer markets of capitalism. The middle-class lifestyle, divided by work (dad) and family (mom), expresses the values of this worldview.

The last worldview is postmodernism. Relatively new and growing (as in Oprah's new soulful audience), postmodernism burst into human consciousness with the liberation movements of the 1960s and beyond. In fact, liberation is the name of the game: I am free to do whatever I want to do and to become whoever I want to be. Embracing plurality, eschewing hierarchies, and espousing individual truths, postmodernism aspires to dismantle the "evils" of modernity -- including capitalism and any of the many "-isms" (sexism, racism, etc.) through which they see modernism's impact on human life. Postmodernism is motivated both by liberation from constraints and connection, relationship, healing. In terms of gender, postmodernism takes the lid off -- making one's sense of gender much more fluid. Sexuality within postmodernism is an all-purpose means of self-definition and self-expression, laden with the often desperate hope of self-transcendence.

Okay, now it should be pretty clear that these three different worldviews would be practically combustible when put in the same room to debate social policy related to women, children, work, and family. (Is there much else in life?) No wonder we get such a nice conflagration in Congress and the media over women's rights, reproductive health, sexuality, parental leave, etc. etc.

But more importantly in terms of ending the war on women is that these schisms are very alive within educated privileged girls/women of Gen X and Y. How so? When postmodernism opened the lid on gender, the roles of mother and wife that had pretty much exclusively defined women's lives now became mere options -- just one way to be free to be you and me. For the thousands of years when traditionalism defined Western culture, women really didn't have any viable option other than to fulfill our biological roles -- moreover, it was absolutely essential for the continuation of society. But in the face of an open field of choices limited only by what you want, and with no larger driver to what you want that sets a trajectory for your life, the various motivations and expectations from these three worldviews have been let loose within the female psyche without a larger, organizing context or purpose. For educated Gen-X women and Gen-Y girls, competing desires to succeed, rebel, create, mother, and be taken care of bang around from one day to the next, making it very difficult to make choices that lead to a clear direction and meaningful commitment.

Author Laura Kipnis points to this in her funny and smart book, The Female Thing. She observes that there is a constant catfight in women's consciousness between, in her words, "feminism ('Don't call me honey, dickhead') and femininity ('I just found the world's best push-up bra!')" "Femininity" refers to that part of women that wants to be taken care of, adored, and not have to take responsibility for... well, life. And "feminism" is the part that wants to be independent, assertive, taken seriously, and make a contribution through your talents. Kipnis argues that the two are inherently incompatible because the one is based on insufficiency (the root is needing a man or child to be "complete" and "whole") and the other is all about self-sufficiency. Just as the traditional and the postmodern worldviews are incompatible.

It's like the past and the present are at war in your self. "Femininity" is women's past, and "feminism" is our present. What I mean by this is not what you might think -- I'm not pitting family and children against career and culture, or wanting a push-up bra versus wearing no bra. That's a superficial reading of the differences that Kipnis and I both are pointing to. The "feminine" values and motivations were perfect for earlier times when women either partnered with their spouses in the cyclic rhythms of an agrarian lifestyle or aspired to create the home as the perfect haven of domestic bliss for children and hubby. This was it, the totality, of women's lives and concerns. In our "feminist" present, women have both family and work, or one or the other, but regardless, are self-responsible and self-actualizing. Or we are increasingly so and would be more so if we were able to distinguish between a pull from the past and the demand of the present that opens onto the future. Because this is how we can give order and find clarity among these competing desires within us. If the trajectory of your life's purpose gets clear, then how kids and spouse and house fit into it all will also become clear. It may not make it easier, but you at least know what your priorities are... and can articulate and advocate for the things that will make it possible for contemporary women to create the world that we want and need to live lives that make a difference. Things like health care that pays for birth control and doesn't view pregnancy as a "pre-existing condition." Or creative policies that support work and family. Or new ways to think about how we live together.

This is why I'm wondering if the war on women can't be won until we win the war within women. Our drive to create a new world in which women and men create culture together has to have much more momentum. That calls on all of us women who have been liberated by postmodernism to align behind the motivations within us that lean toward the future. Through cultivating the desire to have an impact on culture and being determined to make a difference, we can generate enough momentum that our rights to determine our destiny will be secure.

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