I’ve been a feminist from way back, and I have watched the evolution of the movement with interest. The spotlight is upon us, especially in light of the rise of women candidates for public office, including the most powerful position in the country, if not the world. Of course, other countries have had female leaders for decades. Iceland is a particularly interesting example. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became Iceland’s first female Prime Minister and the world’s first openly lesbian head of government. With a presidency of exactly sixteen years, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir is the longest-serving, elected female head of state of any country to date. It has been argued that the power of women in Iceland has had a profound effect. After all, they arrested and jailed their bankers when their economy collapsed; they didn’t bail them out and perpetuate the criminal travesty.
A good number of feminists would like to see Hillary Clinton become our first female president. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright, in her introduction for Hillary Clinton at an event in New Hampshire, told the crowd, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” This caused a furious blow-back from younger women (those in my age bracket took exception to it as well) who bristled and responded that they weren’t going to be dictated to by anyone for any reason, and hell was precisely where Madam Albright could go.
It was at Boskone, having lunch with a good friend of mine, Richard Ristow, that I came upon a pivotal insight about the new feminism. We had just been to a panel discussion of the movie Labyrinth. Much was made of Sarah’s final speech to Jareth: “…for my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom as great. You have no power over me.” It was seen as a strong feminist statement. In particular, it was the assertion that her kingdom was as great as his that captures the essence of what many woman see as modern feminist goals.
Old school feminists sought equality by playing a man’s game by a man’s rules, and proving they could be as tough and hard-assed as any male. That largely meant sacrificing or compartmentalizing particular feminine traits. These traits were seen as weaknesses because men considered them weaknesses. In order to succeed in a man’s world, a woman had to think like a man.
This may have been necessary to break into that world and grasp the power that men monopolized. But it was a faustian bargain. Women often became the very thing that they hated most: an oppressor, lacking in empathy, disdainful of sentiment. The new generation of feminists don’t want to become merely boys with vaginas. They have recognized that, like Sarah, their kingdom is just as great. What they value, what they consider important—compassion and charity and gentleness, the needs of families and children as opposed to power and wealth, cooperation instead of competition, honesty and integrity instead of skilled and ruthless deal-making, warmth instead of cold calculation—are great and vital strengths, not weaknesses.
The Madeleine Albrights don’t recognize this. Blind obedience and loyalty to one’s own are divisive qualities, typical of the patriarchy and the military. They are not conducive to intelligent self-government. Voting for a candidate purely because she is a woman is as mindless as voting against her because she is a woman. It also perpetuates the hostility between the sexes, the “us vs. them” mindset. It denies that men can be allies, that they, too, can embrace classically feminine strategies. This new feminism seeks to liberate men as well from the harsh, insensitive and destructive roles traditionally forced upon them.
Men, as my friend Richard quietly and beautifully demonstrates, can be feminists, too.
In the final analysis it isn’t about penises and vaginas. It’s about minds and hearts. It’s about goals and priorities. It’s about what really matters and where our focus as individuals and as a nation should be. Life can be cruel sometimes, and can demand the classic male traits of aggression and unsentimental pragmatism (particularly when dealing with a heartlessly patriarchal opponent). But if self-interest, suspicion, power, and toughness are all we are allowed to bring to the governing table, if the blind loyalty, fear and obedience to authority of the gang are how we run our institutions, if the traditions of patriarchy—whether enforced by a man or a woman—are perpetuated, then feminism has failed.
Our kingdom is as great. And today’s women—and men—are recognizing it.