Not Merely Boys with Vaginas

19 03 2016
My will is as strong, and my kingdom as great.

My will is as strong, and my kingdom as great.

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.




8 responses

20 03 2016
Laura Fry

I’ve only skimmed your entry, Mel, and am too tired to offer intelligent comments; However, I have to admire anyone who found all the proper umlaut-y things for those Icelandic names. Brava that my friend!

21 03 2016

I have a confession to make: I copy/pasted from reliable sources. Gotta say, I love those names. Few SF writers have come up with names for aliens that even come close to the radically “different” feel of these from a nation of humans.

21 03 2016

Reblogged this on heretherebespiders and commented:
This! Perfectly said.

21 03 2016

Well said.

22 03 2016

I really enjoyed your thoughts on this and it has helped me understand younger feminists better. However, I would like to add that I still kind of feel that Albright was correct in one particular aspect. Her anger, and often my own (being surrounded by conservative women who routinely sabotage more independent-minded women) stems from a frustration with the fact that if anyone might have empathy for my travails one would think it would be other women. You might label that stereotypical thinking but I don’t agree. It’s perfectly natural to think that someone who has so much in common with you (and I don’t just mean the presence of a vagina here) could be so uncaring or even hostile toward your plight. For example, although I have major personal problems with organized religion and the patriarchal structure they perpetuate I would never try to sabotage an individual woman who belonged to and believed in such a religion. But these same women often work very hard to do just that because they I “don’t accept my place” and I am not “feminine” enough to suit them. I don’t expect their support because they have vaginas but because I was raised the same way they were, I know their culture intimately, I know what they go through, etc and I have empathy and compassion for them. I expect that back but I rarely recieve it. So it’s not just a matter of they have a vagina, it is often “we have all these other similarities culturally AND many of the same experiences because of our vagina” that men cannot easily (if at all) understand.

I also have to reject the notion that cold pragmatism is a patriarchal notion. It belongs to both genders but for different reasons. In males it is more likely to be used as a tool for attainment of position and power. In women it is more likely to be used in service to protect herself or those she cares about (self-serving versus other-directed). Again, a generalization but still I think a valid point. For example, my beliefs line up more with Bernie Sanders but I support Hillary Clinton. And the most important reason why is pragmatic. I believe she has a better chance to beat Trump or Cruz in the general election and this is an election that the Democratic party cannot lose due to many things that do not affect me but will affect the lives of women and children for several generations to come. The fact that Hillary is female is a nice bonus and does animate me somewhat but it isn’t why I support her. And I think anyone supporting her simply because she is female is a dumb as anyone opposing her for the same reason.

22 03 2016

Thank you very much for your thoughtful and well-reasoned perspective. While we may disagree on several points, I respect the firm but civil tone with which you present your case.

24 03 2016

So rare that people discuss such topics like grown-ups, isn’t it? 🙂

24 03 2016

Seriously, the number of times I have opened my email and had flames shoot out….

Yes, I am very grateful when I encounter intelligent people who know how to disagree respectfully without being insulting or confrontational. And who understand basic rules of argumentation.

Many of the points I make are nuanced, or based on broad generalizations to which there are unquestionably exceptions (such as the “patriarchal” or “classically masculine/feminine” traits. Extensive research done on the differences between/among the genders indicates that there is far more variation among members of the same gender as there are between the genders. They are overlapping bell curves. So your points are well-taken and I don’t disagree. Our cultural norms and expectations are built, however, on stereotypes and generalizations.

You in fact make such a generalization, in agreeing with Albright, that women ought to help other women whether they think the woman in question is worthy of support or not. It presumes that all women have something common. Of course, in general, they do. And, in general, I can understand that need for solidarity, and the frustration in dealing with those who are essentially working against their own best interests. (You go on to explain your point quite well.) However, in that particular case, I think Albright was dead wrong. Women are under no obligation to support a particular candidate because she is a woman. There is no way I am going to give my enthusiastic support to Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachmann.

We agree more than we disagree, and where we disagree, I expect a longer conversation would pin it down to matters of opinion and judgement, where we can easily agree to disagree without rancor. I’m still not voting for Clinton, but I think no less of you for doing so.

Well, maybe just a bit.

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