Back when I was just starting my career, I met a senior scholar about 15 years my elder. About her years teaching at a conservative Catholic university, she said something like, “I never realized I was such a radical! It was kind of fun to be thought of as really radical.” She wasn’t writing women’s history–yet, although she has become a women’s historian since then. But she was a woman historian, which in that department at that point in time made her really stand out, and she became an advocate for causes and ideas that she had never been openly affiliated with, whereas before she was just an early Americanist with a prestigious degree. Of course, as a 27 year-old ABD, I thought to myself: good thing those days are over, and we’re on the path to a brighter future!
It’s thirteen years later, and I feel like we’re in the same place as that senior scholar was twenty-five years ago (or more) when she was just starting her career. We’re still at the point where feminism–any kind of it–is seen as a radical idea, and one that the majority of young women don’t want to affiliate with. Notorious, Ph.D. reports that only two out of twenty women students in her women’s history class self-identify as feminists. We’re still at the point where a Democratic president who was elected because women showed up to vote bargains away Medicaid funding for contraception in exchange for…nothing. We’re still at the point where it feels like progress that women are actually permitted to go to court and sue someone for ripping them off. And, here’s the punchline, courtesy of Notorious, Ph.D. once again: Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal affairs expert whom I have always believed was a pretty tough feminist in her own right “began her report [on the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act] by noting that the 70 year-old Ledbetter, ‘doesn’t look much like a crusading feminist.'”
By the way, all of the images in this post are the result of going to Google Images and typing in “radical feminist.” These are just a few of the images on the first page of results–the photographs are of Andrea Dworkin (above) and Hillary Clinton (left). Note the trends here: radical feminists are apparently all white, middle-class or professional, loudmouthed, morbidly obese, middle-aged, and/or ridiculous.
How very damaging is the notion of “progress.” Why do even smart women’s historians–like Notorious Ph.D. and Historiann–continue to fall for the notion that since the date on the calendar has changed, that things must be so much better than they were? Why do I fear that the last thirty years of U.S. feminist history (at least!) is just so much Groundhog Day?