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Stephanie Staal: Taking Feminism’s Pulse

February 22, 2011

Staal, Stephanie.jpgWhen Stephanie Staal first took Fem Texts, a class during which she studied classics from Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, she was a 19-year-old college student at Barnard and it was the early ‘90s. When she went back to reread those same feminist works in that same Fem Texts class still offered at Barnard, she did so as a wife, mother, and freelance writer. Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life (Public Affairs; Feb 22) is the product of this experience.

I was able to ask her a few questions about where feminism stands today on the eve of her publish.

—Katherine Dykstra for Guernica

Guernica: Susan Faludi recently wrote a piece for Harper’s in which she describes the “ritual matricide” of and by feminists, where women separate from and even renounce their feminist forebears even as they benefit from the strides those same forebears made. I think you’re younger than Faludi, but perhaps older than some of the feminists she mentions. Is this “ritual matricide” something you’ve seen? If so, do you think it’s necessary? If not, is Faludi’s article equally divisive?

Stephanie Staal: It’s funny, because, according to Faludi, I might fall into the “younger” feminist camp—I can solidly put myself in feminism’s “third wave”—and yet for Reading Women, I spent two years discussing feminism with college students almost half my age; most of the time, I felt like the old feminist in the room. So I found myself constantly reorienting myself as I read Faludi’s piece. I have to say, from what I saw going back to the classroom, I didn’t get the same sense of “ritual matricide” she described. Rather, I witnessed a great deal of respect and recognition from both sides of the age gap, and her characterizations of each age cohort were certainly not watertight. For example, one professor, who came out of the second wave, was an ardent champion of blogging as a path to feminist activism, something Faludi cited as cause of a major generational rift. And the students, although not shy to critique a work or idea they didn’t agree with, still expressed admiration for the authors we read.

To a large extent, I think generational tensions are inevitable; as the world changes around us, our particular views will differ, as will our responses, even as we continue to share the same broad goals. Adaptation is a part of evolution. Faludi’s article seemed a rather grim portrayal of feminist infighting, but on a positive note, she did succeed in sparking some constructive conversations among feminists.

Guernica: What are the biggest issues facing women right now? Do you think there is a common cause we should be working toward now?

Stephanie Staal: Revisiting the history of feminist thought, it seems two common aims have motored feminism across the centuries: economic independence and equal political clout for women. Of course, the means taken toward these ends have been somewhat defined by the specific sociohistorical backdrop—for the suffragettes, it was fighting for the vote; for later generations, it was registering voters—but nevertheless, these goals have remained consistent.

[Sarah Palin] calls herself a feminist, and yet she does not support socially progressive policies that would benefit women…In my book, that’s not a feminist.

And despite the incredible advances women have made over the years, serious inequities persist. Women’s median weekly salary is around 80% of men’s. Single female-headed households abound and often must endure extreme financial pressures with little support; two-parent households are also struggling in this new economy. Meanwhile, affordable daycare is difficult to find and affordable reproductive health services are under attack. Congress is about 20% female, short of the 30% identified as the tipping point of impact. Fewer women are heard on op-ed pages, named in bylines of major media, or spotlighted on book review pages. I think there are a lot of uniting issues out there for us to work on.

Guernica: You say institutions need to respond to the need for jobs that allow for a reasonable family life. What institutions? And in what way?

Stephanie Staal: Before, I pointed out that women are still making less than men. I should amend that to say not all women. In many major cities, women in their 20s are out-earning men the same age, and there is a smaller pay gap between men and women in this age group nationwide. An increasing number of married women are earning more than their husbands. But once a baby is born, the picture changes. Middle-class mothers who scale back on work or take time off face an increasing pay gap when they try to re-enter the workforce; moreover, employers are usually reluctant to hire a woman who has children, making re-entry that much more difficult, especially in a difficult economy. Those mothers who continue to work are frequently seen as less committed to and competent at their jobs, regardless of their actual level of dedication. And for impoverished women with children, the situation can be dire, forcing them to leave their children alone or in substandard day care for below poverty-level wages. For many women, “opting in” or “opting out” are not options at all. Our ongoing celebration of motherhood—and parenthood, in general—is not backed up by any practical support. Reading Women.jpg

But there is some good news: Fathers are starting to feel the squeeze of work/family conflict, too, which means there’s a wonderful opportunity for men and women to join forces on this issue. If we are serious about family life, then we should try to pass legislation mandating subsidized parental leaves and create affordable, quality daycare. And some businesses have discovered that it is in their own best interests to allow for greater worker autonomy and flexibility, which can, in turn, improve worker motivation and performance.

Guernica: You mention a resurgence of the word feminism directly related to Sarah Palin. Can you define a feminist? And does Sarah Palin fit that description?

Stephanie Staal: One of my Fem Texts professors offered this provisional two-part description of feminism that has stuck with me ever since. She said feminism is what empowers the individual woman and gives her access to individual rights, but feminism is also what empowers women as a collectivity with the intent of making permanent, broad-based change. Both parts of this definition are vital to being a feminist. So while Sarah Palin may satisfy the first part of the definition, she fails miserably at the second. She calls herself a feminist, and yet she does not support socially progressive policies that would benefit women; in fact, she actively promotes policies that would limit women’s rights. In my book, that’s not a feminist.

Copyright 2011 Katherine Dykstra

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Katherine Dykstra is a senior editor at Guernica. Read her interview with Sheryl WuDunn On the Emancipation of Women here.

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