January 26, 2008
KAREN VON HAHN
The death this week of Suzanne Pleshette - that sassy, sexy
comedienne who, along with playing Bob Newhart's better half, starred
in the kind of swinging seventies, Love, American Style romps that
comprised my inappropriate after-school TV viewing schedule - has me
feeling like I should be stuffed and put on display in some sort of
museum of women's liberation.
That, and the revelation that came to me while playing a board game
over the holidays with my 26-year-old niece and 18-year-old daughter.
The game is called Hoopla: You pick a card and act out the person,
place or thing named on it for the group to guess. After drawing her
card, my hip and literate niece asked whether she could choose
another. "I don't have any idea who this is," she said, passing the
card to my daughter. "Me neither," shrugged my well-informed Sophie.
They passed it to me. The woman on the card was Gloria Steinem.
Whether it's because we've all fallen asleep at our tasks like Snow
White, or whether we've been outplayed in a subtle and long-standing
culture war, what is clear is that we are living in a new era of
post-feminism. That the young women I know see no great victory in
Hillary Clinton's run for the U.S. presidency is proof enough. That
they also see Barack Obama as the one candidate who represents
"change" is nothing less than astounding.
Ever since Clinton and her contemporaries crammed their way into law
and business schools, we've been told by everyone from the
cheerleading women's business networks to Virginia Slims that we've
made it. Turning our backs on conventional feminism and its grinding
focus on women's oppression, we empowered our daughters to embrace
the more upbeat Girl Power movement. Candy-coating the world in Spice
Girls tunes, pink-feathered purses and Sex and the City, we sold them
a bill of goods: that women are as free and unencumbered as men, that
they can achieve any goal they might dream of - even that the odds
are in their favour.
As a result, the girls of this generation, who consider it "lame" to
align themselves with a woman candidate on the sole ground of
sisterhood, are more likely to tune in to the new CosmoTV digital
channel (sample program, Dirty Cows: "Take 10 stylin' British babes,
add one cold and lofty barn and a young, rich, handsome farmer
looking for love, and you've got a recipe for mayhem, because to win
his heart they're going to have to fight like dirty cows") than flip
open the 35th-anniversary issue of Ms. Magazine.
Talk about old school: The issue featured Superwoman on its cover.
(That's how tired the movement is looking: They had to resort to a
comic-book heroine who appeared more than half a century ago to
illustrate it.) The hard truth is that we have failed to impress upon
our own daughters that women's issues still matter.
As Steinem herself (yes, she is still alive) observed of the
Clinton/Obama challenge in The New York Times, gender - not race - is
still "probably the most restricting force in American life," adding
that "black men were given the vote a half-century before women" and
have ascended the ranks of power in greater numbers in advance of women.
With our hands in the air begging to answer, we have outperformed our
male colleagues at school only to be slapped hard in the real world.
According to an April, 2007, study by the American Association of
University Women, despite pulling in higher grade point averages
across all majors, women earn 80 per cent of what their male
counterparts take home one year after graduation. Ten years later,
the figure drops to 69 per cent.
In 2007, just 12 of the Fortune 500 companies boasted female chief
executive officers. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 14.6
per cent of board seats are held by women, and a scant 6.7 per cent
of us qualify among the top five wage earners. The most recent
numbers from Statistics Canada are even worse: In our country, women
make a measly 64 per cent of what men earn. Which means that pay
equity day - the date by which women will reach the amount that men
earned by the end of last year - won't happen till May 10 of this year.
At the same time, according to numerous recent global studies, women
- even those part of the growing ranks of double-income families -
still shoulder the brunt of both housework and child care. And the
right to choose, a key rallying cry for traditional feminists, is so
taken for granted by today's young women that they giggle along with
the hipster protagonists in Knocked Up who aren't mature enough to
say the word "abortion" and the wisecracking teenager in Juno who
opts to carry her baby to term because the abortion clinic gives her
But worst of all is feminism's failure to create true sisterhood.
Like mean girls in the playground, we started feeling all warm and
fuzzy toward Clinton only after our claws and barbs drew tears.
Which, given the current "race versus feminism" question, might help
explain why Clinton is doing just about as well with black voters as
Obama is doing with women. Because if there is one thing that blacks
and women share, apart from their oppression from the white male
corridors of power, it is their enduring lack of faith in their own community.