Opinion: I don’t understand today’s feminists -- because they can’t write

In her book "The Feminine Mystique" Betty Friedan coined one of feminism's most memorable phrases: "the problem that has no name." She also wrote eloquently of the ennui of the postwar suburban housewife.
(Associated Press)

I’m not a feminist -- that’s an understatement -- but I sometimes get nostalgic for feminists.

Not today’s feminists, though, but the feminists of yore -- of what’s called “the Second Wave,” the radical women’s movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. It’s not that I agreed with what those Second Wave feminists advocated: It mostly consisted of throwing away your makeup, ditching your husband, and going to live in an all-women, macrobiotic-diet “collective.”

It was because those old gals could write. Their ideas might have been repellent, but they expressed them in bell-clear, eloquent English that any professional writer would envy.

I started thinking about them when I came across this recently written sentence -- yes, it’s a single sentence -- by New Republic senior editor Rebecca Traister:


“I wish that every woman whose actions and worth are parsed and restricted, congratulated and condemned in this country might just once get to wheel around -- on the committee that doesn’t believe their medically corroborated story of assault, or on the protesters who tell them that termination is a sin they will regret, or on the boss who tells them he doesn’t believe in their sexual choices, or on the mid-fifties man who congratulates them, or himself, on finding them appealing deep into their dotage -- and go black in the eyes and say, ‘I don’t [expletive] care if you like it.’ ”

I take it that Traister is ticked off by the Supreme Court’s abortion-protest ruling and by Tom Junod’s much-talked-about Esquire article slavering over 42-year-olds. But what does “go black in the eyes” mean? How about “the boss who tells them he doesn’t believe in their sexual choices”? What on earth is that supposed to refer to? The boss is a pimp, and his hookers are picking the wrong johns?

Let’s compare Traister’s prose to that of Germaine Greer, whose “The Female Eunuch” was an equally angry diatribe against male domination:

“Revolution is the festival of the oppressed. For a long time there may be no perceptible reward for women other than their new sense of purpose and integrity. Joy does not mean riotous glee, but it does mean the purposive employment of energy in a self-chosen enterprise. It does mean pride and confidence. It does mean communication and cooperation with others based on delight in their company and your own. To be emancipated from helplessness and need and walk freely upon the earth that is your birthright. To refuse hobbles and deformity and take possession of your body and glory in its power, accepting its own laws of loveliness. To have something to desire, something to make, something to achieve, and at last something genuine to give.”

Utopian fantasy, but also pure elegance -- and not a single murky clause.

Or Betty Friedan. In her book “The Feminine Mystique,” she coined one of feminism’s most memorable phrases: “the problem that has no name.” She also wrote eloquently of the ennui of the postwar suburban housewife whose new labor-saving machines left her without much to do:

“It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night -- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question -- ‘Is this all?’ ”

Midcentury suburbia might not have been as bleak as that, but Friedan painted such a vivid picture that many women came to believe her.

Finally, let’s turn to Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Andy Warhol. Besides being the most rebarbative of all the Second Wave feminists, Solanas, who died in 1988, was as crazy as grandma’s quilt, hospitalized several times for paranoid schizophrenia. Still, her SCUM Manifesto (“SCUM” was an acronym for “Society for Cutting Up Men”) reverberates with raw and powerful verbal energy:

“The male is completely egocentric, trapped inside himself, incapable of empathizing or identifying with others, or love, friendship, affection of tenderness. He is a completely isolated unit, incapable of rapport with anyone. His responses are entirely visceral, not cerebral; his intelligence is a mere tool in the services of his drives and needs; he is incapable of mental passion, mental interaction; he can’t relate to anything other than his own physical sensations. He is a half-dead, unresponsive lump, incapable of giving or receiving pleasure or happiness; consequently, he is at best an utter bore, an inoffensive blob, since only those capable of absorption in others can be charming. He is trapped in a twilight zone halfway between humans and apes, and is far worse off than the apes because, unlike the apes, he is capable of a large array of negative feelings -- hate, jealousy, contempt, disgust, guilt, shame, doubt -- and moreover, he is aware of what he is and what he isn’t.”

Doesn’t that read better than “the boss who tells them he doesn’t believe in their sexual choices”?

Now, I don’t believe a thing those Second-Wavers wrote. I don’t want to bash the male sex, quit cooking for my husband, or start a revolution. But I’d rather read their writings than the sloppy prose that today’s wave of feminists produces.

Charlotte Allen writes frequently about feminism, politics and religion. Follow her on Twitter @MeanCharlotte.

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