By J. Goodrich
If we believe the popular US media, the feminist movement is a zombie. We have been invited to several of its funerals during the last decades, even earlier, but not to baby showers to celebrate its happy rebirth. It must be the case, then, that the feminist movement is barely buried before it claws itself out of the grave, moving dirt aside and grasping air with its skeletal hands, only to die yet another zombie death.
In 1935, Genevieve Parkhurst asks “Is Feminism Dead?” in Harper’s Monthly magazine. In 1976, the same magazinepublishes Veronica Geng’s “Requiem For the Women’s Movement.” In 1986, Joan Beck asks in the Chicago Tribune, “Is Feminism Finished?” In 1989, Time magazine asks “Is There A Future for Feminism?” on its December cover. Almost ten years later Time is still worrying about feminism’s state of health, asking “Is Feminism Dead?” on its June 1998 cover, the stern faces of Susan B. Anthony, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, and Ally McBeal portrayed against a funereal background, with only Ally McBeal’s face in color.
In the 2000s, the questioning obituaries about feminism come in faster and faster. NBC’s Today show the old question in 2005 (“Thirty Years Later, Is Feminism Dead?”); Phyllis Chesler’s 2006 book is titled The Death of Feminism, and Slate’s The XX Factor announces, in 2009, “Yes Virginia, Feminism Really Is Dead.”
In 2012 the UK Daily Mail wonders if feminism might finally be dead(“The death of feminism? One in three women say it’s ‘too aggressive’ towards men and they don’t need it any more”) and the UK Guardian asks whether feminism is a spent force or fit for the 21st century.
The year 2013 produces a crop harvest of feminism’s funerals. The UK Cosmopolitan is not quite ready to bury the old lady yet (“Is Feminism Dead? Reports of the Death of Feminism Have Been Greatly Exaggerated”), but the Washington Times certainly is (“Feminism may be dead: 72 percent of Americans say they’re not ‘feminists.”) Front Page magazine goes even further in a piece titled “Margaret Thatcher and the Death of Feminism,” taking the joke in this post seriously by stating that feminism isn’t just dead but a zombie movement “stumbling around the universities, popular culture, and the media, devouring the brains of the stupid or badly educated.” Most recently, the Washington Post suggests that feminism is dead but due to be born again (“Feminism is dead! Long live feminism!), in response to Hanna Rosin’s (of End of Men fame) claims that since the patriarchy is so obviously dead, feminism is no longer needed.
Such a long and frequent string of funerals cannot be based on real events. Feminism, whether an idea or a movement, cannot just keep dying in this manner. And despite my quip about feminism as a zombie that won’t stay buried, what is really happening here is that the story about the death of feminism is itself a zombie.
As such it belongs to the Zombie News for Women: trends or stories of a certain kind that crop up repeatedly and eagerly without much or any real evidence for them.
Remember reading stories about how hard it is for an educated heterosexual woman to find a husband? That one has been printed over and over again for the last hundred years—indeed, for as long as women have had access to higher education.
Another perennial story is the so-called opt-out phenomenon, the theory that educated and wealthy (and usually white) women are rejecting the labor market in vast numbers and choosing to return to the traditional gendered division of labor. This is a zombie story that surfaces whenever female labor market participation rates show any kind of dip, whatever the reason for the dip. It is a zombie story because the women most likely to stay at home are not the wealthy but relatively poor, and because the pipeline problem has been chronic; it is not a drastic, sudden, choice-driven change in the way women look at the tradeoffs between family and work in a culture that codes childcare as a female obligation.
All these stories share certain peculiarities, other than their zombie nature, and it is those peculiarities which probably explain why the stories cannot die, will not die.
They are about basic fears: Who takes care of the children if women and men truly become equal? Will men have to give up power for women to have more? What will happen to the traditional family and marriage if women don’t need them as a form of financial survival? It would be so much easier, for some, if feminism would just go away, would just die already.
Zombie Stories For Women also appeal to to those who disagree with them—because they read them, they buy the newspapers and magazines that publish them, and they write responses pointing out all the signs of life in the feminist movement, or pointing out that educated women still hold jobs, and that the majority of mothers are still in the labor force. Publishing such stories is a win-win strategy: it's a magnet for larger audiences!
These stories are dangerous not only because they are mostly false but also because they ignore the very unequal status of most world’s women. Instead, they speak only about, and to, a very select group of educated women in the West: those who almost have a handhold on the top rungs of the societal power ladder. If these women, the closest to true gender equality, can made to relinquish that tentative grip on power, what hope do the rest of women on this planet have?
This is why we must grab our shovels and finally bury those Zombie Stories For Women!
J. Goodrich is an economist by training. Her work has been published in the American Prospect, Ms magazine and Alternet.
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