Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored


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by Pat Holt

Tuesday, June 11, 2002


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I'm not sure if smoke is spewing from Estelle Freedman's ears, but something tells me the first questions I've asked about her book, "No Turning Back," (Ballantine; 446 pages; $26) haven't exactly struck a positive chord.

Freedman is a professor of history and a founder of the Program in Feminist Studies at Stanford University, plus an acclaimed author of books on women's prison reform and sexuality. If ever there was an expert on the women's movement - how international it is, how multi-racial it is, how profound it is - Estelle B. Freedman is it.

In fact that's why she wrote "No Turning Back": After someone asked her to recommend a good history on feminism, she said that after teaching the subject at Stanford for 25 years, she had never found a thorough study and ended up joking, "I would have to write that book myself."

So here we are talking about it in a (for me) pre-interview sort of way (I haven't read the book yet) when Estelle mentions that she's going to be interviewed on talk-show programs. She thinks the "Feminism Is Dead" angle will be a common theme. "Every 5 to 8 years, the media declares feminism gone by the wayside," she says, "so that may be on a lot of people's minds."

Hmm, I say, launching into a little story about the Chronicle Book Review years ago when the word "feminism" kept getting us all in trouble. For example, a colleague used the words "feminism" and "womb" in the same headline and was banned from writing for the daily edition for years.

It seemed to me that "feminism" had become such a volatile word - like "communism" a few decades ago - that we secretly stopped using it in the paper. "Women's movement" or "women's rights" were substituted when a collective noun was needed. In this way, one could not only review feminist books and talk about feminist authors, one could explore truly radical feminist thought and controversies without running into unnecessary red tape. (Okay, it was a shameless compromise but it got the books in the door.)

I say to Estelle, I'm not saying that she should avoid using the word "feminism" - it's in the book's subtitle, for crying out loud: "The History of Feminism And the Future of Women" - but that she might be prepared for questions about other issues than whether feminism was dead.

"What kind of 'other issues?' " Estelle asks warily.

Well, I say, if I were a talk show host on AM radio, perhaps I would ask headline-related or controversy-related questions like these:

  • Where were feminists when the Taliban took control over Afghan women? Did feminism help them then, and can it help them now? And what do you think of statements by George and Laura Bush that say (to paraphrase), "Let women come out into the light and have equal rights and privileges"?

  • How do you feel about the "remasculinization" TV shows where men sit around smoking cigars and talking about sports and "babes"? (One critic said, "You know feminism is making powerful advances when TV programs try to keep women in their place." Do you agree?)

  • Don't young women today hate the word "feminist"? In every interview about women's issues, it seems, women of all ages (but especially young women) use that tired old apology, "I'm not a feminist, but....."

  • What do you think of the "new liberationist" TV shows like "Sex and the City" where women see themselves as warriors on the landscape of sexual politics? [tee hee, I made up the "new liberationist" term, but it's something like that.]

  • For all your evidence of feminist progress, doesn't feminism have a stigma? It's not a good thing in business, for example, to be labeled a "feminist," is it?

  • Is feminism a philosophy? If feminists were in the White House and held more than half the votes in Congress, would life be different? Would we be at "war" against terrorism in the way we are now?

It's at this point that I think I detect just a tiny bit of smoke shooting out of Estelle's ears. She isn't exactly livid, but something has made her very, very quiet. She decides to send me an email the next day after thinking things over. Here's what she sends:

"I have to admit at the outset that I am very torn about this controversy game. It feels like the subject for a Holt Uncensored column: Can a serious book with an important and timely message reach its audience without resorting to adversarial rhetoric? Does the media and the publishing industry force authors into 'black and white' or 'good and bad' simplifications of complex subjects? Or do readers need this kind of simplification to be drawn into books?"

Hey - Ow - Estelle, I say, you can't blame the audience for questions like these. They may seem simplistic or adversarial to you, but they come from a steady barrage of reductive news stories and headlines. Can you answer them with an understanding of that context?

All right, Estelle says. "To your precise points, here are some thoughts:

  • "When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the loudest critics were Afghan women in exile (Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, or RAWA) and the international feminist community. Long before Western powers nodded to women's plight as part of their attack on the Taliban, women's organizations were lobbying for international pressure. If the U.S. had heeded the call earlier, we might have paid more attention to the threat posed by this patriarchal and tyrannical government.

    "It remains ironic that President and Mrs. Bush now speak out for women's rights in Afghanistan, when the U.S. is one of the few countries in the world that has never ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Perhaps it is time to act on our own beliefs."

Hey, all right, Estelle! A tough answer to a tough question, good one.

  • "Regarding 'remasculinization' TV shows. I like your articulation about 'you know feminism is making powerful advances...' Keep in mind that we have a new set of powerful images in the culture, including women athletes at the Olympics and women in the seats of power in governments. Don't mistake the backlash for the whole picture."

  • "Do young women today hate the word feminist? I think 'hate' is the wrong word. 'Fear,' 'ignorance,' 'indifference,' perhaps. Those who have passionate feelings of hate probably know how powerful feminism is. More disturbing are women who have no access to feminism, and when they do they feel utterly betrayed by their educations and culture.

  • "Liberationist shows on TV - this reminds me of a line on a situation comedy, 'Dharma and Greg,' a few weeks ago, when the guys are going off to Las Vegas to see strippers. Dharma and her radical hippie parents do a quick double take: Should we protest that those shows objectify and exploit women's bodies or should we acknowledge that women can choose to celebrate their sexuality and have a right to work in this way?

    "They said it better, but the point can be applied to many pop cultural settings. It used to be asked, 'Is Madonna a feminist?' In the book I talk about the balance between empowerment and exploitation. I always ask, 'Who profits?' 'Is there a choice?'

  • "The feminist stigma question: Many people don't elaborate on their politics or identities in business even when these are central to their value systems. (Hi, I'm a Catholic grandmother and I'll be your attorney today -- no). More important than the term is how we act - for example, do I speak up at work if someone makes derogatory or obscene comments about women's bodies (or racial 'minorities'), even if I risk being called a feminist, or politically correct? We all decide on the line at which we must speak out. For me, the label is a self-identification that comes into play when necessary.

  • "If feminists were in the White House and represented half of Congress, we would already be living in a different culture, perhaps substituting our 'wars' on drugs, poverty, cancer and terrorism with the kinds of far-reaching programs that get to the roots of these problems in racial discrimination, environmental pollution, and economic injustice.

    "I still think the strongest question in this book is that feminism is *not* dead but lives in all of our lives. We may not call it feminism, but the impact of women achieving full human rights has transformed our lives, and much of the backlash or stigma you mention can be seen as a measure of how powerful the changes have been."

Well, bravo, Freedman! I thought Estelle responded so well to these possible talk show questions that I couldn't wait to see how she handled the entire history of the women's movement in "No Turning Back."

To say I was appalled at myself after reading the book is to understate the eye-boggling experience that awaits any reader. It's not that the questions I posed to Freedman were wrong - they're out there for sure - it's rather that we all have *so much to learn* about feminist history, and I'm not talking about the year Betty Friedan wrote "The Feminine Mystique" or the time Gloria Steinem signed up to be a Playboy bunny (this last not even mentioned in the book).

I'm talking about the invention and resilience of women all over the world who have learned how to negotiate power and whose stories here give us an international perspective that can completely change readers' (well, this reader's) viewpoint.

I'm talking about starting with the Really Big Questions that people like me have been asking all my adult life - for example, why *are* women second-class citizens the world over and, if they are, what took women so long to *do* something about it?

Freedman's ability to answer such questions (she knocks 'em off in the first pages) parallels a perspective that goes far beyond the Western media-defined "issues" I thought were important. Her view rather provides the kind of multi-racial lens that allows us to understand feminism as a very different kind of force - and one that has transformed the world profoundly, whether our media has declared the movement "dead" or not.

Perhaps the best aspect of the book is that we get to be students in Estelle Freedman's famous FS101 course at Stanford - we get to see how much women in Third World countries have to teach us and, even, about our own, often invisible restrictions (did you know, for example, that some Muslim women in Islamic countries believe cosmetic makeup on American women constitutes "a postmodern veil"?)

So once I read "No Turning Back," Estelle B. Freedman and I had a "real" interview, and what a mind-blower it was (see Part II next week).



Dear Holt Uncensored:

You wrote in #325 about "Our Last Best Shot," Laura Sessions Stepp's book on adolescents aged 10-15: "Low expectations can be crippling. 'Well-off parents in particular seem to assume their kids cannot do more than the schoolwork, sports and music lessons in which their kids are already involved,' Laura [Sessions Stepp] notes."

For myself, who has younger children, I don't know if the question is so much "how much can they do" as "how much MORE can I do!" When a child has school, plays two different sports and takes music lessons, which many upscale kids do, who drives them? In our suburban world, one must drive everywhere. Even in the city, buses and walking used to be safe. I'm not sure I'd let my young teen (when I have one) on a city bus anymore.

To put it simply, I work. I drive my oldest child to private school and activities. I'm already tired! I have two other children. How much more can I do?

Mary E Tyler
Mother to three girls, ages 7, 2 and 6 months

Laura Sessions Stepp responds: Parents who work outside the home can feel doubly hit - they work, which requires time, energy and gas, and they put their kids in activities because they don't want the kids to be home alone and this also requires time, energy and gas. What I'm suggesting is not that parents add something to the list that their kids do, but that they examine the items on that list and make sure there is something on there that requires the child to do something for others. That may mean taking a sport or other activity off the list and substitute some kind of community service. Or it may mean asking the child to do something that will help a parent at home - the laundry once a week, a simple meal on Wednesday nights. Even 7-year-olds can learn how to do these tasks adequately, if not perfectly. What's more, they will feel needed.

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Have you noticed that in journalism, "mothers" or "women raising children" as used in previous decades, have become, always, no matter what else they are or do, "moms"? Somehow that really grates on me. It started with "soccer moms," and it seems to enthrone maternity as a sacred state of being. I notice it in advertising especially, and it seems, in this George Bushian era, so horribly retro.

Lauren Coodley

Dear Holt Uncensored:

After a ten city tour...our SOHO crime tour with Brit writer Peter Lovesey, I'm glad to have met new readers, wonderful independent general and mystery bookstore folk and also glad to be home. The sad part was visiting (a necessity in this day and age) so many chains in mega-malls that have edged out the once thriving independents. But we visited every mystery specialist bookstore, as well as great local independents, we could find and can only say right on to those knowledgeable booksellers who handsell and know their craft. We love them. A big thank you to them and long may they do what they do so well! Glad to be out of the 110 Phoenix heat,

Cara Black

Dear Holt Uncensored:

Amazon plans to open a new e-commerce site on June 25th that targets the Canadian marketplace. But the Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA) is crying foul, and asking the federal government to look into the deal.

According to a 6/5/02 article on Globaltechnology.com, current legislation states that any bookseller operating in Canada must be at least 51% Canadian owned, and that clearly is not the case with Amazon. CBA president Todd Anderson has sent a letter of protest to Heritage Minister Sheil Copp, stating "that the investment would not likely be of net benefit to Canada."

In addition, Anderson is accusing Amazon of trying to subvert existing rules and regulations by creating a deal with Crown corporation Canada Post for the delivery and logistics of all books sold from the Canada site. Both the Heritage Minister's office and Amazon executives are so far refusing any comment on the proposed expansion.

The full story is at: www.globetechnology.com

S. Ryan

Dear Holt Uncensored:

This might be of interest to your holt uncensored readers:

There is a new action on ActForChange: Save Public-Interest Publications. In the past few years, a devastating spiral of increases and the on-going restructuring of the post office have endangered the existence of small circulation magazines and periodicals in the United States. These magazines perform a heroic service, making sure that ideas circulate, views are exchanged, and communities are able to learn about each other.

The post office should prioritize the delivery of public-interest magazines over the delivery of junk mail. Urge your representative to support a freeze on postal rates for small-scale, high-editorial publications. Please see:


Becky Bond
Working Assets

Holt Uncensored provides this forum for the free and uncensored exchange of thoughts and ideas from writers of all callings. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of Pat Holt or the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.

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