Feminism, Progressive Values, and Glenn Beck

I remember when I found out I was a feminist. I was 13 and in a bookstore in Manchester, Conn. I used to stalk the grown-up section looking for naughty books with which to shock my mom. What I learned from Erica Jong's Fear of Flyingnearly put my dear mother in a coma; I lost my allowance after buying Judy Blume's Wifey. But that day in 1983, I chose Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellionsby Gloria Steinem. As they say in romantic comedies, Ms. Steinem "had me from hello." I could fill a book with all the ways that book changed my life—my mother refers to Steinem affectionately as my other birth mother. But what matters now is to try to explain how, nearly 30 years later, the name of my beloved movement has become a pop-culture joke—a catch-all for frigid women who can't catch a husband or who hate men so much they "turn to" feminism. I've been reduced to shaking my head disapprovingly at "feminazi" references in movies and closed my eyes when in the generation following mine, women began holding up Sex and the City as a blueprint to gender equality. I even held my tongue when the sexy nurse Halloween costume became a must-have for girls under 10. Of course, holding my tongue means complaining about it loudly to anyone who would listen, but, hey, we all hold back our emotions in different ways.

I was reminded of this as I read about FOX News host Glenn Beck's excoriation of progressive politics. "Progressivism is the cancer in America and it is eating our Constitution," he stated in the keynote speech at last weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference. "And it was designed to eat the Constitution. To progress past the Constitution." Leslie Savan at The Nation and Glynnis MacNicol over at Mediaite.com both did a great job refuting his arguments. But I was surprised not to see any real defense of progressive politics, aside from Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Maybe others on the left thought his argument was too facile and knuckleheaded to refute. (One bon mot: "I hate Woodrow Wilson with everything in me.") But sometimes one has to stoop to conquer. Progressives need to put up a real show of defending their politics because if they don't, they may one day confront a world where when people say "progressive" they mean socialist revolutionaries who want to destroy America. Words matter—in part because it is possible to change their meaning over time. (Think Dukakis and liberal.) But don't take my word for it. Look at what's happened to the word "feminist." It's gone from meaning a person who wants equality for men and women in all arenas to a code word for loveless, man-hating hags, as in Rush Limbaugh's statement that "feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream."

The slow degradation of the word "feminist" continues to be one of the most powerful weapons in the backlash against the women's rights movement. How better to diminish the cause than to create an atmosphere where young girls believe that to be a feminist is to be a loser, where women feared that speaking their minds made them a bitch? It opens the door to tainting and tarnishing any issue, like the rape shield laws or the Fair Pay Act, that promised to make the country a better, safer place for females. "Publications from the New York Times to Vanity Fair to the Nation have issued a steady stream of indictments against the women's movement," Susan Faludi wrote in the 2006 preface to her 1991 book, Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women, "with such headlines as WHEN FEMINISM FAILED or THE AWFUL TRUTH ABOUT WOMEN'S LIB. They hold the campaign for women's equality responsible for nearly every woe besetting women, from mental depression to meager savings accounts, from teenage suicides to eating disorders to bad complexions."

Now, this train of thought depressed me a bit. So I decided to ask my personal hero what she thought. I e-mailed Gloria Steinem and asked her if she thought women lost interest in feminism once the word became synonymous in some circles with "witch." And, because feminists rock, she got right back to me! "There has been a long campaign against 'feminism' as a word and as a human rights movement," she wrote. "I would say the introduction of the word 'feminazi' by Rush Limbaugh was the low point and beginning of the worst." But the rest of her answer surprised me; "Every feminist issue has majority support in public opinion polls, and the word 'feminist,' even with no definition, causes at least as many women to identify with it as with the word "Republican"—about a third in both cases. With its dictionary definition, more than 60% of women identify with 'feminist' and, when they are measured, more than half of men ... So some people may support the content and be afraid of the word, at least until they know who's asking them and why." And finally she reminded me that the proof is in legislation like the Fair Pay Act last year, and it doesn't matter what people like Limbaugh or Beck think. "This is a revolution," my hero reassured me, "not a public relations movement."