by Merle Hoffman
have always worn a lot of black, even when it was out of fashion. Perhaps it was my flair for the dramatic or tendencies towards romanticism. Perhaps it was because black always seemed so strong, so direct, so in control … so basic. Whatever the underlying psychological reasons, black is definitely one of my favorite colors. I am, therefore, somewhat bemused to find that my liking for things black may have inadvertently made me very fashionable, may have put me in the appropriate mind and dress set for assuming the role of a woman in mourning. For it is mourning I should be in if I listened to and believed all the messages of the popular culture. According to consistent media reports, it appears as if the Women’s Movement is dead”. If this is true, it would seemed to have died rather softly. It certainly did not go out with a bang, and in fact, hardly with a whimper. Really, you didn’t hear it at all. It would appear that feminism had died the most terrible of all deaths in America – it had gone OUT OF FASHION!
Everywhere you look there are obituaries. Haute couture fashion designer, Pauline Trigere, in an interview in Manhattan Magazine, was asked “What do you think about the Women’s Movement?” Her response reads “I think it was wonderful when it started, but I truly do not understand it.”
There it is in black and white -the Women’s Movement was wonderful. Then, Trigere not only preaches the death of the movement, she believes that the E.R.A. was passed! “I was told there was a big difference between the salaries of men and women doing similar work. It’s possible, but in our union I know this is not so. Most certainly, the E.R.A. helped many women who were frightened in the so called man’s world to develop confidence in themselves, and to try on their own … so that’s great!” Yes, no need for the revolution here -women already have their economic party – the E.R.A. has been passed! It appears that I have been living an illusion, that there is no “political struggle”. There is no more need to work for radical positive social change. It all had happened. The goals of the Women’s Movement had been met. The revolution had come – straightened everything out – and had died because there just wasn’t any more need of it. It’s all over except for the mourning (which I am dressed for). We can all go home, we have been dismissed.
In reading Trigere’s words, we may see an example of the ultimate co-option of the successful female executive class. Often, women who do “make it” in this so called man’s world struggled to do so, and have come to believe that they have succeeded purely on their own individual merits. They become spokespeople for the status quo and join the litany of voices that are telling us that we have entered a “post feminist” era. They do not see themselves as part of a larger class of women, but more in the genre of the archetypical American, the pure individualist. This is the danger when the movement (defined as individual careerism) becomes an end in and of itself. Those who succeed can be quickly co opted. They are given the goodies: the jobs, money, the status, the power and then they are quietly enlisted into the ranks of the establishment where they are well dressed, coiffed and manicured and sent out to tell the rest of us exactly how they got to where they are in one “how to” book or interview after another.
Recently, in a women’s fashion supplement in the New York Times women were being exhorted to “go back” to dressing sexually, particularly in the board rooms because “men like it and it adds more color to the world”. Women are liking it again when a man whistles”, according to Peggy Noonan, a speech writer for President Reagan, and even Gloria Steinem would seem to agree: “If you dress like men, it only makes men feel more anxious.” It seems we are to rewrite history and go back to Victorian times when women, particularly upper class women, were thought of as merely decorative items. Says Noonan: “Men are delighted when a woman comes into a meeting room not wearing a little blue suit and tie and sits down at the table with a certain amount of flair and says ‘Hi, boys’. You’re pleased with yourself when you look nice. Men are happy. And this may sound corny, but I think you brighten up the world a little just by showing up.”
If this feminist movement is dead, its life was a media creation! The New York Times which couples feminism and fashion, would have us believe that all good middle class Jewish intellectual revolutionaries wear Designer clothes to the Bastille – What an extraordinary “coup”, the joining of feminism and fashion – revolution and shopping- as if one could buy a consciousness – as if one could “try on” a way of being.
It seems feminism, social change and idealism were fads, they’re not “in” anymore. What is “in” according to the New York Times is dressing up in Donna Karan grey silk smoking jackets to go to work (particularly if you work at teaching a medical class at the Mt. Sinai Medical School) and doing this without feeling guilty because Neo feminism (really defined as careerism) has become fashionable.
The issue that is never addressed, of course, is that the majority of working women are not teaching at Mt. Sinai Medical School nor walking into board rooms saying “Hi, boys”, but are locked into “pink collar” ghettos earning barely minimum wage to support themselves and their children while 50 percent of them have been divorced and their incomes have dropped 73 percent in the first year after their divorce while their ex husbands’ have gone up 42 percent.
More disheartening than the Times or pop publications was to see Ms. Magazine devote the November issue to fashion. And perhaps the “unkindest cut of all”, to have a feminist leader and Ms. editor, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, display an unconscious elitism when she writes in her article “Slouching Toward Style”: “I’m not intimidated by stylish women because I’ve assumed anyone who wants to can study the fashion ads and department store mannequins, copy women whose look we admire, or hire an ‘image consultant’ and end up looking reasonably close to whatever is today’s version of put together.”
Ms. Pogrebin then goes on to say that, out of curiosity, she hired an “image consultant”. The cost: $100 an hour for home consultation and either $45 for each hour of the consultant’s shopping time in retail stores or designer showrooms, or a fee of 25 percent of each total purchase made above $150.
The words “anyone who wants to” stand out from the page. Who is “anyone”? The woman who is struggling to keep her family together on public assistance? The woman desperately trying to find affordable day care for her children? The middle income woman who is working because her husband’s salary can’t cover expenses? Most women can’t afford the time to study the fashion ads or wander through department stores staring at mannequins – their time is spent in supermarkets, housework, childrearing, all the while holding down fulltime and, usually, low paying jobs. And how many women, even at better paying jobs, can afford an “image consultant”? Once again, a leader has distanced herself from the troops.
“I’m not a feminist. I still feel clothes are basically there to attract. I don’t care how much we discuss it. Fashion is how great a man says a woman looks”, says fashion designer Zandra Rhodes in Manhattan Magazine. It really couldn’t be clearer. Fashion -a woman’s body, a woman’s image, a woman’s reality is not how she defines it, it is, most clearly, how men define it.
I have also found it quite extraordinary that the common definition of the Women’s Movement has been reduced to cigarettes, bras, and doors. Very often, when I question women whom I interview for positions and ask them their opinion of feminism, I am told that “I want equal pay for equal work, but I still like my cigarettes lit, and the doors opened for me”, or “I am not a radical like those women who burned their bras”. Interesting how the concept of “burning one’s bra” can become an act of such clear subversive qualities – how terribly unAmerican to destroy a consumer item of such psychological significance.
Recently, in People Magazine the American designer Vicky Tiele was quoted as saying “Women want to seduce men more than ever because there are so few of them. In my clothes, you will score your man.” In the same article, Goldie Hawn is quoted as saying “I can’t wait to have my baby so I can wear my little Vickies again.
Women’s bodies are not merely receptacles for the current trends of fashion nor are they just vehicles for others fantasies. They have also been cast as the most personal and political battleground for what has become and remains the basic core issues that dominate much of the current women’s movement. These issues have much to do with power and control, they have much to do with the sexual definition of women in this world and they have much to do with children.
Both consumerism and fashion drive women to capitulate to the demands of a society that still is determined to define her in terms of her relationship to her biological function of childbearing. Even the choice to abort or not to abort can, at times, be just another example of meeting external expectations.
The marriage of feminism and fashion is indeed a dangerous one, particularly when fashion becomes such a time-consuming and financial drain. If feminism is fashion and it can by definition come in and go out, it can never be a threat, because the ownership is external, someone else decides whether it exists or not.
Women must own the Women’s Movement, the real Women’s Movement. The women who are in the process of struggle for positive social change are the ones who must define it not media, not celebrities. Feminism is not just another topic on a talk show. If we allow others to define the nature, goals and direction of our movement collectively, it will be just another example of women allowing men to define their own individual lives and realities. If we allow this to happen, then the Movement and its relationship to the society and culture that it challenges is irrelevant.
Being a feminist should not be a dirty label, or a designer label. It cannot nor should it be anything given or bestowed by anyone else. It is, first and foremost, a commitment to a way of seeing, living and dealing with the world. Women looking in the mirror should see through to more than reflections of themselves.
There are new generations to be formed, children to teach, homeless to house, sick to heal, wars to end, new worlds to build. The issues of classism, racism, militarism, specism, sexism, ageism, all the “isms’ that mean “different from” and “less than” must be, addressed.
And, with the world on the brink of nuclear holocaust, does it really matter who opens the doors or lights the cigarettes?
Ideally, feminism should help to create women, children and men of a higher moral and ethical character. Feminism should be the fire through which we enter as clay pots to emerge as porcelain.
If we believe the propaganda that is fed to us, then we will believe that the Women’s Movement is dead.
If the real Women’s Movement is dead, it will be women who have killed it or allowed it to die. It will be women who will have allowed it to be bought and sold.
Women own their own movement and they alone are responsible for understanding the ultimate reality that feminism is not about fashion it is about the future. The future of not only American women, but women throughout the world, and ultimately, feminism is about the future of this planet.
Merle Hoffman is publisher/editor-in-chief of On The Issues magazine and founder/president of both Choices Women’s Medical Center, Inc., and Choices Mental Health Center.