The feminist movement is often misunderstood, unfortunately even among women. It has been demeaned to symbolic but redundant practices like bra-burning by those who, pardon the pun, barely understood it.
Virulent opinion-mouthing among activists with even contradicting perspectives and general lack of cohesive efforts hampered its progress for long. Even then it does not, however, take way the sheen off the path-breaking work done by the harbingers of feminism worldwide.
Merriam-Webster defines feminism as the theory of political, economic and social equality of the sexes. Here is examining ten prominent works of non-fiction that triggered continuing debates on the feminine voice in the past century.
Simone de Beauvoir was a French writer, activist and existentialist. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre who declined the Nobel Prize, was her life partner and collaborator. She wrote in her memoirs that the disequilibrium brought about by her father's pagan ethical standards contrasting her mother’s rigid moral conventionalism made her an intellectual.
In ‘The Second Sex’ published in 1949 she wrote that women are defined in relation to men. She asserted that women are as capable of choices as men, and thus can choose to elevate themselves, moving beyond the immanence to which they were previously resigned and reach a position of taking own responsibility and choosing their freedom. De Beauvoir argued that men had made women the ‘other’ in society by applying a false aura of mystery around them and it was their excuse not to understand women or their problems and not to help them.
American feminist Betty Friedan co-founded the National Organization for Women which aimed to bring women into the mainstream of American society as equal partners of men. She also founded the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws. Curiously, she fell out with many extreme feminists who tended to attack men and homemakers. Her enquiry into women who gave up their education and careers to help their husbands and raise children but found themselves in the lurch after middle age divorces, expanded into a book ‘The Feminine Mystique’. In it Friedan asserted that women are as capable as men for any type of work or any career path which went against the arguments to the contrary by most of the mass media, educators and psychologists.
Gloria Steinem is an American journalist and activist who founded Ms magazine. She wrote columns for the New York Times and has taken strong stances concerning female genital mutilation and male circumcision, pornography, abortion, same-sex marriage and transgender rights. She penned ‘A Thousand Indias’ a travel guide on India, a place where she had her teething in social activism. In her autobiographical work ‘My Life on the Road’ she gives a candid account of her life as a traveler and a catalyst for change. It is a profound story of the writer’s growth and also the evolution of a revolutionary movement for equality. It is interestingly also the story of how surprising encounters on the road shaped her thoughts.
‘Sexual Politics’ is educationist, artist and activist Katherine Millett’s doctoral dissertation. She championed human rights, peace, civil rights and anti-psychiatry movements. Millett described patriarchy as the society-wide subjugation of women. According to her biographer, Millett articulated a theory of patriarchy and conceptualized the gender and sexual oppression of women in terms that demanded a sex role revolution with radical changes of personal and family lifestyles. In ‘Going to Iran’ she recounts her harrowing experience of working for Iranian women’s rights for the Committee for Artistic and Intellectual Freedom in 1979. A lesbian herself, Millett’s best-selling work ‘Sexual Politics’ critiques patriarchy in Western society as well as literature and contrasted the perspectives of homosexual writer Jean Genet and heterosexual ones like D. H Norman Mailer.
When Kamala Das’s autobiography ‘My Story’ was serialized in the Malayalam weekly Malayalanadu in 1972, it kicked up a literary storm and boosted the weekly’s circulation manifold. Her English translation of it came out the next year. Indian readers were not used to such confessional writing, certainly not by a woman.
As Das describes in her autobiography, her turbulent marriage to a much senior man, an economist who inhabited a different universe from hers sexually and intellectually, gave vent to her pain and longings in penning the book. It spoke from the heart about suppression, infidelities, loneliness and freedom. The book emboldened a whole generation of female writers to freely express themselves, though none matched her in literary merit or earnestness of purpose.
Kamala Das who earned
Germaine Greer is an Australian writer regarded as a pioneer of the second wave feminist movement of the 20th century. She has held literature teaching positions in England besides writing columns for international magazines. Greer’s PhD was on Shakespeare and her works include the book Shakespeare’s Wife where she attempts to throw light on the bard’s low-profile wife Anne Hathaway. She has written on Australian aboriginal issues. In her
Camille Paglia is an American professor and social critic. Critical of many aspects of modern culture, she has locked horns with other feminists like Greer and Wolf. She held the view that rape is sexually motivated. Paglia argued against girl squads saying that rather than empowering women they harm the self-esteem of those who aren't rich, famous, or attractive enough to belong to the group, thus pushing women further down to being sexual stereotypes. Instead she wanted these groups to mentor, advise, and be more inclusive to truly help women.
In ‘Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson’, Paglia argues that human nature has an inherently dangerous Dionysian aspect, especially with regard to sexuality. Culture and civilization are created by men and represent an attempt to contain that force, she wrote. Women are powerful too, but as natural
Urvashi Butalia is a speaker and columnist who co-founded the feminist publishing house Kali for Women. Her interests are the Indian partition, oral histories from feminist and left-wing perspectives, gender and communalism. ‘The Other Side of Silence: Voices from the Partition of India’ is her groundbreaking work. Much has been written and said about Partition and how India and Pakistan are still paying the heavy price for that historical blunder. Butalia in this book focuses on the individual experiences of people who silently bore the brunt. She conducted interviews over ten years and studied diaries, letters and other documents and sensitively examines how children, women, lower castes and ordinary people were affected by it. She traces her Punjabi family’s partition experiences to put things in context.
Naomi Wolf is a third wave feminist and journalist who was political advisor to Bill Clinton. In her 1991 book ‘The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women’ she stated that as the social power and prominence of women increased, the pressure they feel to adhere to unrealistic social standards of physical beauty also grew stronger from commercial influences on the mass media. This leads to unhealthy behaviors by women and a preoccupation with appearance in both sexes which compromises the ability of women to be effective in and accepted by society. The myth acted in areas like work, religion, sex, violence and hunger. The fashion and beauty industries exploited women. Wolf argued for women to have the choice to do whatever they wanted with their faces and bodies. Her other books are ‘The End of America’ and ‘Vagina: A New Biography’.
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the youngest of the lot here. Author of such notable books as ‘Purple Hibiscus’ and ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’, she is also a poet and short story writer. In 2012 Adichie gave a TED talk in London titled ‘We should all be feminists’ which was viewed more than five million times. Talking there about her experiences as an African feminist, she said the problem with gender is that it shapes who we are. The injustice of it angered her. While anger was bound to bring about positive change, her higher belief was in the ability of human beings to remake themselves for the better. The book is based on that talk.