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Gloria Steinem & That Pesky 'F' Word

Feminism: Still crazy after all these years.

I am now and always have been a member of the Feminist party. That’s not to say I don’t like men. Some of my best friends are men, even my husband, and I don’t make this pronouncement to be arrogant or “uppity.” It’s just who I am, so it warmed my heart and brought a smile to my face to see Gloria Steinem back in the news. 

At 77 she’s looking fine and still fighting the good fight … keeping that “F” word alive.  Having her up front and center again brings back memories of a different time … a time, not so long ago, when working women lived in a Mad Men world of glass ceilings and “Where’s my coffee?” My single mom was a “Peggy” in that very same Madison Ave. ad world. 

Gloria helped change that world. More women are CEOs, doctors, lawyers, even Indian chiefs. But as she keeps pointing out, not all things regarding a woman’s “place” in American society have changed and recently cited two examples: women are still paid less than men for the same job and women are still the main child-rearers and housekeepers. As she continues to throw down the feminist gauntlet, she reminded me of one afternoon not that long ago at the Studio City gym, “For Women Only.”

I was on the treadmill (the fitness kind, not the one we’re on every day), doing my own iPod shuffle and leafing through the latest issue of People magazine when a young woman I knew jumped onto the adjoining treadmill. She’s one of those women who, when asked “Hi, how are you?” actually tells you—non-stop. As she warmed up by walking faster than I run at top speed, I recklessly opened the floodgates by saying: “Hi, how are you?”

Instantly, she plunged into her own private 10K run, as she relayed her incredible story of survival in a corporate world of sexual harassment and gender backbiting (without the slightest strain in her breathing, thank you very much), and how she was ready to forge headlong into the future and fight for her rightful place in the world. 

A half-hour later she finished. I was awestruck. In tribute to all she had overcome and all she planned to do, I called her a true feminist, naively assuming she would take it as the compliment I meant it to be. Instead, she nearly leaped off the treadmill and snapped: I’M NOT A FEMINIST!”

I was so stunned by her reaction, I started jogging.

As my shock wore off and I returned to my more reasonable pace, I asked her why. Her answer was simple: “I don’t want to alienate anybody.” 

For the second time in my life, mere moments apart, I had an overwhelming urge to become a sprinter. I couldn’t believe what she was saying! After all the progress she had made, she was ready to give it all back! I mean, really, alienating whom?! The people who didn’t want to hire, promote or pay her equally because she had “X” chromosomes? Not likely.

So what was it about that word that triggered such a response … that makes too many of us women cringe when we’re accused of being one, as if it were the ultimate insult? Why has “feminism” become another “F” word? It’s easy to blame the mostly male media’s years of portraying feminists as bossy, man-hating mantises that fueled a growing backlash against women who kept moving up the corporate ranks. But, maybe, just maybe, in our “take no prisoners” march for equality all those years ago, some of us forgot our common sense and lost our sense of humor.

Before I married, I dated a guy I cared about, but he wasn’t willing to make a commitment. He insisted on the option of dating other women. Saturday nights were mine, but the rest of the week was open to interpretation. I was young and foolish, so I agreed. After dating about six months, he inquired why he always paid for our theater tickets, dinners, whatever. As a self-proclaimed “feminist,” didn’t I want to pay my fair share? I told him no (I was a feminist, not foolish), and explained that feminism had nothing to do with who paid for dinner. Why should I pick up a tab for someone who wanted to use the money he saved on me to wine and dine the first bimbo who said yes to Tuesday? Made sense to me. OK, maybe she wasn’t a bimbo, but you get the point.

I really couldn’t blame him—we had confused the poor guy, and ultimately alienated ourselves, with all that 50/50 rhetoric. Nothing in life is 50/50 except a coin toss.

Maybe it was time to soften our image, put a new spin on things and put the “feminine” back into feminist. No, I’m not talking crinolines and ruffles (though black lace garters have their uses), but if a man wants to open a door for us, hey, why strain? And, if some swain (don’t you just love that word?) wants to lay his coat over a puddle so your feet stay dry, smile first ... then step on it!

Since the day of my treadmill epiphany, my “no frills” gym has changed. For Women Only was sold and became “.” Clearly, this is not your mothers’ gym. It’s been modernized for today’s Studio City woman and offers heavy duty workouts in boxing, pilates, aerobics and even pole fitness (the politically correct way to say pole dancing.) Hey, don’t knock it, it’s a great workout and those black lace garters might come in handy.

The “Wonder Woman” graphics on the gym’s website are bolder and more colorful and the women in the photos promote muscles, physical strength, and empowerment, all dressed in hip (and feminine) workout clothes. 21st century women might not call themselves feminists, but it seems they’re not going to let anyone take anything away from them, and isn’t that what feminism is all about?

Thanks, Gloria!

Nina Malone August 20, 2011 at 06:25 PM
Nice article Ilona. It's unfortunate that the central features of feminism and what it has tried to accomplish over the decades (really, it basically began w/women's suffrage) has become so convoluted by extreme "feminists" and those fighting so hard against it that it had essentially become a dirty word. Feminism doesn't mean you can't be feminine, far from it. I don't think the newer generations can really appreciate what women (and men) before them have accomplished for them. And feminism isn't synonymous w/woman...it's a male issue also and there are more men than ever who are really feminists (although they might not label themselves as so). I think, in a way, my father was a bit of a feminist. When I said I wanted to be a teacher (what every little girl wanted to be back then--it was the most prestigious job for a woman then), he inspired me to think outside the box--he knew I could be a doctor and therefore, so did I. We've still got a way to go, but "we've come a long way baby".
Irene Gibson August 20, 2011 at 06:42 PM
Good job, Ilona! The WORD 'feminism' has an extremist ring and has contributed to a lot of confusion over the years. We all need to heed your epiphany and see men and women as they ARE and not antagonize anyone. Still, the one woman at a business conference must not be expected to pour coffee for the male colleagues there. Likewise, there IS a place for black lace garters and chivalry. Nonetheless, it still remains for women of equal rank be paid at equal rate as men and have equal opportunity for position.......AND be allowed an equal array of choices with their male counterparts and fair competition.
Irene Gibson August 20, 2011 at 07:01 PM
Busy with my own response simultaneously with you, Nina, I am simply tagging on here. Your father was remarkable! My grandfather was of the same mold.....way back then....and encouraged my mother to become a doctor, which she did, with relatively little trouble. Was accepted at medical school and vice-president of her class there, 1924. She held a private practice in Van Nuys until WWII......, was in danger of being drafted into administering a hospital in San Bernardino, so instead applied to Lockheed, where she was one of 5 female physicians examining all female workers on those planes throughout the war. She claimed she saw more medical variety there in one week than in one year of private practice. Following the war she was offered partnership in several medical groups, but loved children and served as physician for 14 schools in the SFV and 2 colleges for the LA City Schools during the day and afternoons and weekends served on the UCLA Student Health Service. When forced into retirement, she volunteered to serve at women and children clinics in rural parts of Los Angeles County.....a full, rewarding life, 90 years.......never a thought at that time of 'feminism'.
Ilona Saari August 20, 2011 at 09:05 PM
Loved reading about the 'feminist' men in your lives Nina and Irene. My dad was one, too... and encouraged me to be whatever I wanted to be.... he even made hot dogs and beans for Sat. supper and waffles for Sunday supper after our big 'after church' Sunday mid-day dinner in the days when men never made dinner unless it was a BarBQ <g>
Richard Camp August 20, 2011 at 10:20 PM
I'm a feminist. Hear me roar!
Irene Gibson August 20, 2011 at 10:41 PM
Outside of the box?
JACQUELINE MARGOLIS August 21, 2011 at 04:08 PM
Wonderful to read about fathers who encouraged their daughters. And those lovely women doctors.

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