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Tuesday, October 21, 2003

Quite a fascinating essay by Elaine Showalter taking a clear-eyed look at the problems with modern feminism. She doesn't give an inch on the standard feminist agenda, but she recognizes the limits of contemporary feminism.

Note the sentence that reads "postponed childbearing...has meant regret for many women." I suspect that she recognizes that abortion is part of that equation.

"Abortion legislation in the 1970s was a great victory for women, and did put us at more at ease with our bodies. So did access to contraception. New laws meant that we could plan our careers as well as limit our families. Job opportunities, and the prospect of medically extended fertility, and safer pregnancies and childbirths, encouraged many women to postpone childbearing just as men could. New technologies and advances seemed to promise better health along with better control of our lives.

But today medical findings are so contradictory that an effective movement around health and reproductive goals seems impossible. Postponed childbearing has meant infertility and regret for many women. Women's fertility declines much more precipitously with age than we had been led to believe. Delayed childbirth may cause breast cancer. Hormone replacements may increase the risk of heart attacks, breast cancer, blood clots and strokes. Should feminists abandon treatments and practices that seemed to have postponed ageing and added productive years to women's lives? And what positions should contemporary feminists take on issues of beauty, diet and cosmetic surgery? Are they vile vanity or women's rights?

In the area of personal relationships, the situation is also changed. In the past feminism has lobbied successfully for changes to the divorce laws, and brought women together to support reform of laws about rape and abuse. But how can we organise to solve loneliness, to find good partners for unhappy single women, or to prevent husbands from abandoning their ageing wives for younger mates? The problems that western women feel strongly about today cannot be cured through social action, and the terrible inequities faced by women elsewhere in the world - forced marriage, circumcision, honour killings - do not generate unity of action and clear solutions. More abstract and general goals, however idealistic - such as world justice, or the environment - do not form the basis of specifically feminist mass-movements. The historical and social circumstances that produce such movements cannot be whipped into existence by rhetoric alone."

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