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The Reports of Feminism's Death Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

Originally published in:
National Catholic Reporter

The conventional wisdom, whatever that is, is pretty certain about it: Old-time morality is in ascendancy, feminism is over. Whew. Finally.

Morality we're sure about. After all, George Bush has been reelected. Forget the war and the overwhelming deficit and the loss of civil rights and the demise of Social Security and 100,000 dead Iraqis, all killed for the wrong reason but with the right intentions. This is Armageddon we're talking about and God wants it this way.

What's even better, it seems, is that these two things -- morality and feminism -- are related. Cure one, control the other, cure feminism and get morality, get morality and cure feminism. They're twofers.

No one ever quite dares to specify exactly what the connection between them may be, of course. But one thing we do know, the link between feminism and the decline of the human race is transparent. As the most recent document from Rome "On the Collaboration of Men and Women" puts it:

This theory of the human person, (feminism,) intended to promote prospects for equality of women through liberation from biological determinism, has in reality inspired ideologies which, for example, call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality. (Sec 1, para 1)

So there.

Nevertheless, I have suspected the accuracy of the obituary from the very beginning. People have been announcing the death of feminism for a long time now. As in, "Don't you notice that young women don't go to feminist conferences anymore" or "Women are staying home with their children again" or "Most women don't want to be priests" or "Style is back" (read "high heels.") As if any of those things has anything to do with real feminism at all.

In the first place, the last women's conference I attended in September had over 5,000 women, over half of whom were young. Very young.

In the second place, the women who are "staying home with their children" are largely women who can afford to leave the work force or can't afford the child-care services going to work would demand.

And right, most women don't want to be priests as neither do most men. Have you noticed?

But most of all, I observed a kind of data most people aren't talking about. Yet. They will.

I noticed the audience at a preview performance of Eve Ensler's new work, "The Good Body."

You know Eve Ensler. At least you know you're not supposed to know her. She's the author of "The Vagina Monologues," a profoundly tragic, disturbingly funny, revealing play about what it is to be a woman. Even if you don't know the play you probably know that it was run off more Catholic campuses by people who had never seen it than the world has ever known since they condemned "Gone With the Wind."

In a way, the hysteria surrounding the VM should have been expected. After all, even women -- certainly nice women -- never even thought the word 'vagina,' let alone use it out loud. They winced, they blushed, they whispered it to other women maybe. But they did not say it. Maybe, in the end, it will be enough to know that the play's major contribution, as Ensler herself acknowledges, was to bring the word into the spoken language.

No doubt about it, the morality cops were out on this one. College presidents risked their intellectual reputations and pulled up the drawbridge against it. And so many a woman's group routinely subverted the suppression by simply rescheduling the show for off-campus facilities, a situation that only compounds license with defiance and replaces guidance with authoritarianism.

Nevertheless, this new play of Ensler's, "The Good Body," is another experience entirely. It's going to be harder to make the case to ban this play -- despite the fact that this one is far more impacting, far more dangerous than the first one. This play is guerilla feminism. This play makes every woman look at herself.

"Good Body," like "The Vagina Monologues" is also about what it means to be a woman. It forces us to face what it does to a woman to be physically shaped to the expectations of a male world that is more accustomed to looking for female domestic servants and trophy sex objects than for womanliness in a woman, for an equal and respected companion.

It shows us the women who know they have been destroyed by it and it also enables us to look at what it does to those who don't know. It is a series of mirrors against which we must each compare ourselves: the exercise junkie, the spa junkie, the clothes horse, the demoralized woman reduced by rape, the violated woman who loves but is not loved, who is used but not cared for by the men who see them more as instrument of their own satisfaction than as companion.

More than that, it shows us the role women themselves, each of us, play in teaching our daughters to accept the manipulation as we pass down our own stifling, distorted but internalized images of female perfection to the next generation.

It shows us to ourselves, the real first step in liberation. And that's what makes it a very dangerous play.

The night I saw it, the theater was packed with people rapt in the grasp of a tour de force by one woman or many women's lives -- and laughing and gasping and crying over them, too. They laughed and cried with the kind of laughter and tears that say, "Oh no, don't say that in public; I'm the very kind of person you're talking about. I'm embarrassed to death. I promise I'll never do it again." Like never eat cookies or never kill themselves on tread mills or never have liposuction for the sake of a dress size.

From where I stand, I have a feeling, seeing this, that they won't. Both men and women left the theater, wrinkles at the edge of their eyes, a slight frown on their brows, all proof that feminism is not over, and in fact may be only now beginning to be clear. Perhaps most meaningful of all, this rollicking, reflective audience was clear proof that morality is a great deal more than moralisms.

Feminism is over? The old-time morality is back? I wouldn't bet on it if I were you. Not for the people who see this play and recognize that it's about them: both women and men.