Feminism: It's All About Me!

Want to know what today's chic young feminist thinkers care about? Their bodies! Themselves!

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But political allegiance is only part of the story. If women's leaders seemed to ignore some of the murkier questions raised by the Clinton scandal--for example, what does consensual sex mean between two people so unequal in power?--it is in part because feminism at the very end of the century seems to be an intellectual undertaking in which the complicated, often mundane issues of modern life get little attention and the narcissistic ramblings of a few new media-anointed spokeswomen get far too much. You'll have better luck becoming a darling of feminist circles if you chronicle your adventures in cybersex than if you churn out a tome on the glass ceiling.

What a comedown for the movement. If women were able to make their case in the '60s and '70s, it was largely because, as the slogan went, they turned the personal into the political. They used their daily experience as the basis for a critique, often a scholarly one, of larger institutions and social arrangements. From Simone de Beauvoir's Second Sex to Betty Friedan's Feminine Mystique to Kate Millett's Sexual Politics--a doctoral dissertation that became a national best seller--feminists made big, unambiguous demands of the world. They sought absolute equal rights and opportunities for women, a constitutional amendment to make it so, a chance to be compensated equally and to share the task of raising a family. But if feminism of the '60s and '70s was steeped in research and obsessed with social change, feminism today is wed to the culture of celebrity and self-obsession.

It is fair to ask why anyone should be worried about this outcome. Who cares about the trivial literary and artistic pursuits of a largely Manhattan-based group of self-appointed feminists? They're talking only to one another, after all. But the women's movement, like many upheavals before it, from the French Revolution in 1789 to the civil rights movement in the U.S. and even the uprising in Tiananmen Square, would be nowhere without the upper-middle-class intellectual elite. Feminism didn't start in the factory. It started in wood-paneled salons, spread to suburban living rooms, with their consciousness-raising sessions, and eventually ended up with Norma Rae. In fact, that trajectory is its biggest problem today--it remains suspect to those who have never ventured onto a college campus. A TIME/CNN poll shows what most people already suspect--that education more than anything else determines whether a woman defines herself as a feminist. Fifty-three percent of white, college-educated women living in cities embrace the label. Fifty percent of white women with postgraduate training and no children do the same. But feminism shouldn't be punished for its pedigree. We would never have had Ginger Spice if we hadn't had Germaine Greer.

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