It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you write a feminist book, someone is going to disagree with you. And that that someone is just as likely to be a woman.
It used to be easy (and satisfying) to blame the media for trivializing feminist debate as a catfight. Today, we sisters do it, unapologetically, to ourselves. It's retro to think that women --who are as different from each other as they are from men -- should agree.
But in the struggle for power and parity, feminists have historically been, and continue to be, each other's easiest target. This is our greatest mistake.
I've been thinking about the reception of two recent books on women in particular: The Feminine Mistake by seasoned journalist Leslie Bennetts and Full Frontal Feminism by much-beloved (and much-reviled) twentysomething blogger Jessica Valenti. I've been paying close attention to debates around these two books because as someone who consults for women's research and policy think tanks, it's my job. I look at responses (Bennetts lacks structural analysis and yells at SAHMs, Valenti is alleged to use alienating dirty words) and ponder where rhetorical techniques and flourishes succeed and where they fail. Along the way, I've bristled at the venom coming through so many of the negative critiques. Many of the attacks are not political, but personal: Jessica's neckline (again), and perhaps even more obnoxiously, Leslie's weight. We are women, hear us roar.
Before I get righteous and start calling for sisters to unite around combating, say, domestic violence or poor work/life policy instead of each other, a confession: I've become unhealthily obsessed by this latest round of feminist warfare. I've become my own filtered Gawker, cataloguing slams and online sightings (Leslie Bennetts spotted defending her book sales against The New York Times! Jessica Valenti bravely accepting a Choice award in DC, looking like a hottie!). It's addictive and I'm not proud. I track these feminist celebs through Google alerts as if they were, oh I don't know, presidential candidates or Paris Hilton. And like a campaign manager -- or God forbid, Paris' publicity rep -- I scour alerts and follow lengthy comment threads, scanning for lessons to take back to my clients -- or, in this case, myself.
You see, I'm about to go public with a book on feminism and I await that pub date with a mix of excitement and trepidation. As a publicist might say (though mine, graciously, hasn't), one can only hope one's book generates this kind of attention -- no such thing as bad publicity? -- and mine, anyway, is a different kind of book. It's a book about the fights and frenzies over feminism in America over the past 40 years. More specifically, it's about generational infighting and the unfinished business of the women's movement. I know it won't please everyone. And I know that I've done my best to provide a bridge.
As for Bennetts and Valenti, I've read their books. I love elements of both, and there are points around which I may disagree. But authors have made choices that are theirs to make. We writers are human. We hopefully learn from our mistakes. We're grateful, in this age of blog-and-response, for the opportunity to engage with readers so directly. But when comments about facade overshadow more substantive critique, feminist integrity suffers. And so, unfortunately, does debate.
May the sisters keep on fighting. There's so much still at stake. But at the risk of sounding all Jane Austen, may we learn to fight with greater civility. May we learn from our 40 years of feminist infighting that fights around ideas are what matter, not fights over how much cleavage or how much poundage a feminist makes.