It can be hard, 25 years after it was first published, to appreciate the impact of the psychologist Carol Gilligan’s book “In a Different Voice.” Its argument that women and men make moral decisions differently — women emphasize relationships, while men focus on justice — now sounds familiar, even if its implications are still controversial. Although some scholars criticized (and continue to criticize) its findings, politicians, parents and teachers began to re-evaluate how they treated young boys and girls. Gilligan was named to the first professorship in gender studies at Harvard. Jane Fonda credits the book with changing her life. Many other women would agree.

Gilligan, Care Ethics, Kyra, PhilosophyNow Gilligan has written a novel. Set in the mid-1980s, around the time she was first challenging the “masculine bias” in psychology and society, this book too is a clarion call. Here the goal is “changing the frame”: overthrowing the old (male) order of domination and aggression and replacing it with a new ethic based on selflessness, openness and reciprocity.

“Kyra” is both a thought-provoking polemic and a love story. Its title character is an architect who splits her time between Cambridge, Mass., where she fights losing battles in faculty meetings at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, and Nashawena, a tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts. On Nashawena, with the patronage of the island’s owner, Kyra is designing a new city — a kind of commune that she hopes will challenge the notion of the traditional city and change the way men and women interact.

Nashawena is a refuge for Kyra. Ten years earlier, in her native Cyprus, she had watched her half brother kill her husband — ostensibly for political reasons, but actually, she knows, because of his deep jealousy of her husband and alienation from their family. After her husband’s death, Kyra fled the strife in Cyprus, as her parents had fled Hitler years earlier, dedicating herself to a vision of a world without violence, imperialism or estrangement, using architecture as her instrument. “To change the structure of people’s inner lives,” her husband once told her, you have to “change the outer structures as well.”

For a decade, Kyra lives as if her husband “were still here, our heart-minds joined.” But when she meets Andreas, a passionate and idealistic Hungarian director, she finds herself weakening. “Do you know how green your eyes are in this sun?” he asks as they play chess. She replies by demanding, “What is the opposite of losing?” The rest of their courtship is as heavily freighted and as portentous.

When Andreas leaves her, Kyra suffers an existential crisis, requiring the intervention of a sensitive female therapist named Greta. The drama between Andreas and Kyra is re-enacted in Greta and Kyra’s therapy sessions, as Kyra becomes obsessed with the idea that Greta will leave her. And so she will, of course, when the therapy is no longer necessary. For Kyra, getting better means being betrayed once more.

Greta understands the essential tragedy of therapy. Just as radical in her own way as Gilligan, she delivers a subversive (and, for prior readers of Gilligan, familiar) message: that therapy is inherently flawed, and especially so for women, since in therapy the patient is subordinate, submissive to rules, a subject — rather the way men have historically treated women. Together, patient and therapist must challenge the status quo.

Problems in the therapeutic relationship; problems in the academy; problems in the geopolitical sphere; problems in the city — the list of broken structures found in “Kyra” goes on and on. But all these problems, the novel suggests, have a common root and a common solution: that men need “a new spiritual or psychological relationship with women.” Later that relationship is identified as “love.”

Kyra’s new settlement on Nashawena is called the Carthage Project in order “to symbolize an alternative to Rome and what it stood for: empire and war.” In contrast, Carthage represented art and was founded by a queen. Thus the novel’s implicit message: to bring about a better world, women shouldn’t strive to be more aggressive, competitive and ambitious — in short, more like men. Rather, men should become more caring and empathetic, more like women. The challenge for women is to demand that change.

In keeping with this theorizing, Gilligan sometimes seems to be making grand generalizations about men and women, using the characters’ monologues to press her own arguments. Yet “Kyra” is best when Gilligan herself seems quietest, when she allows her fictional creation to emerge as a person in her own right. She may be prone to improbable utopian visions and Deepak Chopra moments, but Kyra is also thoughtful and observant. She comes across as a sensitive journal writer — searching, trying to make sense of her life, polishing her thoughts and words. The writing in her narrative is sometimes turgid (“The day before had been a snow day, the world now reassembling”), but Kyra is too likable and her quest — to find a little harmony in a broken world— too important to be easily dismissed.

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By Louisa Thomas has written for Slate, The New Yorker and other publications. Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company

Gilligan’s Islands

The famous psychologist and author of ‘In a Different Voice’ has written a novel. Why?

Carol Gilligan, Novel, Philosophy

Carol Gilligan’s new novel, Kyra (Random House) is tastefully erotic in a glum, Bergmanesque way. But Gilligan (see related article) has dressed up standard romantic fiction – with its fantasies of wish fulfillment and revenge – in a thickly padded coat of learned allusions and erudite lectures. I might call Kyra “professorial chick lit,” except that the heroine of chick lit is always lovably flawed and funny, and Gilligan’s narrator is perfect and humorless, not only a brilliant and acclaimed lecturer at A-list conference venues from Cambridge to Vienna, but also, as her lover tells her more than once, “incredibly beautiful.” Kyra also knows binaries like female/male, private/public, inside/outside, and commitment/independence. That’s a lot of baggage for a first novel to carry, and Kyra buckles under the weight of Gilligan’s ambitions.

Why write a novel after a splendid career as a social psychologist at Harvard and New York Universities, and the University of Cambridge? Gilligan first made her academic reputation in 1982 with the enormously influential but controversial In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development (Harvard University Press), which argued that girls and boys had a different moral development and ethical concerns. For girls, she maintained, entering adolescence meant sacrificing an authentic self and genuine voice to the urgent need for relationships, thus developing a female ethics of care more complex and conflicted than a male one. In addition to a small number of interviews with 12-year-old boys and girls, Gilligan drew many of her examples from literature (she had majored in English at Swarthmore College), including the work of Anton Chekhov, Joseph Conrad, Margaret Drabble, George Eliot, Robert Frost, Henrik Ibsen, James Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Mary McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Shakespeare, Stendhal, and Virginia Woolf. In her most recent psychological text, The Birth of Pleasure (Knopf, 2002), Gilligan argued that tragic love stories are patriarchal, defining love as loss and pain, whereas a female-centered love story would allow both protagonists the happy ending of equality.

In 2002, Gilligan also wrote a dramatic adaptation of The Scarlet Letter, produced at Shakespeare & Co., in Lenox, Mass., a tale that illustrated her idea that the tragic love story is a rigid and inflexible genre that denies men and women pleasure by insisting on obedience to patriarchal codes. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s treatment, the protagonist Hester Prynne believes in a future that “would establish the whole relation between men and women on a surer ground of mutual happiness,” but Hawthorne refuses such a utopian ending. In Gilligan’s play, Hester’s daughter, Pearl, speaks magically from the 21st century to describe how a happy ending can be achieved by contemporary feminists, but that is a didactic postscript to the characters’ dilemma.

It’s not surprising then, that Gilligan has been drawn to fiction, where imagination can be untrammeled by the need for actors and stages. Rather than choose a plot of moral and ethical conflict, demonstrating the different values of young women in difficult situations, she has followed up on The Birth of Pleasure, rewriting romantic tragedy in feminist terms to show how to have love and freedom. Set in the 1980s, Kyra is based on the mythic love story of Dido and Aeneas, and on their respective cities of Carthage and Rome, which Gilligan interprets as contrasting female and male principles. Kyra is an architect teaching at Harvard and working on the Carthage Project, “to design a new city on a small scale,” a modern Carthage that would allow a “fluidity of boundaries, between inside and outside, private and public spaces.” Carthage was a “city devoted to arts and commerce rather than to conquest and imperialism,” and Kyra’s city, which will have an outdoor theater as its anchor, will “symbolize an alternative to Rome and what it stood for: empire and war.”

Andreas is a widowed Hungarian conductor, “trying to do opera in a new way, also on a small scale,” who is directing an experimental Peter Brookish Tosca in a little theater in Boston’s South End. He wears a leather jacket and Italian shoes and has “blue-gray eyes, the color of river stones.” They meet at a party and immediately play a highly symbolic game of chess. In the battle between the feminine Carthage and the masculine Rome, he has to be Rome, although he is the artist of the two, and as he rather cheesily tells her, “Roma spelled backward is amor.” The affair between Kyra and Andreas seems idyllic; they both like white wine, oysters, dark iconic Cambridge bars, Mozart, Samuel Beckett, Bach, and Bergman films. Kyra signs on to design the sets for Tosca; Andreas accompanies her to the island where she is building the Carthage Project.

But how will they maintain their relationship when he is committed to starting a theater in Budapest, and she has to do her own work, which involves academic squabbles at Harvard and frequent flying to other meaningful cultural spaces like Thailand? He wants to call the whole thing off because he “is past the point where I can accept your love on any terms other than permanently, and I am not at the point where I can accept it permanently.”

In another symbolic structure of the novel, Gilligan moves between three islands; Cyprus, where Kyra grew up and saw her husband shot by fascists; Nashawena, the privately owned island near Woods Hole where she is building the Carthage Project with financing from a rich patron; and Bardsey, a tiny, chilly, desolate, and extremely depressing island off Wales. The lovers go there at the end of the novel to open up to each other and to possibilities for a negotiated settlement of their differences.

Gilligan’s most awkwardly incorporated theme is about breaking the structures of Freudian psychoanalysis. When Andreas leaves her abruptly to return to Budapest, Kyra has a breakdown and cuts herself, an act some would call a suicide attempt but one that she insists is actually an epistemological gesture “because my feelings had come back, so strong, overwhelming, and I needed to see beneath the surface, to know if they were about something real.” Kyra finds a wise and sympathetic female therapist named Greta, but before too long, she concludes that psychotherapy is also structured around the traumatic plot of patriarchal romantic tragedy. In order for it to work, the patient has a transference – falls in love – with the analyst and then must accept the one-sided and temporary nature of the affair as the therapy ends. “I can’t work this out with you if you continue to hide within this therapy structure,” Kyra tells Greta. “You said that women have to change the structures. What about you?” Since this is a novel intellectually committed to happy endings, they find a way, which does not require a trip to another island.

Many academics would like to write a novel, but very few actually do it. Carol Gilligan deserves credit not only for succeeding, but for her abilities to craft dialogue, describe settings, and sketch in historical background. Gilligan can also do academic satire, as she shows in a few brief scenes of department meetings. Although the main characters are set into motion to illustrate her ideas, even that could have worked if she had not decided on a first-person narrative, which blurs the line between author and heroine, or at least makes ironic distance more challenging. But the love story in Kyra is more soap opera than opera; there is too little at stake for the contest between the lovers to live up to the academic arias that accompany it. Next time, I hope, Gilligan will write a better novel “in a different voice.”

Courtsey: Elaine Showalter is an emeritus professor of English at Princeton University.

Feminism and romantic love make very happy bedfellows

Feminism, Philosophy, Love, RelationshipThe news, for the terminally declining population of women who identify as feminists, is good. According to a study by researchers at Rutgers University, New Jersey, the classic New Yorker cartoon of two women discussing relationships in a coffee shop – “sex brought us together but gender drove us apart” – is plain wrong. Feminists are happier in love and better in bed.

I’m extrapolating a wee bit optimistically, but it’s cheering to come across a study about the f-word that doesn’t conclude 99% of respondents think the women’s movement was about unshaved armpits. What the Rutgers researchers actually found was that, in a survey of college students and older adults, all in heterosexual relationships, men paired with feminist partners reported greater relationship stability and sexual satisfaction. In addition, there was consistent evidence that male feminist partners were healthier for women’s relationships, while there was scant evidence that women’s feminism created conflict in liaisons.

This will doubtless do little to dispel the popular myth that the majority of feminists are man-hating lesbians and, granted, studies reporting levels of contentment are subjective. But the question the study seeks to address is an important one: how do straight women distinguish genuine, positive intimacy and its attendant vulnerabilities from the self-defeating romantic discourses they are encouraged to buy into?

It’s inevitable that feminism and romantic love have been set up as being mutually exclusive. From Betty Freidan’s evisceration of 50s domesticity in The Feminine Mystique onwards, the women’s movement has counselled that romantic fulfilment should be a part of, rather than the sole measure of, a woman’s self-worth. Though we may have advanced beyond the stage when attracting a powerful mate was a woman’s only means of securing social status, the obsessive veneration of Wags, as well as our addiction to the beauty industry and the content of every other self-help book, would suggest that advance should be measured in yards rather than miles.

It may be a biological imperative for both genders to pair bond, but the romantic narrative of love/marriage/children is simply not inculcated in boys in the same way as it is in girls. It’s a narrative still closely associated with those traditional feminine virtues of vulnerability, passivity, nurture. And if feminism is considered incompatible with love, it is likewise seen as a threat to femininity itself.

But understanding our weaknesses and needs doesn’t preclude empowerment. It’s only anti-feminist if women believe those private needs underpin everything at all times of our lives, including the parallel needs for education, say, or economic independence or job satisfaction. And it’s worth remembering that the “now where did I put my lipstick?” version of femininity takes a whole lot of guile to pull off.

Still, some of the truest of feminist believers have attested to a suspicion that there is something, well, unfeminist about the pursuit of romantic love. Women do spend a substantial amount of time on relationships, but in doing so do they distract themselves from worthier pursuits? Katha Pollitt, the award-winning poet, essayist and Nation columnist, ponders this in her recent memoir, Learning to Drive. “Perhaps the way women think about love is part of that slave religion Nietzsche talks about, a mystification of the powerless,” she writes. “What would the world be like if women stopped being women … gave up the slave religion? Could the world go on without romantic love, all iron fist, no velvet glove?”

In an essay titled After the Men Are Dead, she asks: “Will it be restful, not having to think about love, romance, sex, pleasing, listening, encouraging, smiling at old jokes … Men take a lot of attending to and on; there’s a lot of putting down of books involved.” Or as Jessica Valenti, founder of feministing.com and voice of a fresh generation of US feminists, more succinctly puts it: “If I’d spent half the energy on my career and school stuff as I did on my relationships, I’d probably be the fucking president by now.”

That’s not to say that men don’t fret about their relationships too. But, from the highly unscientific sample of the men I’ve known as friends and lovers, they don’t to the same degree and, when they do, prefer to cast themselves as tragic hero or romantic lead rather than foil. This is why there will never be a market for a book of dating advice for men titled She’s Just Not That Into You.

Pollitt’s point that women’s desire for male approval – be that of how we look, how we have sex or how we love – is debilitating, but may be inescapable because of how forcefully and consistently it is reinforced by the structures around us, even when it is not by men themselves. So long as the withdrawal of male approval is used as punishment for women’s successes – consider the number of female politicians deemed unattractive – the notion that a woman is completed rather than complemented by the presence of a man in her life is a hard one to shake.

But that’s very different from suggesting that desire for a man is weakening, or that feminism and romantic love are indeed incompatible. All relationships involve a degree of compromise – the key is whether you are compromising with or for the other person.

courtesy: Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2006.

Is fashion political?

This article concerns some of the questions that bother almost all the young feminist– does fashion mean anything? Do clothes actually mean anything? Do they signify anything? Are they an issue feminists should think about? Is fashion political?

Fashion, Feminism, Glamour

Confessions of a Failed Fashionista

By Catherine Redfern

I know what I should be. Don’t we all? You only have to look around you at the magazines or watch TV. What should I be? I should know the difference between Versace and Louis Vitton; between Prada and Paul Smith. Shopping for clothes should fill me with orgasmic delight. I should come home staggering down the street in strappy heels clutching hundreds of designer bags. I should notice what other women are wearing, notice the LV logo print on their handbag or know that the cut of their clothes indicates they’re wearing Dior. I should be poring over fashion magazines, spending hours debating which off-the shoulder t-shirt to wear to the next party. Isn’t this what it is to be a young, intelligent woman today? Isn’t this what I’m supposed to be?

And above all else, like Carrie Bradshaw from Sex and the City, I should love (although “love” does not seem a strong enough word for the passion I am supposed to feel) and desire shoes.

I’m very young. My mum and gran are standing, perplexed and bemused in the front room as I cry and cry and insist that I won’t wear the trousers they’re trying to get me to wear. It’s as if they’ve asked me to wear a beard – it’s unthinkable, horrible. I’m a girl. Girls wear dresses, not trousers. My mum doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. Looking back, neither do I.

Fashion seems a strange issue to be discussing on a feminist website. What is there to say? We aren’t forced into corsetry anymore (now if at all, it’s by choice), our toes aren’t broken and bound into tiny shoes for fashion’s sake. Surely feminism can’t stil find anything wrong with fashion?

Well, I don’t know. But what I’ve been wondering lately is: does fashion mean anything? Do clothes actually mean anything? Do they signify anything? Are they an issue feminists should think about? Is fashion political?

This may seem like a stupid question: does fashion mean anything? But even at such a young age, I knew damn well that it did, when just the thought of wearing trousers made me scream. Nowadays I think I know what was going on. At that age, children are so intent on identifying themselves with one gender or the other (thus affirming their own identity) that they become gender police. Everything has to be strictly defined. Girls like pink: boys like blue. By expressing a love for pink, a girl is affirming her identity as a female creature. So fashion surely means something, even at that age. But does fashion mean anything for adults? In a world where in certain female circles, a shoe is not just a shoe – it’s a Manolo or a Choo (Carrie Bradshaw: “I lost my Choo!”) – you bet your Fendi handbag fashion means something.

I’m not entirely sure what a fashionista really is. All I know is that I’m not one, but I know I’m supposed to be one. You just look through any mainstream woman’s magazine and you’ll see what messages are being sent out.

But what’s feminism got to do with it? Today there would seem to be no contradiction in being both a feminist and a fashionista. Young feminists have reclaimed everything traditionally feminine, including a love of dressing up and fashion. Feminism has reclaimed the girlie look. Nail painting is a pleasure, not selling out the sisterhood. The babydoll look is an ironic riot grrrl comment. Lippy is no more than something to express yourself, to make yourself loud and proud. Feminists can take enjoyment in fashion now. Make-ups ads use slogans like ‘Empowering’ and ‘Be Radical.’

Indeed, writers like Natasha Walter and some in the American thirdwave have argued that feminism has over politicised things like fashion and dress, the reason why women say things like “I can’t be a feminist because I like wearing miniskirts.” Feminists have argued, and rightly I think, in general, that the simple enjoyment of adornment and clothes should be beyond the influence of feminist argument. “The catwalk will then cease to be a symbol of our subordination,” wrote Natasha Walter, “and become a path to simple delight.” Fashion, it is argued, is today seen as a source of power for women and girls. If anyone suffers from the constraints of fashion, it’s boys and men.

This may all be true. I don’t see anything wrong with enjoyment in clothes. But, I don’t know, something still disquiets me, but it’s difficult to pin down what it is. I think fashion can be a source of joy and fun for both sexes, but to place it beyond feminist comment and criticism at all, I think, might be going too far. I wonder sometimes if fashion sometimes is political. I think this is an unpopular view.

Earlier this year, the Barbican in London ran an exhibition of Helmut Newton’s photographs. Helmut Newton is the man who is thought to be the godfather of modern-day fashion photography. The man who has influenced the style of so many others, who has been slammed by feminists yet claims to be one himself. Helmut Newton, the man who put the s&m back into feminism?

It goes to show how much he has influenced fashion photography, that when I saw the poster for the exhibition displayed on the underground I assumed it was just another (slightly disturbing) advert for clothes or make-up, just something I see around me every day. It showed a black and white image of a woman – depressed, stony faced, eyes blackened so much you can hardly see them – stepping down a metallic staircase, seen from below. She wears black, her skirt miniscule, her long, stick thin legs stretching down towards you. This is average fare in any fashion magazine.

Newton’s photos show women in humilating situations, often naked, being watched by clothed males. Two of the most infamous photos show a woman kneeling on a bed with a saddle on her back, and a naked woman riveted to the wall like the car parts which surround her, as factory workers pass by blindly below.

Apparently, Newton is a feminist. Apparently, these photos portray women as “commanding,” in control, powerful. The images are jokes (ah, that old excuse). The photos aren’t being misogynist and voyeuristic: they are making a statement about misogyny and voyeurism. Right. Whatever. Maybe The Sun should use that excuse for Page 3.

But fashion photography is weird. I’ve read magazines for a long time, and I’ve noticed some real trends. In the fashion magazines, I’ve seen women awkward, stiff, unsmiling. They pose like Barbie dolls (sometimes literally) or puppets with strings broken. Their arms dangle lifeless at the elbow in un-natural positions, or their hands cover their mouth or their eyes. Woman often shown as dolls, puppets or children in these stories, posable and malleable in any way the photographer pleases. In a fashion shoot called Doll Drums, the model lies limp and stiff, draped over chairs as if she’d been thrown there by a petulant child. In a story subtitled “fashion goes back to the cradle”, a woman lies huddled on the floor in foetus position with a fearful look on her face. In one extreme case, a shoot showed a women lying limp, collapsed on the cobbles at night as if drugged or dead in a story entitled “Drop Dead Fashion.” In another, they’ve gone a step beyond death: women are ghosts or angels, wearing white, a supernatual glow coming from their eyes. And what on earth was heroin chic all about? It all disturbs me. Can you tell me fashion doesn’t mean anything?

Another trend in ther past few years was for models to be covering their mouths or faces, blanking themselves out. There was a fashion spread in Frank in 1998 with four models, in a row, all with their hands covering their faces. The same year, Frank reported on a make-up trend which involved heavy blocks of colour painted in a rectangle over the mouth area – like a clown, perhaps – or a piece of tape across the mouth?

Black models – rare though they are in Western fashion magazines – get things worse, I think. In an issue of The Face from 1998, Alek Wek, the stunningly beautiful, very black model, features in a fashion “story” called La Sizzla. She is pictured as an exotic bird, she wears feathers and poses with her hands limp and twisted, with her eyes rolled upwards inside her head. Because she is black, the photographer seem to treat her as alienlike, exotica, a novelty. There is one image in that story that really shocks me: the whole page is taken up by a shot of her feet and lower legs, bent at the knee, and the image is distorted somehow so her legs look no thicker than a child’s wrist, conjuring up the image of a (sexy?) famine victim. She wears shoes by Alexander McQueen.

Alek Wek seems to have been typecast as an alienlike creature in the Western fashion press. An advertisement for Issey Miyake, again in 1998, shows her frozen in the act of walking stiffly across the page, her arm raised and her hand bent, her fingers contorted like an arthritic woman. In 1999 she played “December” in the Pirelli calendar, symbolising the future, in perhaps the most bizarre image of all. Shot by Herb Ritts, she poses naked, shining and moulded like a plastic mannekin. But her feet are in the shape of stillettos, as if she had been born with heels attatched. She doesn’t have hair, instead she has reptilian spines coming out of her head. This image is supposed to represent the future.

In fashion, all traditional ethnic clothing is exploited and eroticised, all the real meaning sucked out. “Foreign” looking women, to white male, Western eyes, can be simply photographed as sexy exotic objects. In another fashion shoot called Bollywoord Nights, a heavily made-up woman wears middle-eastern veils, bindis and purdah-like capes and scarves. In one picture, her feet are chained together like she’s some kind of slave. In another, she has her eyes closed submissively, and her hands are raised up, held together at the wrists as if waiting for them to be tied. Was it Hussain Chalayan that infamously sent his models down the catwalk, naked except for a black, middle-eastern veil which covered their head completely but only came down as far as their navels? Sometimes fashion seems to be nothing more than the worst kind of sex tourism.

The catwalk is a whole other bizarre world where designers can seemingly do anything to their female models, all in the cause of fashion. In the book Different for Girls, Joan Smith writes about Alexander McQueen’s “freakish ideas” about women, expressed in models walking down the catwalk as car crash, famine, or rape victims. Sometimes they have blood splattered on them, sometimes their clothes are ripped and torn, sometimes the models are manacled as they hobble down the catwalk. Like Newton’s work, all this is dismissed as a joke. But why, asks Smith, is this ‘joke’ always at women’s expense? And why are the most famous women’s wear designers almost always men?

I never thought of fashion as political until I read Backlash by Susan Faludi. In a chapter entitled “Dressing the Dolls”, Faludi described how the backlash against feminism affected something as transient and superficial as fashion. As feminism made strides in the 1980s, allowing women to go into work, giving them the choice of whether to glam up or not, fashion responded. The designers decided that the new trend was “High Femininity”: girly, pretty, flouncy and frilly clothes. Clothes for women who want to “dress up like little girls,” as Lacroix said. Faludi reckons this wasn’t a coincidence, and I’m inclined to agree. It just makes me wonder if fashion is still subject to political influences today.

But it’s difficult to really see if there is any deeper meaning behind fashion. All I know is that to be a proper young woman, I’m supposed to be what the magazines tell me to be. Fashion is all around, if you’re female. Shopping for clothes is no longer just something you do because you have to: it’s “retail therapy”. It’s “A Girl Thing”, as the new tv fashion show calls it. It’s what women do. So what’s wrong with me if I don’t get it?

The thing is, I’m drawn to it and sometimes I like it, but I never quite get there, like I’m trying to get “in” with the popular girls at school who really understand. I’ve tried to make myself interested in overlapping images of models from the latest catwalk show or learn what’s “in” and what’s “out” from one week to the next. I’ve tried to find enjoyment in pages simply showing blouses or t-shirts in different patterns or colours, but it just reminds me of learning to smoke: something you have to train yourself to enjoy. Seems I don’t have the fashionista gene.

It’s 10.30pm and I’ve just left Borders bookshop on Oxford Street (sometimes I just love living in London). Earlier I met a good friend for drinks and meal, and stopped off at the bookshop on the way home. I’m happy, I’ve just spent thirty quid on books that I’ve wanted to buy for ages. I’m in such a fantastic mood. The sky is bright, the streets are light, the night is fresh, and I’m strolling through central London. I’m wearing old trainers instead of Manolos, my bag was a bargain buy from Clarks at £12 not Louis Vitton, my trousers are pinned together where I haven’t got round to sewing up that tear. You wouldn’t look twice at me if I passed you. But inside, inside – I feel just like Carrie fucking Bradshaw striding the streets of New York. It’s the closest I’ll ever get.

Feminism, Philosophy, Fashion, BeautyFeminism needs to end its long obsession with the politics of personal appearance, and get past its dim view of beauty, says author Linda Scott, who describes herself as a feminist.

It’s an issue that has divided women much more than it has aided their cause, Scott says in a new book she wrote with young women in mind. She is a professor of advertising and of gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

In “Fresh Lipstick: Redressing Fashion and Feminism” (Palgrave Macmillan), to be published in January, Scott takes on the “antibeauty ideology” that she says has dominated feminist thinking about dress and personal appearance for 150 years. In the process, she essentially writes a new history of the women’s movement, revising or amending much of commonly accepted feminist history.

“Feminist writers have consistently argued that a woman’s attempt to cultivate her appearance makes her a dupe of fashion, the plaything of men, and thus a collaborator in her own oppression,” Scott wrote in the book’s introduction. “Though this wisdom has seldom been open to question as a matter of principle, it has always produced discord at the level of practice.”

In practice, the issue of personal appearance has been used repeatedly as an instrument of power and control within the women’s movement, reinforcing biases of class, education and ethnicity, Scott wrote. “In every generation, the women with more education, more leisure, and more connections to institutions of power – from the church to the press to the university – have been the ones who tried to tell other women what they must wear in order to be liberated.”

Scott points out that people in every culture and throughout history have groomed and decorated themselves, and for a complex variety of reasons, not just sexual attraction. Feminists have often advocated a more “natural” appearance, but what is natural is for people to alter their appearance, Scott wrote. Even the concept of what is natural is tied to one’s culture.

Feminists also have defined “natural” only in negative terms, usually criticizing “whatever the prevailing fashion found attractive,” Scott wrote.

The founding group of feminists, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, were rooted in an upper-class Puritan tradition that strongly influenced their attitude about dress and personal appearance, Scott wrote. “In their calls for simplicity of dress, (they) were echoing years of conservative tradition in their own community, rather than making a ground-breaking critique as is often claimed,” she wrote.

Scott documents in her book how the call for plain and prim dress has been passed down through the generations, justified in different ways by successive groups who thought themselves the true feminists. She sees the Puritan influence continuing to the present day. “Consistently, feminist criticism will interpret an ad (or film or a fashion) until it can be shown to be a temptation aimed at the male gaze – and then stops. The implication is that if a dress, a picture, or a hairstyle is sexy, it is ipso facto oppressive.”

A key basis for that criticism has been the claim that fashion was dictated by fashion and cosmetics industries controlled by men. But in her study of 150 years of fashion history, Scott said she found that “the men have little or nothing to say about it.” It has been “clearly a woman’s game,” and to an extent she was surprised to discover. Even the beauty ads were written mostly by women.

In her book, Scott also tells the stories of numerous women who were influential in their fields and in the cause of women’s rights, but who have largely been ignored or intentionally forgotten. Their attitudes about dress, sexuality or other related topics didn’t fit with those of the movement.

Scott said that part of her motivation for researching and writing “Fresh Lipstick” came from personal history. As an 18-year-old college student and recent convert to feminism in 1970, she paid a visit to a feminist consciousness-raising group. “I was treated so badly for the way I was dressed that I never went back,” she said.

And she has since found that hers was a very common experience for many women at the time, as they came in contact with a more-radical campus feminism that Scott says was in the process of “hijacking” the “Second Wave” of the women’s movement.

Scott said she originally intended to write a more-narrow academic book, but spent extra time rewriting the book for a general audience, and for young women in particular. She believes a “Third Wave” of feminism, with different notions about dress and sexuality, is taking shape within this age group, and wants to encourage them.

She also believes there are simply more important issues, especially when looking at the status of women in a global context.

“Voices from around the world report a variety of conditions and systems under which only one thing holds constant – the universal second-class status of females. If there was ever a moment when the women of one culture had a responsibility toward their sisters in other nations, this is it. We should not waste time quibbling over what to wear to the conflict.”

[courtesy: News Bureau, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign]

Feminist Quotes!

Here are some really inspiring quotes by famous feminists writers, artists, activists and scholars!

Feminism, Philosophy

“Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”
—Louisa May Alcott

“Cautious, careful people always casting about to preserve their reputation or social standards never can bring about reform. Those who are really in earnest are willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathies with despised ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.”
—Susan B. Anthony

“The day will come when men will recognize woman as his peer, not only at the fireside, but in councils of the nation. Then, and not until then, will there be the perfect comradeship, the ideal union between the sexes that shall result in the highest development of the race.”
—Susan B. Anthony

“We ask justice, we ask equality, we ask that all the civil and political rights that belong to citizens of the United States, be guaranteed to us and our daughters forever.”
—Susan B. Anthony, Declaration of Rights for Women, July 1876

“There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.”
—Susan B. Anthony

“In passing, also, I would like to say that the first time Adam had a chance he laid the blame on a woman.”
—Nancy Astor

(British Politician)

“For what is done or learned by one class of women becomes, by virtue of their common womanhood, the property of all women.”
—Elizabeth Blackwell

(The first woman in the U.S. to become a physician)

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
— Rachel Carson

“The family unit plays a critical role in our society and in the training of the generation to come.”
—Sandra Day O’Connor

“We’ve chosen the path to equality, don’t let them turn us around.”
—Geraldine Ferraro
(The first woman to be nominated as Vice President of the United States)

“You can do one of two things; just shut up, which is something I don’t find easy, or learn an awful lot very fast, which is what I tried to do.”
—Jane Fonda

“If you have knowledge, let others light their candles in it.”
— Margaret Fuller

“My address is like my shoes. It travels with me. I abide where there is a fight against wrong.”
—Mother Jones

“Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.”
—Janis Joplin

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”
—Helen Keller

“If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse gift will find a fitting place.”
—Margaret Mead

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” —Margaret Mead

“I can honestly say that I was never affected by the question of the success of an undertaking. If I felt it was the right thing to do, I was for it regardless of the possible outcome.”
—Golda Meir

“Something which we think is impossible now is not impossible in another decade.”
Constance Baker Motley
(First Black Woman in the U.S. to become a Federal Judge)

“I think the key is for women not to set any limits.”
— Martina Navratilova

“People think at the end of the day that a man is the only answer [to fulfillment]. Actually a job is better for me.”
—Princess Diana

“Remember no one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
—Eleanor Roosevelt

“I think it’s very important for everyone in America to realize right now the state of our country, not just on this issue but on a lot of issues, that it is time to get active again. People have just sat back and just sort of said, oh, let somebody else do it for a long time, and we’re seeing what’s happening to the country, even freedom of speech. It’s not going well. So I think this is a real opportunity for people to see, yes, if you do get out and you do get active, there are other people there. You just have to seek them out.”
—Mary Steenburgen

“In my heart, I think a woman has two choices: either she’s a feminist or a masochist.”
—Gloria Steinem

“The first problem for all of us, men and women, is not to learn, but to unlearn.”
—Gloria Steinem

“I am also very proud to be a liberal. Why is that so terrible these days? The liberals were liberators—they fought slavery, fought for women to have the right to vote, fought against Hitler, Stalin, fought to end segregation, fought to end apartheid. Liberals put an end to child labor and they gave us the five day work week! What’s to be ashamed of?”
—Barbra Streisand

“We still live in a world in which a significant fraction of people, including women, believe that a woman belongs and wants to belong exclusively in the home.”
—Rosalyn Sussman
(Nobel Prize-winning medical physicist)

“You can tell how high a society is by how much of its garbage is recycled.”
—Dhyani Ywahoo
(Native American)

“It’s so clear that you have to cherish everyone. I think that’s what I get from these older black women, that every soul is to be cherished, that every flower is to bloom.”
—Alice Walker

“I’ve learned from experience that the greater part of our happiness or misery depends on our dispositions and not on our circumstances.”
—Martha Washington

“As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
—Virginia Woolf

Simone de Beauvoir- her life in photographs!