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Vagina Gazing at the New York Times

The New York Times book review cover page last Sunday looked a lot like Cosmopolitan, with its pink graphic of a high heeled shoe overpowering a man’s dress shoe.  The catchy headline read “A Woman’s Place.” Underneath the picture were two reviews, one of Hanna Rosin’s new book “The End of Men: And the Rise of Women,” and the other of Naomi Wolf’s new book – on her Vagina.

Taken together, these two books suggest that what is ending is not so much male power, but feminism as a movement for radical change. At a time when women all over the world are getting poorer thanks to the global capitalist predators, North American feminists are busy celebrating women’s supposed economic gains, and their vaginas. Either way, this is an example of navel gazing (or vagina gazing) at its worst. How did mainstream feminism end up irrelevant to the lives of most women in the world?

One answer is that the women who have access to corporate-owned publishers are the ones who did indeed get the most out of feminism. They are the (mostly) white educated elite who use their own life experiences as a measure of just how great women have it, and as they pat themselves on the back for having made it, they render invisible the structural inequalities that make life miserable for the majority of women and children all over the globe. Their individual gain means very little for those women struggling to survive in a shrinking economy.

Women at the top are doing very nicely, thank you. According to one report, the average annual pay for the very few women CEOs of the largest companies in the United States is now $14 million, which is even higher than for men.

On the other end of the scale, the median wealth of single women of color aged 36 to 49 in the country is just $5, compared to $42,600 for single white women (according to a 2010 report from the Insight Center for Community Economic Development).  A recent report by the Economic Policy institute found that in 2011 nearly one-third of women in the USA earned a wage at poverty level or below, and that 40.7 percent of single mother lived in poverty in 2010. When life is bleak for women, it is awful for children; from 2009 to 2010, more than 1 million additional children also fell into poverty, and the numbers continue to grow.

The buzz word in popular feminism today is empowerment. When I became a feminist many years ago, the word we used was liberation. Unlike empowerment, liberation is a collective concept which means that even if my life is all rosy and “empowered,” it doesn’t mean shit for those women who are doing low paid jobs while trying to raise families. In fact, there is a very good chance that elite women’s empowerment is built on the backs of other women whose exploited labor provides the goods and services that enable a good career and a comfortable lifestyle. The low pay of nannies, cooks, cleaners, sweat shop workers, and day care providers means that wealthier women are freed up to make a salary that no doubt does feel empowering.

Back in the day of women’s liberation, we felt that we could not claim success till all women were liberated from oppression.  What we wanted was the end of patriarchal capitalism, not the end of men, and we knew that celebrating our vaginas was not the route to dismantling structural inequality. Orgasms are all very well, but a movement they do not make. Hard work, courage and an unflinching determination to fight collectively for what is rightfully ours might not be as hot and sexy as Wolf’s new book, but a movement they do indeed make.

GAIL DINES is a professor of sociology and women’s studies at Wheelock College in Boston. Her latest book is Pornland: How Porn Has Hijacked our Sexuality (Beacon Press). She a founding member of Stop Porn Culture (stoppornculture.org).

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