Everyone's been talking about the f-word. From The Weekly Standard to Slate the buzz is feminism and its big question: has it screwed women of our generation? A hip young New York Jewess and an aging, but dapper, conservative Harvard professor have become the odd couple in the debate. Ariel Levy, a recent Wesleyan graduate, with her hot new book, Female Chauvinist Pigs, traces the rise of raunch culture in America. Drawing on phenomena like Girls Gone Wild and women frequenting strip clubs, Levy paints a portrait of Gen Y women that isn't pretty. Harvey Mansfield a Harvard political philosophy professor made famous most recently by his tactic against grade inflation-giving students As on their transcripts and a separate grade they deserved-has been talking about nothing but feminism these days. His new book on manliness explores the boundaries of feminism, making the argument that there is nothing "liberating" about women trying to rack up sexual partners like guys. By playing "the men's game," women are just submitting to its restrictions.
With Levy and Mansfield on my mind, it was impossible to see the various varieties of slut nurse, slut policewoman, slut angel, slut devil, and slut maid strutting around this Halloween and not ponder the question of feminism. Of course, there are always some who dissent-I remember an incredible (and decidedly unsexy) Tierno Bokar getup from last year. But why has Halloween become an excuse for the seeming majority of Columbia women to parade around with breast and ass cleavage showing?
Of course, before I even have these words on the page, the third-wave feminist in me (who looks eerily like Katherine McKinnon and sounds like Ursula from The Little Mermaid ) shouts: "How dare you call out these women for their choice to wear whatever they want to wear? They're empowered." But like Ariel Levy, my honest self nags that I'm just not satisfied with the "we're empowered, feminism won, and so now we can do whatever we want" answer.
And so, with this tension on my mind, I turn not to Betty Freidan but to the Hasidic rebbetzin on 110th, Keren Blum the matriarch of Chabad Judaism at CU. Who would of thought? One doesn't usually associate an orthodox woman, wife, and mother who covers not only her body out of modesty, but also her hair, with the f-word. But in a culture where some claim feminism means flashing your tits to drunken guys on spring break, certainly a woman like Keren is more than worth considering.
The interesting thing about Keren Blum is that she was, and arguably still is, a "radical feminist." She did the whole bit while at uber-leftist Hampshire College: ran the women's center, answered calls on the domestic abuse hotline, and researched the effects of HIV+ pregnant women. It was at the height of her secular feminism that she encountered the Chabad movement, the sect of Hasidic Judaism that stresses intellectualism and engagement with the secular world.
Disenchanted with the hypocrisy of fellow feminists for whom being a traditional woman was strictly out of bounds, Blum began to abandon what she calls "secular feminism" in favor of a more "Chabad feminism". On a superficial level, as a mother who has been either pregnant or breastfeeding for the past seven years, Keren is the paradigm of the woman untouched by feminist liberation.
But talking to her, I discover that she runs a 501(c)3 and is pursuing a master's degree in psychology at Teacher's College. To those who still turn their nose up at her way of life, she says, "If you say you're a feminist and you are judging women like me, maybe you need to rethink your feminism."
What's fascinating is that she sounds remarkably like Levy and Mansfield. She reads the Spec's sex column, and she cuts it down with her blunt analysis, claiming it represents the mind-set of "I'm not going to let anyone control me. I'm going to beat them at their own game." Like Ariel Levy, Blum believes women have lost out by submitting to this mentality.
At other times in our two-hour conversation, her words could have been spoken by a radical. She analyzes self-proclaimed feminists that judge her as a barefoot wife in the kitchen, asking rhetorically, "Why are they buying into the narrow notion that success means earning a six-figure salary?" But at the same time, Blum, in line with traditional Judaism, is adamant that there are real differences between men and women, a conservative argument that Mansfield espouses.
One could easily write Keren Blum off as an orthodox Jew with conservative politics, but doing that would be the easy way out; it's simply not true. Of course, post-Halloween and heart-to-heart with Blum, I'm caught somewhere between the slut nurse and the diametrically opposed Chabad matriarch. But I'm convinced that her life brings up real challenges to the thong-baring feminists of today.