Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Is Feminism Hillary, Olivia, Jamie, or the-Hasidic-Women-in-the-Photo?

Is feminism Hillary, Olivia, Jamie, or the-Hasidic-woman-in-the-photo?

Let's see.

In recent news, we have Hillary Clinton, a well-known feminist, appearing unadorned and bespectacled in a photo while abroad in Bangladesh.  In this interesting piece on the subject, Amy Odell says:
When asked by CNN about the makeup-less photo of her in Bangladesh making the rounds this week, Hillary confirmed that her appearance is “just not something I think is important anymore.” Fox News aside, the world rejoiced over that sentiment. She “does not need to fret about having the right sort of career-enhancing wardrobe, haircut or makeup,” wrote Robin Givhan for the Daily Beast. “She could arrive for a diplomatic meeting wearing flip-flops and blue jeans and no one would doubt her authority.” Styleite’s Jada Wong responded simply with, “Yeah, she rules.”
Personally, I (Ruchi here) think this is awesome.  A woman should absolutely be respected for her mind, values, and personal accomplishments.  Whether my political views are aligned with Hillary's is highly irrelevant; my inner self salutes her inner self.  If this is feminism, man, I'm a feminist.
...In December of 2010, Hillary memorably tackled the media's fixation on her clothing choices during a talk in Kyrgyzstan, when an interviewer asked about her favorite clothing designers. She replied, “Would you ever ask a man that question?”
Her comments on CNN yesterday are sure to inspire fans who wish they, like her, didn't feel pressured to look a certain way, as all women are. This line in particular stood out: "I feel so relieved to be at the stage I'm at in my life right now."
[Note: if she actually showed up for a diplomatic meeting wearing flip-flops and blue jeans, hmmm, I'm not such a fan.  Part of the cool is that she could - but won't.]

Next in line we have Olivia Palermo, a well-known "socialite."  (My guard is up.)   It seems that:  
The socialite has become one of the most influential red-carpet celebrities for style-conscious Orthodox women, who must follow three core rules of modesty in how they dress.
Well, now.  I consider myself a style-conscious Orthodox woman, and I've never heard of her.   But you can't argue that sleeves on wedding gowns and longer skirt lengths have been made cooler by the likes of Kate Middleton.
The Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, is also praised for her 'ladylike' clothes, and Ms. Heyman added that celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe, who often wears layers of vintage, 'covers up in [a way] that works for the Orthodox girls.'
Are Olivia and Kate feminists, then, for wearing longer, classier clothing that don't broadcast or objectify them?  For not buying into that whole industry?  What is their motivation for covering up and creating a new trend?

If feminism means that we cover more to be taken seriously more (both by men and women), man, I'm so in.

Thirdly, we arrive at Jamie Grumet, a 26-year-old model and blogger - I refuse to link anything here - who recently appeared on the highly controversial cover of Time magazine nursing her 3-year-old son.  In a tank top and skinny jeans, her pose and facial expression defy you to question her ways, with the accusatory headline "Are You Mom Enough?" splashed across the page.

I've seen Jamie hailed by feminist women, for standing up for her attachment ways.  I've seen her vilified by equally strong-minded women, for selling out, turning moms against each other in a man-run corporation, and branding herself by her body instead of her mind.

Is Jamie a feminist?  Was she used?  Taken advantage of?

If feminism here means the right to expose yourself publicly, I'm out.  Equal footing with men, remember?  

Finally, we have these two Hasidic women.  They don't seem to care about modern fashion, nor do they seem impressed or even aware that their pictures are being taken.  Are they repressed?  Cool, like Hillary, and relieved, to not care?  Do they "rule" like she does?

Are they feminists, like Olivia and Kate, for dressing in a way that does not leave them objectified?

Do they have anything at all in common with Jamie, for standing out with their non-conformist ways and proudly bucking the trend?

If feminism here clashes with these women's choice of dress and lifestyle, whoops, I'm out again.  But if it means that just as my pediatrician wears long side burns and a bow tie, and that's just fine, well, these women are cool.   That's a choice.  If it means they are immune to the dictates of a bunch of socialites, nay, don't even know what they have said to build immunity to, I'm in!

Who, indeed, is a feminist?

Then there's me.  I like to look cute.  Sometimes I feel proud of that  - I fancy that maybe I am an example that looking "good" and being Orthodox are not mutually exclusive.  Other times I feel like a mindless robot.  Who says purple is cute this year?  Why do I care?  Maybe the most liberated women are those that know that following trends is plain old stupid and are man enough (pardon the expression) to live that clarity.

On the third hand, it makes me feel good when I feel that I look good.  But who is dictating those feelings?  Any girl worth her style-salt knows that your "cute clothes" from five years no longer make you feel cute.

So who's the feminist now?

Related posts:

Yoga, Feminism, Judaism: how do you make your decisions?
The Decision Every Woman Must Make
Mythbusters #2:  Orthodox Women are Second Class Citizens 



  1. I don't think who wears what matters in the least. Feminism is not about clothing, who ignores fashion trends or who slavishly obeys them.

    It's about women having the same opportunities, rights, and the same freedoms as men do.

    If you're looking to see if any group of women are feminists, look at whether they would get equal compensation for their labor if they worked outside the home, as compared to their husbands' wages. Look at whether they are comfortable making all the important, critical decisions in the family as a team with their spouses or if they, instead, ask for permission. Look at whether they can independently support their family, if their spouse gets ill or laid off. Look at the division of labor in the home. Look at whether they have a say in the important structures of their community- shul boards, school boards, etc. How many community leaders are female in that group? Look at whether there are entire professions that are categorically closed off to these women or if they are able to explore their talents in any area.

    But clothing? That is only marginally, peripherally relevant to feminism.

    1. Hi, Anonymous #1 (ok if I call you that?) -

      Thanks for your remarks. I always thought that too, but I think the definition of feminism has broadened. For example, stay at home moms should have the choice to do that (if they can swing it financially) and I've seen that hailed as a feminist choice. Now, a stay at home mom typically cannot support the family if her husband is laid off or dies, or if they get divorced, so while it's feministic to believe that she has choices, that choice clashes with a previously held tenet of feminism.

      Likewise, Jamie Grumet's choice to appear the way she did, at first blush, appears bravely feministic (perhaps you would disagree) - but at closer glance, was perhaps a sellout or concession in a man-run corporation.

      This is my point - to use these women as examples in exploring more deeply what feminism actually is and isn't, and how sometimes unlikely women are the greatest feminists.

    2. Should be workingMay 16, 2012 at 11:52 AM

      I don't find the Time cover particularly feminist--mainly because it's on a mainstream, not-particularly-feminist magazine and is clearly meant to sell the magazine more than to truly ask questions about feminism, breastfeeding and motherhood.

      If it were on the cover of a FEMINIST magazine (in which case a lot of readers here would never have seen it), that would be much more interesting, because that would evoke a great discussion of "what is feminism" and how does it fit together with questions of motherhood, beauty, images for selling magazines, and so forth. And I think feminists (of whom there are many, many, stripes with many disagreements among themselves and widely varying lifestyle choices . . . I won't say "sort of like Jews", but I'm thinking it) would then be provoked to more interesting debates about MOTHERING than the one that is currently going on about whether the PHOTO is gross or feminist.

      My view? Her clothing is what most people I know wear a lot of the time, so that's also not to me feminist, nor not-feminist, it's just 'average' for my world. She's a gorgeous, too-skinny model, nothing new there either, and it certainly doesn't help me to keep my daughter realistic about what a healthy body looks like. I don't care whether women breastfeed their 4-yr-olds, some people where I live do it but most don't, big deal, in poorer parts of the world this is about child mortality and birth control, so let's think about something more important. The fact that the pose is sort of 'sexy' and the poor child in that picture is thereby drawn into a sort of parody of something pornographic is really sad. Sad choice to do that to a kid, who will be remembered in that photo for a long time, or at least every 10 yrs or so when someone publishes it again next to a picture of his growing-up self.

    3. SBW - I'd like to clarify why I mentioned her clothing. I understand that that's considered mainstream dress. My point was, if the article is about mothering, the whole stance does not look particularly maternal, but rather somewhat provocative. And yes, I completely agree with you about the child in question.

      "Sort of like Jews." (Hee hee!)

    4. Should be workingMay 16, 2012 at 4:11 PM

      Thanks also for those reflections on your conflicts around 'feeling cute'. I'm in with you.

      Leaving aside the photo's provocative combination of sexiness and maternality, I wonder if O-women, who I'm guessing have babies rather earlier than non-O women, more easily combine being a mom and being an attractive woman (at least to one's husband). And I suppose the men must also become accustomed to the non-splitting of these roles at an earlier age than non-O men. I mean, young, childless O-women are not so prevalent, so this negotiation of having different sides of oneself must happen at a younger age.

      I realize that modesty concerns probably prevent you from discussing physical relations on this blog, but I would be really interested to hear about emotional relationships in couples--what it means to feel attractive and desired (to and by one's husband) and also be MOM, to have MOM-hood very definitive of your life at the same time. This is something I think about for myself quite a lot.

      Please feel free to exclude this comment, I think it might be on the edge of not ok for you.

    5. It's interesting; I don't think my Orthodox friends and I see this as a conflict at all. Maybe because all physical relationships are happening in a marriage context from the get-go, which is automatically associated with (hopefully) being a mom. Dating is for marriage, not for anything else, so it's all bound up, but ironically, maybe, as you pointed out, this allows it to be less compartmentalized and more integrated.

      Not that as moms we don't struggle with the universal feelings of being so tired at the end of a long day that we don't care *who* we are - but the identity thing, I believe (and maybe I'm incorrectly generalizing) is less of a struggle.

      You are right that modesty concerns are limiting my openness. Feel free to email me for a more in-depth idea of what I mean. I would just point out that since the whole physical relationship remains very modest and private, I'm not plagued by comparisons among friends or the media about how things "should" or "could" be.

      As an extreme example, most of my (Orthodox) friends have never heard of, much less read, a certain very popular book that seems to have enjoyed an insane following and popularity, that in my opinion, totally confuses women, or at least distracts them, from satisfaction in marriage.

  2. I always find it very interesting that those who are unfamiliar with Orthodox life think that women take a back seat role. Consider the verses in the Aishes Chayil, written by King Solomon, who being the king and the wisest of all men, you would think that he would drive and control all decisions, but no. The Aishes Chayil is a strong, independent, smart, capable decision maker, who may or may not do so privately in the home. There are many ways that women of different personalities personify the aishes chayil.

  3. As far as Jamie and the disgusting Times cover, she would have had much more credibility in her views if she hadn't let herself be exploited by Time marketing ppl looking for a shocker cover.

    1. True. I wonder how many people even got past the cover. I didn't.

    2. unfortunate, the article was quite good and not particularlyu related to the cover.

  4. What makes you think that the specific Hasidic women pictured "don't seem to care about modern fashion"? The fact that they're not wearing it? That's not logical in this context. They and their families would probably face some pushback if they suddenly showed up dressed like the fashion-isha blogger (i.e. tznius but trendy too).

    When it comes to the things Hasidic women can't do (which varies widely but includes far more than modern fashion in many Hasidic communities), I'm sure some Hasidic women don't care and some do very much and many are in between. Some of those who care will express themselves partially by squeezing as close as possible to the boundary of "barely acceptable" in their community. A few may be charismatic or influential enough to actually budge that boundary. Some may feel strongly enough to change communities. Most of those who care will probably stay and suck it up. The ones who want to change but don't aren't going to be distinguishable in a picture like this from the ones who truly don't care.

    Conforming to the norms of a local majority instead of a national one isn't non-conformist or bucking the trend.

    Relatedly, if you're on imamother, check out the still-going "Losing my identity" thread.

    Of course, as you point out, social pressure exists for secular women too. And they often conform to their sub-communities as well. Not to mention there's some basic standards we all conform to. I wore sweats and no makeup to class in college sometimes, but I wouldn't have ever considered showing up in a tutu, a clown suit or barefoot.

    1. Hi, feminist, and welcome to OOTOB.

      "Conforming to the norms of a local majority instead of a national one isn't non-conformist or bucking the trend."

      Very true. I hadn't thought of it quite like that. Still, there is something to being counter-culture - or sub-culture.

      I don't go on imamother. It depresses me. In general, I find that mostly-anonymous discussion boards bring out the worst in people.

    2. I think the "something" is present when Orthodox women, including Hasidic ones, interact regularly and significantly with people outside their communities on a peer-to-peer level. Usually in the context of higher education or work. In their secular school or workplace they are for sure bucking the trend. Even someone like me with pants and no hair cover, who blends in on sight, often ends up sticking out due to kashrus and Shabbos. Those whose lives are completely in the community, aside from shopping excursions and the like, don't have the same experience.

      By the way, I think your blog is great. You do a good job of keeping the comment threads civil. You're right to an extent about anonymous discussion boards. I have found them useful for many practical things like grad school admissions and recipes, but unfortunately it's very easy to get bogged down in "the worst in people" type discussions.

    3. I think the "something" is present when Orthodox women, including Hasidic ones, interact regularly and significantly with people outside their communities on a peer-to-peer level. Usually in the context of higher education or work. In their secular school or workplace they are for sure bucking the trend. Even someone like me with pants and no hair cover, who blends in on sight, often ends up sticking out due to kashrus and Shabbos. Those whose lives are completely in the community, aside from shopping excursions and the like, don't have the same experience.

      By the way, I think your blog is great. You do a good job of keeping the comment threads civil. You're right to an extent about anonymous discussion boards. I have found them useful for many practical things like grad school admissions and recipes, but unfortunately it's very easy to get bogged down in "the worst in people" type discussions.

    4. Yes, exactly. And ironically, I have found those to be some of my proudest moments.

      Thanks for the compliment, and for joining the discussion.

  5. Should be workingMay 16, 2012 at 12:20 PM

    Can I ask why the people here find the cover disgusting? Is it mostly the age of the child? Or would it be as bad for you if the "suckling" so visibly going on were of a baby? The stance of the mother? Do O-women here have different responses to what is 'gross' here than non-O-women?

    I can see how the 'sexiness' of the mom and her stance combined with the act of breastfeeding could evoke discomfort. And THAT would be for me a great topic that would justify this cover--how do moms deal with conflicting feelings around kids, babies, husbands, eroticism, being looked at as babymakers or sex objects. I didn't read the article or buy the magazine though.

    1. FTR, I showed the photo to three women this past Sunday morning. Two are not Orthodox, and one is. All three found it to be very distasteful. I think the age and "using" of a child, the stance of the mother, and the exposure - combined.

  6. I don't consider the Time cover to be sexual or inappropriate. Breastfeeding is not a sexual act. People find it acceptable when men go jogging with bare chests, or to go swimming with bare chests, so it seems fair that women should also be able to uncover for a non-sexual purpose like feeding a baby.

    Of course, you could object that she's not adhering to halachic standards of modesty, but by that thinking a woman wearing short sleeves or a skirt an inch above the knee is also "exposed".

    1. Hi Sarah, see above where I mentioned the responses of a varied group of women. I agree that breastfeeding is not a sexual act, but I think this covered sexualized it to some degree. Of course I don't object to her not following halachic standards of modesty :)

  7. Feminism is not just about wardrobe choices; for the woman who is interested in fashion to buck trends, due to feministic reasons, she has lost the battle. The days of undergarment burning days are over. Its about her maintaining a balance of being fashionable whilst not attracting undesired attention, of her being acknowledged for significant things. On the flip side it would be truly 'unfeministic' for someone that did not care about fashion, to pursue it.
    It is possible for a Chasidic woman from Meah Shearim to more of a feminist than an single twenty-something living on the American west coast.
    At the end of the day feminism is more than just how we dress, but how we act and the kind of attention we get for our actions.

    1. Hi Anonymous (#2?),

      What do you mean that she has "lost the battle"? Also what do you mean by "the kind of attention we get for our actions"? Look forward to your clarifications.

    2. Anonymous #2 here!
      lost the battle = but purposefully not dressing fashionably, she is stating that the only way to be an equal to men is by losing all 'feminity'. This idea is such a lack in true self worth.

      the kind of attention we get for our actions= the positive attention received for accomplishments done in a behaviorally modest fashion. (not a big fan of in ur face toughness or overt display of feminine charms)

      It also just so happens to be that men and women are different and have different purposes to fill in this world. I'm a big proponent for girl power, but can't we be strong and 'unguiltely' female too?

    3. Ah got it now. Yes, I do agree with you there.

  8. BTW who likes my fancy schmancy screenshot? I've evolved, hey?

    1. Should be workingMay 18, 2012 at 11:31 AM

      What's a screenshot? Got some evolving to do on my end, clearly.

    2. LOL! It's that picture of my screen at the top of the post while searching for the definition of "feminist."

    3. See, I wasn't all impressed because I just assumed you were fully "evolved" in all matters technical. But now that you mention it, I'm impressed. Kol Hakavod!

  9. The best post I've seen on the subject of feminism is this one:

    (I just found this blog. It's great.)

  10. Should be workingMay 29, 2012 at 12:01 PM

    Hm, well, it is a moving blog post but it avoids the question of what 'equality' means. Is it 'utter sameness' or is it 'with regard to the possibilities unique to each'? Political equality is easy enough if it means only voting rights. But social and econ equality are harder: does childbearing make any difference in women's social and econ status, so that 'equality' might require different rules (like different medical coverage, paid leave, etc.)?

    1. Ruth, thanks, both for the compliment and the link, and welcome to OOTOB! I agree with SBW that it was a good piece, but the rub is "equality" and "sameness."

      Working men will never have to deal with pregnancy or maternity leave or pumping at work.

      I consider myself a feminist in the sense that I believe that women are just as important and valued as men, but that their paths toward their respective potential can look radically different, without a problem. Others would not consider me a feminist for that very reason. I don't think women in Orthodoxy, for example, need to be liberated, because I think they're already liberated.

      Equal but different, as you know, carries considerable stigma and baggage.


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