"I Am Victim, Hear Me Roar"
by Stephanie Herman

Originally published in Balance

Feminist consciousness is consciousness of victimization... to come to see oneself as a victim.
--Sandra Bartky


American women have been continually instructed to view the feminist movement as a proactive one an ideologically sound group fighting for positive change, committed to the pursuit of equity, successfully challenging discrimination. Traveling backwards on the feminist timeline, faces of movement revisionists and progenitors appear: Paula Kamen, Susan Faludi, Gloria Steinem, Simone de Beauvoir, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, all the way back to Mary Wollstonecraft, who thus absolved her fellow downtrodden woman: "...how can a being be generous who has nothing of its own? or virtuous who is not free?"

These words, written in 1792 under the well-known title, "The Vindication of the Rights of Woman," are meant to underscore the fact that until women are treated as equals, society will suffer from their troublesome, though justified, behavior. Yet the question arises: is this the most proactive approach to the problem of gender discrimination?

Feminist ideology, though noble in its early quest for equality, seems to perpetually abandon the ideal of personal responsibility. In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir summed up the feminist attitude regarding female culpability in 1949: "A free individual blames only himself for his failures, he assumes responsibility for them; but everything happens to women through the agency of others, and therefore these others are responsible for her woes."

What is de Beauvoir saying about women? That without protective legislation and preferential treatment women possess no ability to direct their own lives? Consider Wollstonecraft's elaboration on her earlier words: "It is vain to expect virtue from women till they are in some degree independent of men; nay, it is vain to expect that strength of natural affection which would make them good wives and mothers."

Without all conditions of equality and fairness being pleasantly met, are women entirely unable to exhibit generosity or virtue? Admittedly, in Wollstonecraft's time women were not free and their rights needed not only vindication but materialization. But was she unable to choose a virtuous life before those legal rights were procured? Did she, instead, possess some corrupt license to stagnate and wither until the law extracted her from her own inefficacy? Self-reliant women, of any generation, are immensely offended by such implications.

No one will dispute that women have struggled (and still struggle) to achieve equality. But one thing every woman has possessed along with every man is an individual character. Unfortunately, the price to pay for character is responsibility.

It is due to this loss of individual character that feminists have become such eloquent victims. When individuals are continually persuaded from their own ranks that they have no control over their own lives, they form groups, demand preferential treatment, and look for someone to blame.

In the late eighteenth century, Mary Wollstonecraft publicly argued that it was because of such pronouncements as made by one Lord Chesterton that women "are only children of a larger growth" that women are made to be "artificial, useless creatures." Society, men, fate, biology, and the insults of 18th century chauvinists all seemed to conspire to "make" women unfulfilled and unsuccessful. In fact, feminist theorists are most happy when able to voice a new, nevertheless pat, diagnosis of women's real problem:

After years of such theorizing on where exactly to place the blame for women's problems, it is Catharine MacKinnon in Toward A Feminist Theory of the State who must have the final word:

"Under the rubric of feminism, woman's situation has been explained as a consequence of biology or of reproduction and mothering, social organization of biology as caused by the marriage law... Or, it has been explained as a consequence of artificial gender roles and their attendant attitudes. Informed by these attempts, feminism fundamentally identifies sexuality as the primary social sphere of male power."

Curiously, women themselves their abilities, ambition, tenacity or hard work never fit into the equation of feminist fulfilment. Instead, the presence of some obstacle is perpetually blamed for keeping women from achieving their goals. In a 1979 book Reinventing Womanhood, Carolyn Heilbrun attempted to put her mother's unfulfilled life into correct feminist perspective: "My mother never ceased blaming circumstances for her life. Of course, she was right." So, too, did Margaret Mead's mother instill this approach of learned helplessness: "...my mother was filled with passionate resentment about the condition of women, as perhaps my grandmother might have been had my grandfather lived...."

At the heart of feminism's failure to encourage personal responsibility is a rather low opinion of women's actual capabilities. Permeating feminist ideology is the clear assumption that women can't be held accountable for their actions or expected to fulfill themselves as human beings.

Though most individuals accept that life poses a certain number of problems to overcome, feminists contend that any negative "conditions" or "circumstances" in a woman's life are wholly and successfully conspiring against her mental and spiritual growth toward independence. In Backlash, Susan Faludi blames not only trivialities reminiscent of playground banter for a wave of depression sweeping through feminist ranks, but also the realities of a few bombings, harassment, rape as the inherited experience of all feminists. "Backlash psychology turned a blind eye to all the social forces that had converged on women in the last decade all the put-downs from mass media and Hollywood, all the verbal attacks from religious and political leaders, all the frightening reports from scholars and experts,' and all the rage, whether in the form of firebombings of women's clinics or sexual harassment or rape."

Outside forces, whether met first-hand or vicariously through consciousness-raising discussions, are always to blame for both women's problems and their misguided reactions to those problems. According to Marilyn French in The War Against Women, society is at fault when a mother puts her fetus at risk: "While it is surely not beneficial to a fetus for its mother to use drugs or drink heavily, such behavior cannot be controlled by society, and no society should try to control it. Like men, women in despair, unhappy women, behave in self-destructive ways. A society that was really concerned about this behavior would address the causes for the hopelessness. Most of the babies harmed by self-destructive maternal actions are part of the underclass that society condemns to death every time it chooses to spend money on weapons rather than social programs."

This tendency by feminists to assume that women faced with even the slightest obstacle or challenge would make rotten mothers (already suggested above by Wollstonecraft) is reiterated more bluntly by de Beauvoir: "The great danger which threatens the infant in our culture lies in the fact that the mother to whom it is confided in all its helplessness is almost always a discontented woman: sexually she is frigid or unsatisfied; socially she feels herself inferior to man; she has no independent grasp on the world or on the future... one is frightened at the thought that defenseless infants are abandoned to her care."

As far as successful women are concerned the ones who prove the feminists wrong Carolyn Heilbrun cites them and their failures at creative visualization, as the reason more women don't achieve success. "Women in the world of events, whether they be prime ministers, women psychoanalysts, cabinet members... have failed to envision other women at their side. Needless to say, they have not found them there." She further charges, "That distressing attitude of achieving women: I made it, why can't you,' that failure to sympathize with the struggles of less vigorous female selves, has always marked successful women. They refuse to understand the tokenism that they represent, refuse to see that their single presence, far from proving that anyone can make it, determines, under the present system, that no one else will."

Women in Heilbrun's "world of events" are just arrogant mistakes, unable to accept that without a feminist crutch, their sole achievements amount to little more than tokenism. Clearly, feminists do not understand the process by which individuals, be they men or women, achieve success - as Heilbrun clumsily illustrates: "[Successful women's] personal circumstances somehow allowed them to undergo a process' in which they established a drive toward autonomy. Clearly, most female socialization inhibits such a drive, either plunging the woman into such conflict that resolution appears possible only through retreat, or imposing so much inner tension that the cost of achievement, even where it occurs, is extravagant." While it's true that motivation alone cannot equal success, the missing factor of this equation is not quotas, protectionism or welfare. It is responsibility, the aspect of her character that helps a woman overcome the conflicts and tensions found on the path to success. And yes, Virginia, the cost of achievement is extravagant. Responsible individuals are willing to pay a price for success.

Early "equity" feminists (to borrow the term from Christina Hoff Sommers) like Margaret Fuller had courageous, proactive attitudes regarding the eradication of inequality: "...the restraints upon the sex were insuperable only to those who think them so, or who noisily strive to break them."

Still, noisy feminists like Susan Faludi never seem able to grasp this pivotal concept, choosing instead to perpetually voice the learned helplessness of feminist thinking: "In an era that offered little hope of real social or political change, the possibility of changing oneself was the one remaining way held out to American women to improve their lot." Someone should inform Faludi that this one remaining, albeit troublesome, "way" is really the only way.